No, not a story of selfishness, of even selflessness.
Self. You. Yourself. Who you are.
This picture is of one of my musical heroes. Charles Bradley.
For those who don’t know Charles, he was born in Florida in 1948 and sadly died in 2017.
I came to his music before his death, and that was because he was the epitome of ‘throwback’ soul music. Which could have been recorded in New York’s Wand studios, Memphis’ Stax enclaves or even Detroit’s Motown empire in the 1960s and 1970s. An era I’m fascinated by (being born in the late 60s helps I guess) but a really powerful time of societal change and the dawning of an era of liberation, freedoms and some of the luxuries we take for granted now.
Charles had a rough upbringing in rural Florida living with his grandparents when his Mum fled to New York in search of work and a better life. At aged 8 though, his Mum called him to New York and he spent this life in the Big Apple.
In the early 1960s, Charles’s sister took his 12-year self to see James Brown in concert at the legendary Apollo Theatre. The ‘Godfather of Soul’ left a remarkable impression on Charles. More on that later.
He left a troubled home at 14 though, sleeping rough on subway trains through the night, and he eventually found work in Maine, as a cook in a mental hospital.
He eventually reconciled with his mother in Brooklyn, and on his return, fell seriously ill and almost died. On his recovery, Charles’s brother Joseph said this was a sign and asked Charles ‘Now what’re you going to do with your life?’. It was a strong call to action for Charles.
So he did what he knew best — he sang. He had some performances under his belt as an extra way to earn a little cash whilst trying to make ends meet as a cook. So he returned to his influence of James Brown and performed as James Brown Jnr in New York state’s clubs and bars.
It was during this time that Gabriel Roth, the founder of a New York-based retro-soul group and record label Daptone Records came across Charles in the early 2000s.
Three albums later, tours and performances to critical acclaim for this retro-soul sound made popular by the likes of Plan B, Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, Bradley’s star was in the ascendancy.
Now, I’ve been a soul music follower since the age of 9 when my Mum bought me a single I liked after hearing it on the radio. ‘I Love Music’ by The O’Jays in 1975 has literally become the soundtrack to my life. So hooked on soul music from such an early age, I’ve researched, collected, DJd and even had the odd go at singing in that style myself.
So it was almost natural I’d come across Charles’s work. But it’s when I did the digging into Charles that I came to a stark realisation.
This wasn’t some talent show wannabe fortunate enough to be considered the next Bieber/Grande. This was the hardest working man in show business!
Bradley’s story is beset with tragedies. From being abandoned, reunited, homeless, low-paid work, impressions of a singer hero, ill, his brother sadly was shot in a robbery incident in the mid-1990s, and he was constantly caring for his sick mother in a very modest apartment when the Daptone crew found him and started to write and record with Charles.
His debut album was released in 2011 and Charles was 62. Let that sink in. 62.
He would walk from his neighbourhood to other districts and share flyers announcing the release of his first album. No Instagram or Tik-Tok posts for Charles. He pounded the streets.
But here’s the real thing behind this and a metaphor for many of us at work.
How many of us are doing James Brown tributes in our work as a replicant of others and adhering to cover versions of work via a Job Description when really, we’re meant for something greater?
How many of us are toiling and toiling and fighting incidents and mishaps to make ends meet when our real reason for being was within us waiting to be discovered and for the chance to soar and fly?
Charles, from doing James Brown impersonations began to write his own songs (and bear in mind his interrupted education meant he struggled with literacy) with the Daptone crew, record with them, tour with them. Bradley went on to headline some shows across the USA and the world and yes, he got to perform at the Apollo where his hero JB performed.
So I guess this post is asking us all to think what’s my Charles Bradley moment?
What am I here to do? How can get to do it and earn a living, not be a tribute act to someone else’s whim? Break out of the replicant confines of that job description existence and into your own albums, tours and recording moments in time.
Charles Bradley is now right up there with his hero Brown, plus Cooke, Redding, Gaye, Wonder, Hayes, Mayfield, Pendergrass, Hathaway and Green. OK not as prolific in terms of sales and reputation as some of those legends but someone that epitomises what soul music really is, the struggles to get to the point of performances, albums and rave reviews. And believing in your self and letting your soul fly.
I hope that those of you not familiar with Bradley’s work will discover and enjoy it as I do. I’m sure he’s influencing people to either not give up, do it your way and perform to your fullest potential. And do it with soul and as you. Your own self.
However things go for anyone mildly influenced by this story and Charles Bradley’s achievements in life, I’m really glad to declare that finding yourself — the title of this blog post is, of course, that — self, now becomes known as:
Your Charles Bradley moment.
Thanks for the moments Charles. Big-up yourself.