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Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012

Charles Bradley Finally Gets His Moment

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Charles Bradley realized what he wanted to do with his life at an early age, an epiphany reached at just 14 years old and sparked by an encounter with the one and only Godfather of Soul. "My sister, she's the one that said, 'You've got to go to the Apollo and see this guy James Brown,'" remembers the now 64-year-old singer. "I didn't know who James Brown was at the time, but she knew I always loved to dance when I was a kid, and when I went to the Apollo and saw James Brown, I was really, truly stunned."

To be fair, Brown probably stunned a lot of people that night in Harlem—that's just the kind of performer he was—but not all of them went home and set about doing it themselves. "I just couldn't believe how a musician could just go out on the stage like that," Bradley says. "The way he dressed, the way he carried himself onstage, getting so sweaty, I just said, 'Wow!' I went home, got a broom, got a string on it and just kept going, all the way up to today."

Given the source of this inspiration, it comes as no surprise that Bradley is often compared to Soul Brother No. 1—even the ad copy for his show this Friday at the Turner Hall Ballroom draws the parallel. But while any association with Brown is certainly meant in a complimentary way, the Florida-born, Brooklyn-raised soul howler is a lot more than an imitator. "Now every time they want a tribute to James Brown, they always call me to do it," Bradley says. "People just say, 'We got to have you do James Brown.' I try to let them know that I'm doing Charles Bradley."

And it's certainly understandable that Bradley would want the opportunity to get out of his hero's shadow and tell his own story, since his life, marked by near-constant frustration and trouble, including the tragic shooting death of his brother, is an amazing testament to human perseverance. After so many years of struggling to work and get by, all the while pursuing his musical ambitions in what little spare time he had, Bradley was spotted by Gabriel Roth, co-founder of the soul-revivalist label Daptone Records, while performing in a Brooklyn club. Roth realized he had stumbled upon a rare talent.

After nearly a decade of intermittently cutting singles for the label, that serendipitous meeting has resulted in Bradley's first long player, last year's superb No Time for Dreaming, an incredibly personal, yet completely accessible, set of classic-sounding soul.

For most of his life Bradley has performed simply for the love of performing; he's been at it for decades despite receiving slight, if any, financial gain from it. Now that his star is finally on the rise, he's staying humble, enjoying the attention but certainly not taking it for granted.

"Everywhere I go, I get nothing but true love. They just want more and more of me, and I see that," Bradley explains. "So if I get an audience, I know I've got to keep my head on, keep my soul and spirit clean and keep pushing forward to open my heart more and more, to show them that I really want this opportunity, that I will really show them who I am."

In the great soul tradition, Bradley's music makes the political personal, and turns a message into something you can dance to. "God knows we need some leaders in this world, we need some true artists," Bradley says. "Yes, we all want money, but it's not all about the money. I want to give something. I got this chance to come out to the world and show them what love can mean."

That might sound like a platitude, but speaking with him on the phone (even on the most atrocious connection) you can literally feel the sincerity, literally feel the belief filling up his words when he says, "I do my best to not let anyone down, to give you the love of my soul and my heart. I want to reach out to the people standing there together and say, 'Try one more time, get out there and try, do the best you can one more time, and you'll see you'll find some truth in your way of thinking. If it's real, it will come true.'"

If the man can put so many hard-earned life lessons, so much of his love for music and performing, into a short phone conversation, let alone onto his album, just imagine what he can do in person.

Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires headline an 8 p.m. Turner Hall Ballroom show with opener Little Barrie on Friday, Feb. 17.
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