My First, My Last, My Everything
Each month we invite someone to come into a Rough Trade store and tell us the first record they ever bought, the last, and their favourite of all time.
We invited Charles Bradley to Rough Trade New York to have a browse and talk about his favourite records. What we actually ended up talking about was his love for swans, his dream of swimming with dolphins, his fear of giant turkeys and how he smells so great (it’s sandalwood cologne).
Charles has this knee-buckling habit of staring into your eyes without blinking, taking your hands in his, and occasionally bursting into song while relaying joyful or painful stories of his extraordinary life. Meeting him felt like meeting a messiah of sorts: he wandered around the shop smiling at small children and giving friendly waves to passers by.
His new and third album, Changes, released on 1st April 2016 on Daptone, sees Charles dig deep into the memories of his past and draw out pieces of heartache, longing and loss. Always delivered with that trademark passion that makes sweat ooze from his head, and goosebumps appear all over the bodies of his audience.
As he embarks on an extensive tour, Daptone’s king of soul reminisces about his inimitable life and the experiences - good and harrowing - that have led to him becoming one of the most loved men in music.
RT: What was the first record you owned?
CB: The first record I bought of James brown is the Live at the Apollo. I’ve got this album at home. I’ve got the CD in my car right now. This is from when I first went to see him. My sister told me about his guy, I didn’t know who he was until I saw him. And when I saw him at The Apollo I said “I want to be something like that.” Because the way he was dancing, the way they had the light effects on him, and the clothes he was wearing.
RT: What kind of clothes?
CB: James Brown wears clothes from his imagination. If he sees something in his spirit that he wants to wear, he’ll have it made that way. I saw James Brown and he was like the only person in his time, coming out in his style and doing what he wanted to do.
RT: How old were you?
CB: I was about 14 years old. I could never stop seeing him after that. Coming up in my life, my idols were James Brown and then when it came to the women it was Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Barbara Streisand. I love when she did Memories. Memories became a part of my life and the experiences I had to go through. When I hear that song I get emotional because I think of the memories, I think back to before most of you guys were even alive. The things I was going through in the segregation days, it was crazy. “Memories, light the corner of my mind…” Some people say forget about the past, but the past is your future. You can’t just take the hatred and animosity from it, you have to take the good from it and make something for the future. And you have to do your best to not let those things happen to you again.
RT: Do you think about the past more than you do the future?
CB: I think about the past, but I think about the future because the past helped me mould it. You can keep doing the same thing over and over again, but if you didn’t learn it from the past to not let it happen again, you’re not learning nothing. I learned that if I were to take all the hatred and animosity and use it, I wouldn’t be where I am at today. Some of the hatred and animosity I took and moulded it inside of me and turned it to good and pushed it back out. It’s hard.
My grandmother always said there’s not going to be a storm every day. You’re going through the storm, but eventually that storm gonna end and then the sun gonna shine. I’ve just turned 67 years old. I was born November 5th 1948. In Gainesville Florida and I have seen a lot of change in this world. A lot of change. One of my sound guys, he said to me “Charles, you got nine lives.” He told me that the other day. Nine lives. I said “I’ve seen things you’ve experienced too,” and he says he still wonders how I did it. I could tell you stories from back in my days. My aunt, her name was Andella and she used to tell me about slavery, but I was about five or six years old when she used to tell me and I used to laugh at her because I didn’t understand. As I got older and grew and as I seen things, like back in Kennedy’s time and Martin Luther King. I remember when I couldn’t go past a line on a road, the whites could go anywhere they want to go. I learned a lot of things. President Kennedy was the best president I had ever known and he will always be the best even though we got Obama. President Kennedy, that man was a man of character.
RT: What did you like about President Kennedy?
CB: What made me really truly love him – and I cried like a baby when they killed him – was when he got on the phone and he called down south and he said “I want you to let Martin Luther King out of the jail, if you don’t let him out of the jail I will come down and get him myself” He also took those nuclear weapons out of Cuba and at that time the world was in shock, they were scared, everyone thought the end of the world was coming any day.
RT: So you lived in fear?
CB: Yes. Right now it’s very quiet. But as quiet as it may seem right now, something is happening. The leaders are not going to tell you what they doing. Because I noticed that some place overseas now they have been testing nuclear weapons. They are testing them underground in the earth. What they’re doing is breaking down the earth. I was in California in 1989 when we had the earthquake, it was 7.3 and that was nothing to play with. I saw the whole ground open up and close back up. Another one of my nine lives.
Then Charles begins looking at some Al Green albums. He picks up Al Green Gets Next to You.
CB: For me, you should trim that suit down to about there. And you see the buttons? They should be black. Little black buttons right there. I would take all this stuff off, and I would use black trim and black buttons. I’d have blue pants with a black streak going down.
RT: So what was the last record you listened to?
CB: I’ve always loved Sam Cooke. Al Green, I eventually started liking him. I like him here. Bobby Womack. Cat Stevens. I love Cat Stevens, I loved him when he first started singing. He’s changed his name now. And one song by The Eagles I love called Take it to the Limit. That song actually saved my life. I was going through a depression moment and as I came out I was in an Italian restaurant and I was sitting there just thinking about how to get these pains out of my system. Somebody came in and put a quarter in the jukebox to play Take it to The Limit. Then I woke up.
Charles picks up a Sam Cooke record
CB: Ah, a beautiful song. “When I fall in love…it will be forever…”
RT: Do you hang out with lots of musicians?
CB: You know what, I’m mostly a loner. On the road I meet musicians and singers. You know I met James Brown, I was very good friends with him. I met Bobby Womack, very close friends with him. Aretha, I never got close to but say hello. Diana Ross. Who else I met. Quite a lot of people. Some just stick to my brain and I really want to see them again.
RT: You smell so nice. What is that?
CB: It’s a wood cologne. I love nature.
RT: I hear you’re a painter?
They started me painting again because I hadn’t painted in a while. Seascapes are my favourite, I can sit by the ocean for hours. I love it. I like it when it’s very thundery and gloomy. I can sit there and watch and listen to it for hours. I like to use oils, you can blend colours easier. You always paint the lightest things in the back, then you bring the darkness towards you, and then you blend it in. That’s the way I learned to paint. If you give me something to paint I’ll just start staring at it then all of a sudden my brain will say “OK Charles, there you go” then I begin. I start pulling the picture into my brain and work out what is the best way to start capturing that in a painting.
RT: What do you do in your spare time apart from painting?
Since my mom left me this house I gotta to maintain and take care of it. It’s a three unit and I have tenants in there. When I’m home there’s always something to do, if not then I’m at the studio. At the moment I’ve got to try and remember all these new lyrics, maintain them in my brain and keep them up there. Always something. But sometimes I get in a lazy mood and all I wanna do is lay on the couch and watch movies.
RT: What kind of movies do you watch?
CB: I love nature and I love movies about nature. I just learned something the other day that I gotta tell you about, one of the animals that I love so much is the dolphin - but my favourite animal is the swan, I love when they open their wings, and it’s so beautiful. Anyway one of my fantasies is that I have always wanted to get into the water with a dolphin and play with them. That’s one of my fantasies. They’re so loveable. Yesterday a guy was showing me a video on his phone, this lady was sitting by a big huge saltwater pool and the lady had swimming trunks on, so she played with this dolphin and she was just rubbing his chin when he jumped right out of the water and jumped on her and started doing his thing! I said no! I don’t believe what I am seeing!
RT: So that hasn’t put you off the idea?
CB: No. They told me I couldn’t play with swans but when I was in Europe. We were by this big pond, it was about eight or nine swans that were out in the water. So I went into a store and bought me about four loaves of bread and I threw them in the water. They came towards me as I was sitting in the grass. In a group of swans, one of them is always controlling the rest. I gave one of the swans a piece of bread, the head swan came up and snatched it and ran back. But when any of the other swans came towards me he didn’t like it. He tell them “no,” he wanted to be the one to come towards me. Once he saw that I really wasn’t trying to hurt him, all of them came in. People started coming up to me and standing around and taking pictures because I was playing with these swans. They say you can’t touch them and they have a violent reputation but you just gotta get to know them. They have a fierce spirit. Now I tell you what not to trust, a turkey. A wild turkey. Never trust a wild turkey. They will beat you to death. Once they know you scared of them? They will chase you everywhere. And once they jump on you they will keep hitting you.
RT: So tell me about your new album, have you enjoyed making it?
CB: When I sung it it was beautiful, but now I gotta get it locked into my brain so that I can put all my emphasis into the spirit of my performance. It’s fine to be writing lyrics all day but now I gotta remember them so I can give it out. On one of my new songs, Changes, the part that really bothers me the most is the last lyric, because of its depth. They remind me of the time my mom took her last breath. “It took so long to realise, I can still hear her last goodbyes. And now all my days have turned into tears, I wish I can go back and change these years.” Now that is what touches me. Because when I went into her bedroom, her eyes were just twinkling, and then they went still. So that verse just makes me remember.
RT: Wow. Are you okay to sing it live?
CB: I’m learning how to silence that deep hurt, push it aside and let it out. I stutter sometimes. “I feel unhappy, I feel so sad, I have lost the best friend that I ever had. She was my woman, I love her so, but it’s too late now. I let her go. I’m going to change it.” I can’t put emotion into that until I am on stage. I’m an open person. If we get deep now there are going to be some moments where you might wanna cry so don’t ask me too much.
Photography by Cait Oppermann