Blackwater Runs Deep
"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."
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.
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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."
During this period, Bradley began supplementing his income by busking: playing his guitar and singing in public gathering places for the benefit of passersby. While doing so, he appeared in nearly every notable community in the middle section of the country--and he remembers specifically which ones proved most lucrative for him. Denver wasn't one of his favorites. "I played there once and I made about forty dollars," he notes. "But the weather was changing, so I didn't stay for too long. I tried to stay where the weather was kind of consistent. If it started to get cold, I'd be ready to go to California or somewhere down south."
The repertoire of songs Bradley played continued to grow as the years went by. He eventually wound up with around forty originals--but he never put all of them in his makeshift sets. "I would just get up that day and get in a groove," he explains. "And when I got to where I was going, if I had a song that felt good, then it would be the song of the day. See, people would be wanting requests, but if you went out there playing somebody else's songs, it would be too much; you can't remember it all. So I just came up with a song a day, and I would do the same song maybe fifteen times. And then I'd go on.
"It wasn't like people were getting sick of the song. They would be steady moving, so you'd be getting different people all the time. So if you hit your groove, you could be making all your money on just one song. All the other ones might make you only four or five dollars, but with the right one, you might make eighty. And if people started hanging and getting into it, I'd stretch it out. Instead of the song having three verses, I'd put ten in there. There was a method to my madness. It wasn't just ad lib, per se; there was some structure. And it had to have a good rhythmic thing without a lot of changes. If a song's got too many changes in it, the chord structures and all that, that wouldn't do it. People got to feel it. And if they feel it, you've got them. It's happening."
By the late Eighties, Bradley had become a Detroit institution. His impromptu performances at the city's Eastern Market often drew hundreds of people--so many that he was once banished from the spot for creating a traffic hazard. (The ruling was reversed after Bradley pleaded his case before the late Coleman Young, who was then Detroit's mayor.) These throngs convinced a number of entrepreneurs, including one of Bradley's cousins, that he had a future in recordings, but their promises led only to disappointments. As a result, he was more than cautious when, in June 1990, guitarist Michael Nehra, bassist Andrew Nehra and drummer Jeff Fowlkes, three Detroit session musicians who had fallen in love with Bradley's voice after overhearing it from their studio window, invited him to record with them. "I was sick of all the promises," he remarks. "I was like, 'Man, get the hell out of my face. I don't want to hear this shit.'"
He wasn't joking. He left for Alabama shortly after rejecting the threesome's offer and didn't return until the brink of winter, when the three musicians contacted him again. According to Bradley, they chose the right day to do so. "I was back in the Market, and I had just made, like, $700 in four hours. I was happy as hell. So when these guys got ahold of me again and said, 'Let's do this,' I said, 'Shit, things are going pretty good. Why not?' So I went down there on the 23rd of December, 1990, and that's when I got with those guys."
Success came slowly. Fowlkes and the two Nehras concentrated on other projects, recording with Bradley only when they had spare time. But the four eventually began to appear in area clubs, and the response they received convinced the three youths to cast their lot with Bradley. The music they made together sported strong soul and gospel elements, but with a decided rock bent that had the potential to offend purists. Bradley, however, wasn't bothered by either these stylistic side trips or the pale complexions of his comrades.
"When I was growing up, I was listening to the radio, and nobody explained to me that these singers are white and these are black," he points out. "There was a difference in tone and sound, but nobody told me. So I liked the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, stuff like that. And back in the Sixties, when I was in California, I'd go down on Redondo Beach and there'd be guys with acoustic guitars who were, like, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, white, whatever. It was that love thang that was going on; I was used to that. So when these guys came along, I was like, 'We'll give the sound a little rock, then, and maybe more people will understand what I'm trying to do.' Because if you've got the rock and you've got the soul and R&B and blues all mixed up, well, if that ain't all-American, I don't know what is."
The blend of these ingredients created a buzz around Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise loud enough to be heard by representatives of Sony. The head suits at the company set up a showcase for the band in 1994--but what could have been Bradley's big break was sabotaged by a certain illicit substance.
"They flew us up there to New York, had the limousine and everything," Bradley says. "And they had, like, twenty executives up in that room, too. We were having a ball, and the hotel was great; you know, great food, eating sushi. But then somebody gave us some shit that we weren't supposed to have--and we got blowed and couldn't do shit. I just had too much weed, so I don't do that anymore. When I get ready to do a show, I'm straight."
The players' indulgence didn't prove fatal; after Sony bowed out, RCA stepped in with a contract of its own. Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, the first disc released under the deal, demonstrates why the company was interested in the first place. The musical accompaniment on cuts such as "Bellybone," "Shake It Off" and "Trouble Brother," which juxtapose Motown sensibilities with jam-band inclinations, can be callow on occasion, but Bradley's presence imbues it with credibility. Without straining for effect, he gives his straightforward lyrics (like "Send all the children, send the children to bed/I'm gonna love ya from your feet to your head") an authenticity that cannot be purchased at any price. He's especially effective on "Once Upon a Time," which suggests a classic by the Band as covered by Ted Hawkins, and "Way Back," an emotional wallop of a number accented by impassioned back-up singers and faux strings that are just as effective as the real things.
Critics were immediately impressed by Bradley's crooning, as were the latter-day hippies who make up the healthiest part of today's concert market. "That kinda surprised me," Bradley admits. "You wouldn't think they'd be into a blues thing so much. Like the people who like Dave Matthews--that really surprises me, because it seems like more of a teenagey kind of sound. I don't think anybody who's forty years old is going to be into Dave Matthews too much. But I guess if it's a good song, it doesn't make any difference who it is."
Since many of Blackwater Surprise's followers were far too young to have experienced the music that influenced Bradley firsthand, he finds himself in the position of introducing them to the genres that shaped him. It's a task he performs gladly. "People should hear people like Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters," he says. "And to expose these people to this rich music is great. So when these kids come up to me and ask what records they should get, I recommend things to them. And then they come back and say, 'Man, that was great. You should do a song by Otis Redding,' or 'You should do a song by so-and-so.' And I might do something like that someday. But I haven't established myself enough yet to be concentrating on that. I'm trying to get the Blackwater Surprise thing going right now."
Constant touring is helping Bradley achieve this goal, particularly in Colorado, which he describes as "the first state that really showed an appreciation for what I was doing. I love it so much I've even thought about getting me a place out there." But even though his circumstances have improved immeasurably over the past several years, he still has the itch to take his guitar to the nearest street corner and open his heart.
"Matter of fact, I'm home this weekend, and I'd love to go out and play," he confesses. "I'm not supposed to do it, because of the band, but I told my girl, 'I'd go do it for the Salvation Army, then; I'd give the money to them.' Because there's going to be a ton of people, and I probably could make $1,500. So I might do it. I just might."
Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise. 9 p.m. Thursday, January 29, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $5.25, 443-3399 or 830-TIXS; 8 p.m. Saturday, January 31, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $8, 322-2308 or 830-
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