The “Screaming Eagle of Soul” Flies Home: An Interview with Charles Bradley
By Zach Schlein and Riyana Lalani
Charles Bradley’s return to Gainesville has been a long time in the making.
Bradley will take the stage Thursday, Feb. 25 at the frank2016 Community Street Fair. His performance will reopen the Bo Diddley Plaza, a Gainesville community staple.
Before garnering acclaim as a musician, Bradley spent years on the East coast, weathering through decades of poverty and racism. Channeling his experiences into messages of love and understanding through his soulful, honest crooning, he has found success in revitalizing soul for mainstream audiences.
Bradley took the time to speak with us about his childhood, his vision for a better world and his hopes to inspire audiences through his music.
Will this be your first show back in Gainesville since your career took off?
Charles Bradley: Yes, and that’s where I was born.
What, if anything, do you remember about Gainesville?
CB: When I was a child, it was segregated, and I couldn’t go across a fence to certain parts of Gainesville. Where they built the hospital – back in the day – that was my grandmother’s property, and I remember that we couldn’t go out of that zone to go to another zone.
I used to sneak [into] the other part because this guy used to take me over. I remember when he first showed me a TV. I’d never seen a TV in my life, and I was about 6, 7 years old. I used to wonder how people got into the television screen, and he used to laugh at me and tell me all about TV.
No one ever knew I was going over there – not even my grandmother. The man would say, “don’t never tell nobody that you was coming over here ‘cause they cause trouble.” So I never told nobody until I came to live with my mom [in Brooklyn]. She said,“son, you are a very brave little guy,” and I said, “Mom, he was a good man.”
I didn’t know what racial violence was about until later in my life – not until Martin Luther King Jr. came up. I’d always thought peoples was peoples, and that’s why, even though I have friends and some family members that still have these hostile feelings inside them, I say, “If you use your love very strongly and show the world that you’re going to change for the better of yourself, then this world will be a better place for all of us to live in.”
Is it surreal to be headlining a city-wide event in your city of birth? Does it feel like a vindication at all?
CB: It’s an honor ‘cause that’s where I was born. I have one of my oldest brothers living in Gainesville, and he called me and said, “Charles is it true? Are you coming to Florida?” And I said yes. He says, “I’m gonna go tell everybody that I know in Florida that my brother’s gonna be here.” So it’s gonna be an honor going down there, and I think we’re gonna have a packed house because everybody is looking forward to me coming down there.
Us included. As someone who has faced so much, what do you have to say to young people that are struggling to find the strength to better themselves?
CB: Don’t let these things like cell phones control you. Find the love in you and be the person that you want to be. And all over the land, people will learn to love you – to see that you are not in this world for corruption reasons, you’re in here trying to make peace.
And that’s the message you want to communicate through your music?
CB: Yes, to all creations.
Music obviously played a substantial role in seeing you through the most difficult parts of your life. What was it exactly about music that gave you such perseverance and strength?
CB: Back in the day, I was afraid to speak out. When I get music behind me, it feels like I can soothe the hurt and put it in vocals and say it to the room the way I feel it. Because as I was coming up, I was going through a lot of hatred and pain. I didn’t know how to say it, and I was scared if I stood up, I’d get hurt or somebody’s gonna do something to me. So, I find if I put it in music, then everybody wants to hear it.
Having read several interviews with you, and from this discussion as well, would it be fair to say overcoming prejudice and discrimination is a social cause that speaks to you?
CB: It’s scary… I see so much of that every time I turn the news on and watch TV… it scares me and it hurts me. I’m asking myself a lot, “what can I do to make a change.” I try to do the best I can in my lyrics to give to the world the chance to make a change, but it’s scary. All I can say is that I hope that I can find better knowledge, wisdom inside of me – that I can try my best and do the best I know as a human being to make this world a better place.
We’ve got to learn how to not look at creed or color. Look at how beautiful a bouquet of roses looks like – different color roses, all look beautiful. We have to learn how to let our beauty of the color of our roses shine to the world.
You’re well known for your audience interaction, such as jumping into crowds and hugging fans. This is distinctive since many artists are content to just stand on stage and play; What effect do you hope to have on listeners by engaging with them so directly?
CB: Sometimes I go out into the audience, and I hug them, and I look at them, and I look into the expression of their face. Like my mama always said [and] my grandmama said, “Look a person straight in the eyes, and you should see everything that they’ve done.”
One lady when I went out to the audience one time, she was pregnant. She said, “Charles, I know that you just a human. Will you please bless my baby for me?” And I said, “Oh, my God.” So I got on my knees, and I touched her tummy. I said, “This is gonna be a leader. They’re gonna help this world be a better place,” and she hugged me. Then this other guy came to me, and I looked at him and hugged him. He said, “I just had to get to the front of the line just to see you. I want to show you what I did.” And I went out there, and he pulls his sleeve up, and he shows me his arm. He had my picture tattooed on his arm! I said, “God, Jesus, this is incredible. Young man, come on!” He says, “Charles Bradley, we love you, we love you so much.” And you know that’s what makes me want to keep going and changing and giving and giving.
What type of musical legacy do you want to leave yourself?
I want to leave anything that will help humanity. I want to leave a legacy of myself that the world can say, “Charles Bradley was a real person. He loved what he did, and he loved to entertain people, and he liked to give the best.” I like to see the joy in people’s’ faces. I like to see when they actually question that I’m not afraid to answer and give them my respect and honesty with what I have to say to them. I wanna be sharp. I want to reach out to the world and let the world know what’s good. If anybody wants to just hear my album, they can go buy the album. But when I’m live, I want to be LIVE. And my spirit gets into it, and I tell the guys, “break it down. Let me get with the public. Let me start a feeling.”
You gotta think about being on the stage and really wanna shine and give these people what they want. Some of them spend their hard earned money with the little pennies that they make, but they want to come out and see me? I wanna give them a show. I don’t want them coming out and saying, “Aw, he was this.” I want people to tell, “You got to go see Charles Bradley.”
One last question: Since you performed for years as a James Brown impersonator under the pseudonym “Black Velvet,” what is your favorite James Brown song?
CB: My favorite James Brown song is “Lonesome One.” “Lonesome One” will always be my favorite because it’s my mom’s favorite song. Now if you ask me about my favorite sad song, it’s one of those songs that’s got a beautiful beat to it, “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)” by James Brown. But “Lonesome One,” it’s got so much feeling to it that I’d like to one day do it on stage – to let the audience know that I’ve got a lot of things inside me that I just want to explode.
Charles Bradley will be performing at Bo Diddley Plaza, in Downtown Gainesville, on Thursday, Feb. 25. The documentary of Charles Bradley’s life, Soul of America, will be screened as part of frank’s music and film festival, Changeville, at the Hippodrome on Friday, Feb. 26.
Want to catch an early free screening of the film? Join us tonight at the High Dive, in Downtown Gainesville, with a suggested donation of $5 to benefit The Cotton Club Restoration.