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 feeling. America 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.