Charles Bradley on Covering Black Sabbath, Confronting Tragedy on New LP

New York soul singer tells how real-life hardship, including his mother's death, influenced emotional 'Changes' album

New York soul singer Charles Bradley tells us how he had to confront death in order to find new life on his recently released album, 'Changes.' Credit: Andreas Pein/laif/Redux

Charles Bradley had never felt a pain like this before. In his 65 years, the New York soul singer has known tragedy firsthand: A homeless drifter as a teen who battled with illiteracy, poverty and chronic unemployment, he would later nearly die from a penicillin allergy and find his brother murdered by Bradley's own nephew. But now, in January 2014, he found himself in the basement of his mother's Brooklyn apartment, at a loss.

Their relationship, marked by years of estrangement, had gotten better, with Bradley caring for his 89-year-old mom for the past 12 years. Upstairs, Inez Bradley had taken her last breaths as Charles watched. Bradley had a show that night in New York. "You don't have to perform, Charles," Tom Brenneck, Bradley's producer and the musician behind funk/soul group the Menahan Street Band, told the singer. He did anyway. He felt he had to for his own sanity.

Bradley and Brenneck had already been working on a cover of Black Sabbath's longing ballad "Changes." But the song took on new meaning after his mother's death. "I didn't really have to 'learn' it," Bradley tells Rolling Stone. "It just stuck to my brain." The singer and former James Brown impersonator released his third album, also titled Changes, in April.

You open your album with a cover of "God Bless America." Why pick that one?
It was something different at first; I was a little more downhearted when I first started doing it but I just wanted to tell the truth. They said, "Charles, you're being a little too hard in speaking." I've had some hardships, but when you travel all over the country and you see all the different creations around, you have to just say, "Wow" and respect it.

What do you mean by "more downhearted"?
I was telling the truth to what I was feelingAmerica has been a very cold place to me and it was good once in a while. I meet good people. Sometimes I meet bad people. But there are some things that I still haven't forgotten today that hurt that bad. But my grandmother always said you have to learn to forgive if you want to grow.

"I cried like a little baby onstage. I turned my back and boy, I just let it out."

But it can't be coincidence that the next song is called "Good to Be Back Home."
Right. [Half-singing] "Good to be back home, the land where I was born/Good to be back home." America has been bittersweet with me. When I was working at the state hospital [Bradley worked as a cook at a hospital for the mentally ill from 1968 to 1977], the people that I worked with, some of them really got to like me and know me. And I got a chance to really know people and find the quality of people and who they are.

It sounds like many of your songs were recorded on the first or second take.
Yes, that's true. When I feel it, I got it 'cause like on "Changes," I didn't never know what that song was, never knew who it was or who did it, but Tom Brenneck asked me to do that song.

You weren't a Black Sabbath fan?
No, I didn't know who they were, but when I heard the lyrics, they fit me personally and my own personal life, so I didn't know how to bring it out to my standards the way I feel it.

Did you immediately connect with the song when you first heard it?
The verse that really stuck to me was, "It took so long to realize/That I can still hear her last goodbyes/Now all my days are filled with tears/Wish I could go back and change these years." Because it was like my mom saying she was sick and she was leaving me and something about that song … I just took the last lyrics and wow. So I got stuck on it. I didn't really have to "learn" it; it just stuck to my brain.

You performed in New York the night your mother died.
I didn't want to. Tom came over to the house the day my mother died. I was down in the basement sleeping and my niece said, "Charles, come upstairs." And I went upstairs and my mom was just like shaking like this, where she was just laying there and you could actually see her leaving the room and I saw her eyes when they went still. And I was learning that song at the same time.

There was a long break in communication between you two, but judging by the documentary on you, things appeared to be better in recent years.
You know what really put a lot of different love on it? I was living in San Francisco in a cheap hotel around 1986 – six dollars a night. My mom got on the Greyhound bus and she came and my landlord said, "Charles, your mother's downstairs wanting to see you." She came all the way from Brooklyn, New York, on the Greyhound bus to San Francisco. And I saw that she really … if she came all that way, she has something to say to me. So we talked and we talked.

But you didn't officially reconnect with her until the early 1990s.
I talked to her on the phone and when I came home on vacation, did work for her and things that she couldn't do herself. I went home and saw that she had the same refrigerator since I was a kid and I opened it up and all around was nothing but roaches and I said, "Wow, mom." She said, "Son, I was doing the best I could do." So I went back to California, went to Sears and said, "I want this refrigerator and I want this stove. I want you to send it to Brooklyn, New York." She called me up that night and said, "Son, this is not a tear of pain, it's a tear of joy. I just want to thank you, son." And from there we started talking … really started talking.

Was there any doubt in your mind that you would perform that night?
I didn't want to 'cause I was ... Wow, I was out of it. I ran down to the basement. I ran outside. I just couldn't take it 'cause a week before she passed, she said, "Son, mama's tired. What're you gonna do when I leave you?" I said, "Mom, I don't wanna hear that," but I saw the way she was suffering. Part of me wanted to let go but part of me won't let go, and I said, "I'm not gonna do that show." And Tom said, "Charles, you don't have to do the show." But I went down to the basement and I couldn't take the pain. I didn't know what to do with myself. And she was right upstairs where she passed and I told Tom, "If I stay here, I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm going to do something crazy. I can't deal with it. I have to find something for my mind to focus on." I got the clothes, went to the venue and saw some flowers sitting there and I said, "Oh, they know."

What was going onstage like that night?
I went onstage and said, "Lord, please help me get the first focus out of me. If I can open my mouth, if I can just sing [the first song] 'Heartaches and Pain,' maybe I'll feel better." I cried like a little baby onstage. I turned my back and boy, I just let it out.

You talked about all the hardships earlier, yet you seem optimistic in interviews.
I'm trying to stay focused; trying to open up again and the music really did a lot of greatness for me and meeting a lot of people that really had concern and compassion for me. I'd never known nothing like that to be true. When someone be that nice, they want something from you, so I'm always defensive. Even now, I'm learning not to be defensive, but I still am in a lot of ways from trials and tribulations that I been through. Starting at the age of 62 [when Bradley released his debut album], I'm finally seeing some people that really cared and I did not really believe that. 'Cause down in the hood, if you be good to somebody, they ask you for something.

I'm going through some deep changes right now. Even emotionally sitting here talking to you, I'm going through some changes with family members since my mom died and what she did for me. And a lot of them don't really like it, but she saw that I was the child that never turned against her. Even though I went through my hard time, I still show Mom love.

You went to James Brown's legendary Apollo Theater concert in 1962. How did that experience influence you?
It was breathtaking. It was my sister that just said, "Charles, you gotta go see this guy James Brown," and I didn't know who James Brown really was but I wanted to go see. When they called James Brown onstage, I'll never forget they had this purple light and yellow light – my two favorite colors. And when they introduced him, he came flying on the stage on one leg and I said, "What in the hell is this?" [Laughs] And I was mesmerized. I was just gone. I was just shocked. Shocked. I said, "Wow. I wanna be something like that."

What was your first show as a James Brown impersonator like?
It was 1967 and I thought I was going to be doing it for about 15, 20 people. At that time, I used to always keep my hair curled like James Brown and so the guys said, "You see the new guy that came in in Job Corps? He looks just like James Brown. You should see him." [Laughs] I came in there and they set up in the gym and they was playing some James Brown music. The first two song I learned were "I Can't Stand Myself When You Touch Me" and "Please, Please, Please."

I was really scared to do it, so they snuck a bottle of gin [laughs] in the gym with 7-Up in it, and I got fired up. I said, "Give me that mic!" [laughs] and they gave me the mic and they loved me. They told me there was about 20 girls there and when I got there, it was 500 girls. I said, "I ain't goin' on that stage" and this guy Mooney came behind me, gave me a big push and I went running out onstage and everybody went crazy. I ain't never stopped yet.

"I don't see a stopping point 'cause I don't see no place where I can stop at and rest in peace."

Do you feel like you're in a good spot emotionally at this point in your life?
No, I'm in a growth. I will say I'm not where I want to be at, but I'm in a growth to try and show the people who made this possible, who helped me, that I'm not giving in. I'm just going to keep pushing with my love and I hope that one day y'all can see that I'm for real.

I just don't want to go back to my past. I'm trying to be honest and work hard, let the people know that I really want an opportunity where I can one day get me a decent place and I can say, "Wow, of all the things I've been through, I'm home. I got my home and peace."

Can you see the spot where you get to that point yet?
It's bittersweet. I'll say it like that.

How long do you envision yourself performing? Do you ever see a stopping point?
Right now, I don't see a stopping point 'cause I don't see no place where I can stop at and rest in peace. But I know that from doing shows for the public, the love when I go out into the audience and hug 'em and the things that they say to me personally … [pauses] Wow. It's not only me onstage doing it. I open their hearts up and they feel the love of my heart and when I go out there and really respond to 'em and talk to 'em, they tell me some things.

I met a person on tour in Europe during a show whose mother just got shot and killed. He cried like a baby. My manager tried to get me away from him. I said, "Hey. Stop. Leave me alone. Just leave us alone for a minute." I want to express his love and I sat and cried with him. I held him and he said, "Charles, that's why we love you – 'cause you're not coming on stage and just trying to do a show. You make people feel what you feel."