Robert Bradley is feeling “born again” as a musician — not a bad feat at the age of 67.
The veteran singer and songwriter is best known for fronting Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, a major-label soul-rock act based in Detroit during the late ’90s and early 2000 that earned critical praise if only modest commercial impact during its tenure. The group’s last album came out in 2008, and Bradley — a blind street singer before the band started — 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 — which resulted in a new album, “Down In The Bend,” coming out this week — Bradley felt like his career, at least of writing songs, was over.
“I was all over — Birmingham (Alabama), Atlanta, just going around where I thought I would write a new song, and I couldn’t write anywhere,” says Bradley, who resides on Detroit’s northwest side and has returned to busking for passersby in Eastern Market. “As soon as I got back up to Detroit, to Eastern Market, some (ideas) started coming to my mind and I started writing again.
“This is where I need to be to make music.”
“Down In The Bend,” 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 — formed by musicians who ran Detroit’s White Room studios after they encountered Bradley singing on the street — 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 “California” from the group’s 1996 debut album. And the group’s gritty blend of rock and R&B, supporting Bradley’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 2000’s “Time To Discover,” the group began to come apart — from Bradley’s perspective, due to philosophical differences.
“I was in the music for the music, they were in the music for the business,” Bradley, who moved to Detroit with his family in 1966, says now. “I don’t want to say anything bad about them, ’cause they really did a lot for me. But those guys were in it for the money, not the music. That’s what happened to (the band).”
Bradley held a version of the Blackwater Surprise together though 2008’s “Out In The Wilderness,” then went into a kind of wilderness himself — 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 — “Lifting 100 cases of 20-ounce pop a week,” he says — Bradley decided to return north and be “born again” as a performer.
“I went back to the (Eastern) Market to find out if I’m all right,” Bradley says. ”If I could go back and people hear me and think I still sound good, I know what’s going to happen.
“And it’s great. There’s people who see me who were down there with their daddy and moms back in the day, and now they’ve got their kids with them. And they take care of me, so I’m just sitting down there having a good time ’cause that’s what I like to do, sing to people.”
Song ideas started coming, too, and Bradley decided he “wanted to do me another record.” A mutual friend put him in touch with Martin “Tino” Gross of the Howling Diablos, who co-founded Funky D and wound up producing “Down In The Bend.”
“We immediately started clicking. We wrote, like, five songs the first night,” recalls Gross, who recruited a stellar cast of Detroit musicians — including members of the Diablos, Detroit Wheels/Rockets drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, Don Was, Bobby East, Jeff Grand, James Wailin’, original Blackwater Surprise drummer Jeff “Shakey” Fowlkes and Bradley’s wife, Avyline, on backing vocals — to participate in the sessions. The late Johnnie Bassett is also featured on “Born Again In Detroit” from sessions Gross recorded with the guitarist that were never completed.
The 14 tracks on “Down In The Bend” offer Bradley’s usual blend of rock, R&B and blues, with some gospel inflections on “God’s Creation” and “What About The Man.” The album’s bookends, “Cryin’ In The City” and “Share My Dream,” give vent to some of Bradley’s socio-political views, while “Born Again In Detroit” celebrates his return to the city and to his craft.
“My job was to keep the train on the track and get it to the station,” Gross says. “He’s more of a natural, organic, blues-type cat, so we let him do what he’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 you’ve got come incredible, cool music.”
Funky D plans to make videos for some of “Down In The Bend’s” songs, mostly likely starting with “Cuz I’m In Love.” 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.
“Y’know, I’ve still got my health, I still can sing and I love doing it,” Bradley says. “I can’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. I’m good, man. This is where I belong.”
• If You Go: Robert Bradley and Kenny Brown perform Friday, Nov. 17 (doors open at 8 p.m.), at Callahan’s Music Hall, 2105 South Blvd., Auburn Hills. Tickets are $20. Call 248-858-9508 or visit atcallahans.com.
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