Born blind, Robert Bradley has lived in music since he was a kid. Not lived with, but in it. The rhythm of the world around him beat in time with his heart, carrying him from his childhood home in Alabama, where he first discovered Elvis and Chuck Berry, to Detroit in 1966, just as race and war issues consumed the country and changed music forever. After that, he traveled state to state, busking on street corners for anyone who’d listen.
There’s history in his bones and, when he sings in that gravelly timbre, when the ivories are tickled beneath it, you can actually hear the burden of sadness and joy of his life, of his blues, R&B and rock ’n’ roll.
Life as a busker is long behind Bradley now, and his musical success so late in life is the stuff of festival documentaries and screenplays.
Bradley’s music career was launched by a miraculous fluke: In 1994, former members of Detroit rock band Second Self were rehearsing when they heard the then 47-year-old Bradley singing outside their studio window. They invited him inside to record a few songs. A band ensued.
"I was like, hey, they have a studio. Why not?" Bradley says, laughing. A record deal with RCA soon followed and, like street-singer-turned-major-label artist Ted Hawkins before him, he and his band, now christened Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, were suddenly getting national radio play and love from VH-1 with their self-titled debut.
The ensuing albums didn’t fare as well commercially. Bradley says he refused to cave under industry pressure to slicken up his sound. "I’m ’60s and ’70s, and I’m into that. When it came to be 1980, I got lost."
When Robert Bradley first arrived in Detroit, the 1967 riots were right around the corner, and a burgeoning rock scene was festering.
"When I came here, the first person I went to see was Otis Redding at Cobo Hall, and Patti Labelle and James Brown and all that," he says. "We’d go down there for $3 back then and see 10 people. Those days are gone."
He eventually returned to Alabama. But when a Medicaid clerical error listed him as deceased and cost him his monthly disability checks, he bought a guitar and started singing on the streets for cash.
"People would come up to you and say, ‘Play Marvin Gaye.’ Man, I ain’t got no band. That stuff requires a band. I’ve just got this guitar and I know but six chords anyway, ’cause I played piano my whole life and it’s hard to carry a piano around on your back."
Bradley played the streets for two more decades, crisscrossing the country. In those days, he would compose one or two songs a day and let his audiences decide which were best. Reworkings of many of those songs can be found on his four studio albums, such as his most affecting work, "Once Upon a Time." It’s an ode to the musical and racial tension he experienced during his life, invoking images of Marvin Gaye and Martin Luther King Jr.
"I wrote that right there at State and Griswold, sitting on the corner," he says.
The title song off his latest, 2003’s Still Lovin’ You, was written in 1966. Thirty years ago, the song might’ve seen Bradley ranked alongside Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye. But worthy songwriters rarely get their due, and Bradley has struggled within an industry whose bottom line has little to do with integrity.
Hence, Bradley is doing everything himself now. He left his label, Vanguard Records, and is back street busking too.
"The street thing is better ’cause you don’t have to worry about lawyers, agents and contracts, you know what I mean? And when you’re with record companies, they want the music to sound a certain way, and I just got sick of that. That’s why I’m starting my own record label: Bellybone Records — totally Robert Bradley. So I can be proud of myself, you know, before I get too old and lose interest."
The 55-year-old Robert Bradley is a man misplaced in time, a living embodiment of an era he refuses to abandon. He’s had every opportunity to change with the times — to basically alter his identity — but why should he?
"I’m stuck in the ’60s and ’70s — I can’t help it," he says, emphatically. "I’ll be with ’em when I’m dead."
Appears Sunday, June 12, at 5:30 p.m., on the MASCO/Metro Times stage at the Detroit Festival of the Arts. For more info on the three-day fest, go to detroitfestival.com or call 313-577-5088.
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