CHARLES BRADLEY: IT’S NOT OVER
illustration by dan kern
[Reposting this 2013 interview in honor of Charles Bradley, who passed away this weekend and who will be greatly missed—ed.] Charles Bradley is special. It goes beyond his howling lovelorn voice and sparkly shirts and the way he does the robot. It’s deeper than the splits he performs on stage and the sunshine in his bright smile. Watching him, it wouldn’t be silly for you to assume he’s some sort of soul prophet … especially if you get to sit down at a music festival for fifteen minutes with a prophet who’s wearing a homemade jumpsuit with a bedazzled eagle stitched across his back, look him straight in his blurry eyes and let him hold your hand. Then you’ll believe everything he says—at least for a moment. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Where did you get this awesome jumpsuit?
Charles Bradley: I made it. I saw it in a store and it was huge. Both you and me could fit in it. So I cut it so it would fit to me, and I bought this t-shirt and sewed it on the back.
Do you choose everything that you wear?
Charles Bradley: I dress from within. If I see something in my spirit, I try to bring it to surface. Sometimes I see good things inside me but it’s beyond my financial ability to get it. But I find some way to do it. I may go in a dress shop, right—I may see a lady’s gown. I get it and cut it up, get the sequins, and make it close to my dream that I see.
Does someone do the sewing for you?
Charles Bradley: I do it myself.
That’s impressive. I wish I could do that.
Charles Bradley: You can. Don’t never say … just like one time I was so down and out and had no financials coming in. This guy needed a carpenter helper. I ain’t never did no carpentry. But I went to him and everything he did, I learned it from him. And now when it come to carpentry, I can do anything. See, never short-change yourself. If you don’t know something, ask questions. You know, I’m not satisfied with my education.
In what sense?
Charles Bradley: I can’t look at a word real fast and know how to spell it. I don’t like that. Thank God for the cellphones that have dictionary on it. I just say, ‘interrogation,’ what’s that? And I look on the dictionary and it shows me how to spell.
How far did you get in your education?
Charles Bradley: I dropped out of school in the 9th grade. I went back to a home-study course and I got my GED at the age of 50 years old. I got my high school diploma—well, it’s a home-study diploma. It’s good in about 35 or 40 states. I want to be able to comprehend more faster than I do now. I want to be able to write songs and learn it more faster. When I write the song it take me too long to learn it. I want to find out what I can do to do it better.
But you’re intelligent in a whole other way. You can communicate a feeling that everyone can understand and you don’t need 10,000 words to express it.
Charles Bradley: Thank you, baby. [Charles Bradley kisses my hand.] What’s your name again?
Charles Bradley: Diana Ross. I won’t never forget your name now.
My mom named me after Diana Ross.
Charles Bradley: I will never forget your name! Never! She’s one of my favorites. In the females, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, and what her name is—Janet Jackson—and Aretha Franklin.
Have you met any of them?
Charles Bradley: I saw Diana Ross one time but she was far away and I couldn’t get close to her. But I would love to meet her. Her and Barbra Streisand. Because ain’t nobody sing ‘memories…,’ ‘The Way We Were’ like her. That song got a part of my life, that’s why I love it so much.
I can’t hear ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ by Bette Midler without crying.
Charles Bradley: YES! Did you see that movie? Oh my God, I had to watch it three times. See—that’s why I think those eras, those quality peoples came from the heart. Bette Midler, the way she did that movie, I had to sit and watch it because it classified a lot of things in my life. Things that—I never used drugs. I used to smoke marijuana from when I was 14 to about 17 but I never went into hard drugs and thank God I didn’t because right now I wouldn’t be here sitting talking to you. But when I hear songs that feel good, that connect to things that I been through, I can feel it. I know when an artist sing a song and when I keep playing it over and over again, that’s when it become a part of my life. You ever saw Diana Ross?
No, I wish.
Charles Bradley: You never seen her?!
I’d also like to meet Aretha Franklin but what if she’s not super nice?
Charles Bradley: Diana Ross, she’s a nice-ty lady.
Nasty or nice?
Charles Bradley: Nice-ty. You understand what I’m saying? It’s in between nice and nasty.
It might be hard to be nice when so much of your life is wrapped up in stories people tell about it.
Charles Bradley: My life story, my documentary—you know what, Daiana, I love God.
Is God real?
Charles Bradley: He’s real. Imma tell you something about that. You’ll never know that until you experience something like I experienced. When you experience your personal relationship with God, then you know He’s real.
I was raised religious. I’m the Jewish equivalent of a preacher’s daughter.
Charles Bradley: It’s not the church that will make you a believer. In 1977, I went hitchhiking all over the country, all over Alaska, all the places. During my hitchhiking in Ketchikan, Alaska, when I fell off those mountains—coming off the mountain, I found God. I came falling off the mountain and when I was coming off the mountain, my whole life flashed in front of me. I reached out and hollered, ‘Oh my God!’ In the middle of nowhere, a pine tree was sticking out of the mountain that I was falling from—it caught me right on my belt and hold me from going all the way down. Yes, true story. And I found God. God is my judgment of everything I do. And then I was up in the mountain and I heard this solid voice, so strongly, STRONGLY, say, ‘Why you feel me when you are in nature of my creation? This is my earth. Don’t fear me.’ I found God for myself. I can’t make you believe. I can’t do that to nobody. All I got to say is ask God in your innocence, ‘Make me a believer. Show me.’ You know faith is the key of life—it’s the key of God. Church is like … I lost a lot of respect for churches.
So what is God?
Charles Bradley: God is the eternal almighty. He is the one that created the earth. He is the one that created the whole heaven and earth. Mankind think they God because they can go and take minerals out of the earth and build skyscrapers, take minerals out and build cars and material things. That don’t make them gods. They just using the wisdom that God gave them, God already know what they going to do. There’s things that God knows about us that we haven’t even begun to create yet.
Do you think there’s a plan?
Charles Bradley: Yes.
What’s our purpose then?
Charles Bradley: OK—life is a big school. When you finish, you go to heaven.
But then it’s over.
Charles Bradley: It’s not over.
Charles Bradley: When you go to high school, you finish high school, you go to college. When you finish there, when you have learned and mastered everything, God has greater things that mankind’s wisdom and knowledge will never know.
Do you think you’re still in school?
Charles Bradley: Yes.
My problem with this idea is that I don’t want to feel like I need to live my life like it’s just a wait—like I’m just waiting to die to get to something better.
Charles Bradley: Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes with the stress and pressures of life I say, ‘Father, where are you? How much more can I take? What more do I need to do to show you that I love you and I’m willing to do the right thing in honesty for the love of creation and all humanity and all my brothers and sisters?’ And sometimes when I be mad, a vision come to me and I say, ‘Wow, you real.’ God have a way of showing you that He’s real. Sometime He will come down and prove to you that He is God.
But why would God care to prove himself?
Charles Bradley: Because we are his creations. God loves all of us.
So why do bad things happen to people?
Charles Bradley: Because Jesus Christ—I’m Catholic—because Jesus Christ died for our sins, so people go out and do wrong things and you know that it’s wrong. So God wanna forgive you and He gonna put you on the road to correct for that sin. What you do to another human being, you gotta get back on that road. Everybody think all you got to do is say, ‘Oh God, forgive me—I’m sorry.’ You done that?
What if somebody wrongs you and you know it’s not something you deserve? How do you stop yourself from feeling hurt or guilt or even hate from their wrong-doing?
Charles Bradley: The same thing that God says: ‘Forgive them for they do not know what they do.’ Go on the journey that I gave you because what that person done to you, it gonna come back to them in karma two-times over. By you walking in the light and keeping your honesty and your guilt clean, then greater height in your spirit will come to you. Look at mine. There were times when I was low. When I was working in San Francisco, working at a restaurant-club called The Hippie Joint on Broadway, I used to say to myself, ‘God—why?’ I was in my 30s. I was saying, ‘Why am I stuck here in the Hippie Joint?’ And then I met James Brown. And I said, ‘James Brown, man, give me a chance, man—I been fighting for this opportunity a long time.’ You know what James Brown told me? ‘Young man, looking at you, I know you’re talented, and I am not going to let you get on the stage and take my show from me. So you need to go to New York and start your life.’ In my prayer, I heard, the good lord spoke to me and He said, ‘Your gift, your journey going to come in your late age.’ And I didn’t believe that. Now I’m seeing it. But I wondered, I said, ‘God, am I gonna be strong enough to do it?’ And he said, ‘Was Moses strong enough to do it?’
CHARLES BRADLEY’S CHANGES IS AVAILABLE FROM DAPTONE.