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Robert Bradley's music is "born again" after return to Detroit
Robert Bradley is feeling â€śborn againâ€ť as a musician â€” not a bad feat at the age of 67.
The veteran singer and songwriter is best known for fronting Robert Bradleyâ€™s Blackwater Surprise, a major-label soul-rock act based in Detroit during the late â€™90s and early 2000 that earned critical praise if only modest commercial impact during its tenure. The groupâ€™s last album came out in 2008, and Bradley â€” a blind street singer before the band started â€” decided to move back to his native Alabama, where he ran a business filling vending machines.
And until a decision to return to Detroit last year â€” which resulted in a new album, â€śDown In The Bend,â€ť coming out this week â€” Bradley felt like his career, at least of writing songs, was over.
â€śI was all over â€” Birmingham (Alabama), Atlanta, just going around where I thought I would write a new song, and I couldnâ€™t write anywhere,â€ť says Bradley, who resides on Detroitâ€™s northwest side and has returned to busking for passersby in Eastern Market. â€śAs soon as I got back up to Detroit, to Eastern Market, some (ideas) started coming to my mind and I started writing again.
â€śThis is where I need to be to make music.â€ť
â€śDown In The Bend,â€ť which is being released by Royal Oak-based Funky D Records, adds to a formidable batch of music Bradley has already made. With the Blackwater Surprise â€” formed by musicians who ran Detroitâ€™s White Room studios after they encountered Bradley singing on the street â€” released three albums for RCA Records and another two for the Vanguard label. MTV gave the Blackwater Surprise a minute in the spotlight when it embraced the video for â€śCaliforniaâ€ť from the groupâ€™s 1996 debut album. And the groupâ€™s gritty blend of rock and R&B, supporting Bradleyâ€™s earthy musings and remembrances, fit nicely into the burgeoning jam band culture of the time, including stints on the H.O.R.D.E. Tour and opening for the Allman Brothers Band.
But after 2000â€™s â€śTime To Discover,â€ť the group began to come apart â€” from Bradleyâ€™s perspective, due to philosophical differences.
â€śI was in the music for the music, they were in the music for the business,â€ť Bradley, who moved to Detroit with his family in 1966, says now. â€śI donâ€™t want to say anything bad about them, â€™cause they really did a lot for me. But those guys were in it for the money, not the music. Thatâ€™s what happened to (the band).â€ť
Bradley held a version of the Blackwater Surprise together though 2008â€™s â€śOut In The Wilderness,â€ť then went into a kind of wilderness himself â€” though he kept up his performing chops by playing in church down in Alabama. After a hernia operation led him to drop the vending machine business â€” â€śLifting 100 cases of 20-ounce pop a week,â€ť he says â€” Bradley decided to return north and be â€śborn againâ€ť as a performer.
â€śI went back to the (Eastern) Market to find out if Iâ€™m all right,â€ť Bradley says. â€ťIf I could go back and people hear me and think I still sound good, I know whatâ€™s going to happen.
â€śAnd itâ€™s great. Thereâ€™s people who see me who were down there with their daddy and moms back in the day, and now theyâ€™ve got their kids with them. And they take care of me, so Iâ€™m just sitting down there having a good time â€™cause thatâ€™s what I like to do, sing to people.â€ť
Song ideas started coming, too, and Bradley decided he â€śwanted to do me another record.â€ť A mutual friend put him in touch with Martin â€śTinoâ€ť Gross of the Howling Diablos, who co-founded Funky D and wound up producing â€śDown In The Bend.â€ť
â€śWe immediately started clicking. We wrote, like, five songs the first night,â€ť recalls Gross, who recruited a stellar cast of Detroit musicians â€” including members of the Diablos, Detroit Wheels/Rockets drummer Johnny â€śBeeâ€ť Badanjek, Don Was, Bobby East, Jeff Grand, James Wailinâ€™, original Blackwater Surprise drummer Jeff â€śShakeyâ€ť Fowlkes and Bradleyâ€™s wife, Avyline, on backing vocals â€” to participate in the sessions. The late Johnnie Bassett is also featured on â€śBorn Again In Detroitâ€ť from sessions Gross recorded with the guitarist that were never completed.
The 14 tracks on â€śDown In The Bendâ€ť offer Bradleyâ€™s usual blend of rock, R&B and blues, with some gospel inflections on â€śGodâ€™s Creationâ€ť and â€śWhat About The Man.â€ť The albumâ€™s bookends, â€śCryinâ€™ In The Cityâ€ť and â€śShare My Dream,â€ť give vent to some of Bradleyâ€™s socio-political views, while â€śBorn Again In Detroitâ€ť celebrates his return to the city and to his craft.
â€śMy job was to keep the train on the track and get it to the station,â€ť Gross says. â€śHeâ€™s more of a natural, organic, blues-type cat, so we let him do what heâ€™s strongest at, which is freestyling over a groove. He never does the same thing exactly the same way twice. It changes every time, so you just capture some of that and youâ€™ve got come incredible, cool music.â€ť
Funky D plans to make videos for some of â€śDown In The Bendâ€™sâ€ť songs, mostly likely starting with â€śCuz Iâ€™m In Love.â€ť For his part, meanwhile, Bradley is happy to be in the recordmaking business again, but he holds onto the aesthetic of music over money as he begins this new phase of his career.
â€śYâ€™know, Iâ€™ve still got my health, I still can sing and I love doing it,â€ť Bradley says. â€śI canâ€™t ask for anything more than that. As long as nobody burns down Eastern Market I know I have a place to play and somewhere that inspires me to write songs. Iâ€™m good, man. This is where I belong.â€ť
â€˘ If You Go: Robert Bradley and Kenny Brown perform Friday, Nov. 17 (doors open at 8 p.m.), at Callahanâ€™s Music Hall, 2105 South Blvd., Auburn Hills. Tickets are $20. Call 248-858-9508 or visit atcallahans.com.
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