Paying dues doesn’t even begin to describe R&B singer Charles Bradley, who got his music-biz break after he turned 60. The genuine soul survivor never met his father, was abandoned by his mother and has battled poverty throughout his life.
He has since reconnected with his mother, but the family was dealt a tragic blow when his brother was murdered a few doors down from their mother’s New York home.
“With the things that I’ve been through, if I didn’t have a faithful belief in God, I don’t think I would be on the stage,” said Bradley, who performs Tuesday at Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. “I would be in somebody’s jail; I’d be in somebody’s graveyard.”
The Florida-born soul singer’s journey from homeless teen to lauded artist on retro-soul label Daptone Records — its co-founder discovered Bradley doing his James Brown impersonation show — was chronicled in the inspiring documentary “Soul of America.”
Like his newly released album, “Victim of Love,” the film is filled with both heartache and joy, as Bradley struggles to support his mother while living in the projects and finally gets his first taste of success in music.
But Bradley can’t bear to watch it. The wounds are too deep.
“I watched part of it and had to walk away,” he said. “Let’s go back in your life when you’re about 16, 17 years old and you watch all the pain that you’ve been through. You feel it in your heart, you moan in your heart. Then when someone takes it and shows it to you in a picture and you look at it, at those memories — it hurts. It hurt deeply.”
Through the adversity, drowning in despair would’ve been easy. But instead Bradley channels those emotions on his funk-laced, soul-reviving records and exuberant live shows.
Love is the most prevalent word in his vocabulary and he expels his positive energy onstage. Informed by years of working as a Brown impersonator, the vintage entertainer’s performances are flashes of a showman’s spin moves and heart-clenching caterwauls.
“If you feel that you’ve got something good to give to the world to make this planet a greater place, don’t just hold it back,” the 64-year-old said. “At my age now, I just want to give, give, give, give, because I don’t want to hold nothing back.”
As the raspy howler’s career is taking off, his life is just beginning to change. The day he left for this tour Bradley moved out of the projects into his 89-year-old mother’s house in Brooklyn. With the money he made on the road last year, the singer hired a contractor to remodel her basement into a livable space.
Amid all his hardships, Bradley has used his grandmother’s words as a sort of perseverance petrol.
As a 7-year-old in the 1950s, he asked her why there was so much fighting and hatred in the world. She picked up a piece of charcoal and told him that when put under extreme pressure the charcoal would transform into a beautiful diamond.
“Any time the world does you wrong and it hurts you and you know you’re coming truthfully and humbly, don’t worry about it,” she said. “That heart of yours God is going to turn into a precious diamond.”
“That kept me going a long time,” Bradley said faintly. “That made my strength and my love of God.”
Michael Rietmulder, a Twin Cities freelancer, writes about music and nightlife.