Blackwater Runs Deep

The guiding vision behind Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise.

"I would've loved to be a pitcher in baseball," says Robert Bradley. "When I was younger, I was a big Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals fan. And I liked the Yankees, too, because being from Alabama, those were the teams you could get on the radio. Basically, it was music and baseball for me."

Unfortunately, a rather sizable obstacle prevented Bradley from becoming a major-league hurler. He is blind--and since he had no interest in becoming an umpire, that meant that a career on the diamond was a bit unrealistic. So he decided to concentrate on singing, and after several decades literally spent scuffling for spare change, his choice seems about ready to pay off. Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, the blues/rock/soul amalgamation he fronts, may not be busting any sales records with its self-titled debut album, released in late 1996 by RCA. But the group, in which Bradley is teamed with three Anglos around half his age ("I'm on the backside of forty," he notes, "and that can be a mother"), has recently received substantial MTV airplay for the single "Once Upon a Time," has played in arenas and amphitheaters alongside the likes of the Dave Matthews Band and Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and is slated to appear in the upcoming film Liar's Poker, which stars Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Bradley, whose speaking voice comes wrapped in a good-humored growl, puts the events of the past year in perspective when he says, "It's been sweeeeeet."

This response is typical of Bradley, who seems determined to look on the sunny side of life even though he can't physically see it for himself. He was born in the smallish Alabama burg of Evergreen, the third-oldest child of a jumbo brood: "There were eight girls and six boys," he says. "It was kinda busy." His father was a farmer and a mechanic, and his mother oversaw her offspring, which, as Bradley understates, "was a job in itself." It was a musical family, although not extraordinarily so: His parents enjoyed singing at home and in church, and his grandmother owned a piano that the kids were allowed to finger. But young Robert had a gift buried deep in his throat, and he quickly learned that money could be made from it. "We used to play a game called Rockola, where you'd get under the table and pretend that you were a Rockola--a jukebox," he recalls. "I had to be, like, five or six, and I would get under there, and my little sister would give me a penny to sing a song." He laughs. "So I was hustling even then."

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Like so many future performers reared during the late Fifties, Bradley felt himself being tugged on one side by music of the spirit and on the other by music of the flesh. He sang at worship services throughout his youth, but when he's asked to name the first song that he remembers making a strong impression on him, he says, with little hesitation, "'What Am I Living For,' by Chuck Willis. It went like 'What am I living for, if not for you, baby? If not for you, what would I do?' I guess it must've hit me that way because I was just starting to notice girls." Bradley apparently was an early bloomer: The tune appeared in 1958, when he was very much a preteen student at the Alabama School for the Blind.

Still, it was to the world of gospel that Bradley turned when it came time to make a living: "The town I was in, there weren't many people who could play piano and sing. So when I learned how to play, they'd pay me money to do it. I never thought of it as a profession. I just always assumed that if I needed money, I could make it doing that."

These skills came in handy given his traveling jones. As soon as Bradley was old enough to leave Alabama, he did so, taking buses to whatever city sounded interesting to him at that particular time. Every once in a while he put down roots; for instance, he lingered in Los Angeles long enough to enroll at Los Angeles City College and have a pair of corneal transplants that doctors hoped would restore his sight. When the operation failed, though, he dropped out of school and returned to the highway. Detroit became his base in the early Seventies, but he used it primarily as a way station. "I'd go to California and then back to Detroit, and then to North Carolina, Alabama, wherever. Zip, zip, you know what I mean? I moved around, and because I played at churches, I could always guarantee I could get a job. And back then, the churches made sure you didn't have to worry about anything. Somebody at the church would give you a room, and you wouldn't even have to pay them most of the time. It was like that riding the buses, too. It was great for blind people, because people would help you get around. But I wouldn't do it now, because it's dangerous. People are just wild; they're wild in the worst way. But it wasn't always like that."

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