Few late bloomers bloom as late as Charles Bradley. The singer, who headlines the Brighton Music Hall tonight, spent most of his life working odd jobs as an institutional cook and a handyman, in outposts from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Alaska.
Though he picked up bar gigs with R&B bands along the way, he went all but undiscovered for decades, despite his obvious passion for music. He’d been living on his own since he was 14, sometimes in abandoned buildings. When his brother was shot and killed in Brooklyn a few years ago, the weary singer fell into a deep depression.
“I was at my giving-up point,’’ says Bradley, who is 63.
Just when he was at his lowest, as the singer tells the story, he met the young soul-music fanatics behind Daptone, the Brooklyn label that provided the great backing band for the late Amy Winehouse and has made a star of another late bloomer, Sharon Jones.
After a series of singles released over several years, last year Bradley finally saw his name printed on his own debut album, “No Time for Dreaming.’’ The album is an outpouring of emotion stockpiled over a lifetime of “Heartaches and Pain,’’ as one of the songs is titled.
Yet it’s also a joyful tribute to the kind of timeless funk and soul music that lives on, and has found a new generation of loyalists, in the hip-hop era. It’s no surprise to learn that Bradley often sang Otis Redding and James Brown covers during his travels.
In fact, his first band - way back in the late 1960s, when he spent a couple of years learning to cook while enrolled in the Job Corps in Bar Harbor - had him singing James Brown songs. He certainly looked the part: Bradley used to wear his hair piled in a “process,’’ the pompadour that Brown made famous.
‘There’s not too many real soulful singers anymore.’Charles Bradley
Yet the look wasn’t directly attributable to the Godfather of Soul. In fact, says Bradley, he wore his hair that way because he’d hung out on the streets of New York with Spanish kids who had that hairstyle. Only after people began to note his obvious resemblance to Brown did he begin to pursue it.
Now, he says, he’s carrying the torch for the classic pleading soul singers of a bygone era. “All those artists are gone. There’s not too many real soulful singers anymore.’’
The idea, he says, is to ask yourself, “How deep a pain can you get?’’ After the death of his brother, Bradley’s despair was deeper than ever.
It was around that time that he befriended Tom Brenneck, whose band, the Menahan Street Band, has evolved into the singer’s current backing group, billed as the Extraordinaires. “He was a friend I could talk to,’’ says Bradley. “He said, ‘Charles, I think you should put your story in the music.’ ’’
Together they worked up songs such as the dirgelike “How Long,’’ the sound of a man who has been dropped to his knees by hardship, and a swanky, horn-peppered version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.’’ (“It keeps me searching, and I’m growing old.’’) Bradley has a thing for the gold standard: another standout is “Golden Rule,’’ an Afrobeat-flavored song that challenges listeners to take care of each other.
“If you look at this world nowadays, it’s all materialistic things,’’ he says. “Love and respect, a lot of people are forgetting it. All it’s about is what they can get out of you. Then they let you go.’’
He’s not talking about his new musical accomplices, who are working overtime to put the singer in a position to succeed. “No Time for Dreaming’’ originally came out a year ago and was relaunched last summer. Now they’re running a promotion in which Bradley will serenade a winner with his song “Lovin’ You, Baby’’ on Valentine’s Day.
The singer has become a commanding stage presence, says Brenneck. “At the beginning, he couldn’t remember lyrics. Now he’s completely killing it. The audiences melt, and he cries every night. It’s incredible.
“I don’t think he ever experienced that before - crowds giving the love he gives,’’ Brenneck says. “He really gives his all. He can’t not sing his heart out.’’
If the label (Dunham, Brenneck’s subsidiary of Daptone) is getting every drop out of the album, Bradley is eager to record again. “I want to do another album yesterday,’’ he says. “To me, at my age, they’re waiting too long. I’m ready to go now.’’
Though he’d never actually written any songs of his own until Brenneck encouraged him, he says, “I’ve been writing for a lifetime. All those things are inside me.
“I’ve seen a lot in my life, God knows,’’ he says. “I’ve been to hell and back. I don’t know how I survived.’’
Actually, he has an idea. “Music,’’ he says, “is what will set my soul free.’’