Dreaming is a big part of what makes life worth living. There’s no minimum age to start dreaming, and this week’s story is a reminder that dreams don’t come with an expiration date either.
Charles was just a baby when his mother left him with his grandmother in Florida. He didn’t know his father and barely saw his mother until he was 8 years old, when she showed up to take Charles back to live with her in Brooklyn, New York. But the change wasn’t entirely positive. Charles’ mother was so poor that his bedroom was in a basement with a sand floor.
One ray of light was his love of music, which crystalized when his sister took him to see James Brown perform at the Apollo Theater. Charles was transfixed. After that night, he began to practice Brown's style of singing and stage mannerisms, including his signature mic-stand swing, using a broom attached to a string.
At age 14, Charles was so desperate to get away from the poor living conditions of his mother’s house that he actually started living on the streets, sleeping in old cars and subway trains and washing his clothes in subway bathrooms. Watching others in his situation turn to drugs and crime, he knew he didn’t want to end up on that path. At 16, after two years on the streets, he faked his mother’s signature to enroll in the Job Corps, which offered job skills training to those in need. The Job Corps trained Charles as a cook, which got him out of New York.
Working in Bar Harbor, Maine for the next ten years, Charles enjoyed the happiest time of his young life. He was out of the ghetto, making a living, and not being judged for his background. When a co-worker told him he looked like James Brown and asked if he could sing, Charles shyly said no at first, then admitted that he could. They formed a small band and booked a show. They only expected 30-40 people to attend, so when nearly 500 showed up, Charles was terrified. Hearing the roaring crowd, though, something clicked, and the nervousness melted away.
When the rest of his band members were drafted and sent to Vietnam, Charles was alone again. For the next 20 years, Charles spent most of his time working as a cook and doing odd jobs, playing small shows when he could and always looking for a record deal. When he was nearly 50, a fever put him in the hospital, and in an effort to treat it, the doctors gave Charles penicillin, to which he was allergic. He was given little hope to live, but managed to pull through.
His passion of music remained a constant. Charles had begun performing as Black Velvet, a James Brown tribute act which actually allowed him to earn a living as a performer. It was at one of those shows where Charles was noticed by the co-owner of an independent soul and funk label. The man could feel the raw energy and passion coming off Charles and befriended him. He also made an introduction to a young musician on his label, who invited Charles to his band’s rehearsal. There, the band jammed and Charles made up lyrics on the spot. It was a revelation, because he had never really performed as himself, or been encouraged to search for his own song.
Charles Bradley waited a lifetime to tell his story, but in 2011, he got the chance. His debut album was one of the most incredible success stories of the year, earning rapturous reviews, landing on Rolling Stone magazine's top 50 albums of 2011, and catapulting Charles to over a hundred performances in 17 countries on 3 continents, including television appearances on Jay Leno and Carson Daly. Charles was also the subject of a highly-acclaimed film documentary about his struggles and lifelong dream of becoming a professional singer. At the time of his debut album’s release, Charles was 62 years old.
Throughout your life, people may tell you why your dreams are unlikely or impossible, and you may even begin believing it yourself. But remember the story of Charles Bradley, who started singing before the Vietnam War and now, more than four decades later, is realizing the dream he held onto for so long.
We must never allow ourselves to stop dreaming, and have to remind ourselves that the true achievement isn’t just in the fulfillment of our dreams, but also in the journey itself and the person we become along the way.
Until next week...
Live Your Dreams!