Homelessness, cocaine addictions, depression, and alcoholism are all longstanding American traditions, especially within the music community. Without these classic anti-American dream stories, what would Bruce Springsteen sing about? Injustice is the perfect impetus for creativity, Like and sometimes rock bottom can be where the magic happens. Think Bon Iver, Exile On Main Street, Tina Turner, and Britney Spears. Many successful artists pride themselves on having survived hard times, while the majority of musicians—the microphone-less masses—don’t ever acquire the fame that allows for such a soapbox.
One such artist who fell in to the latter category for the majority of his life is soul-revivalist sensation Charles Bradley. Bradley, whose Feb. 18 show at Metro has excited soul music aficionados across Chicago, has redefined what the “long road” means. Before being saved from his beleaguered existence by Gabrielle Roth and the Daptone label, Bradley’s life was like a series of train wrecks, punctuated by a few happy moments that disappeared as quickly as a popped balloon. He kept change in his pocket with one lousy job after another and survived everything from losing all of his bandmates in the Vietnam War to sharing a car with an admitted cold-blooded killer while hitchhiking across America and Canada. He wasted a little time in California—which was bookended with unemployment—and then drove back to New York to be close with his family only to be set back once more, this time by personal tragedy. Just as Bradley started performing again, his brother was murdered, and his grief interrupted his nightly stints at juke joints where he sang under the name Black Velvet. Bradley was 50 at the time.
Getting knocked down once or twice makes for a good story, but getting hit over the head with a frying pan every time you stand back up doesn’t leave much room for a positive outlook—at least for most people. Bradley never saw it that way. His James Brown-inspired itch for music kept him performing, and now it seems like his frazzled empathy and no-handout-needed life has helped endear him to thousands of fans. Perhaps for the first time in his life, at the age of 63, his winning streak will last.
In honor of Bradley’s upcoming performance, The A.V. Club presents a few other soul artists who have found themselves in times of trouble.
Unlike Charles Bradley, Dusty Springfield, the white queen of soul, had a long way to fall before she hit rock bottom. She was at the top of the charts when her erratic behavior and intractable insecurity began to break her down. When the now critically acclaimed Dusty In Memphis flopped on the charts in 1969, Springfield withdrew from the spotlight. The failure and her accompanying reaction caused her career to stall out and idle in a long period of silence in the early ’70s. She spent more than 20 years out of the spotlight and in the shadows of manic depression, alcoholism, cocaine addiction, and self-abuse. An inability to come to terms with her not-so-hetero-sexuality thickened her self-hatred, and bad career advice bent her even further away from the possibility of restored success in the ’80s. She was wilting and the public had stopped listening. They took back their enthusiasm that they loaned her in the ’60s and Springfield took it personally. She was weary of the world even when she seemed to have it on a string, and insecurity followed her as closely as her own shadow.
It would be a stretch to say that she died alone in a house full of cats, but her final years were tainted by wistfulness and she did have quite a lot of cats. Of course she also had royalties she could cash in on and a reputation that allowed for her to be treated as a pop icon, albeit an irrelevant one, in the U.K. Springfield said it best herself when she said, “I never used my illnesses to be fashionable,” and no one thought of them that way. Her tendencies to start food fights in pubs and throw plates and records at her producers were always described as “deranged,” but the music insiders who adored her took it in a stride. It was Springfield’s own self-loathing that rendered their adoration futile and her eventual ending was humble and heartbreaking.
Gil Scott-Heron, the Godfather of hip-hop—although he would most likely cringe in the grave at that title—hit every tier of tragedy on the hard times pyramid. Pictures of him from his elder years depict a man who has been made thin by years of cocaine abuse, so much so that he looks merely like a string of bones wearing clothes. With the exception of a little bit of jail time here and a few performances there, Scott-Heron spent the majority of his final years as a shut-in. He allegedly told a writer for The New Yorker looking for an interview, “Where else would a caveman be other than in his cave?”
Scott-Heron was a philosopher in the same way that Dylan was, and had a more expansive mind than most common folk, but he was also a man full of foibles who never stopped toiling and triumphing in equal measure. He was arrested for cocaine possession a number of times, once in an airport smuggling story strikingly similar to Michael Vick’s experience, and another time on the streets of New York, where a handshake and a piece of tinfoil were enough to give him away. He went to desperate measures to keep the buzz alive, measures that eventually brought HIV into his life and drove his lovers and friends out of it. He kept a blowtorch by his bed. When he ran out of money he would sleep for two weeks straight until his next royalty checks came in. Everybody thought he was finished long before he drew his last breath, but like a true spoken word artist, it was Scott-Heron who had the final say. He finished life on his own terms with a 2010 farewell album entitled I’m New Here that was critically lauded and proved that the only thing more powerful and potent than his addiction was his intellect.
Jackie Wilson had a voice that stretched like Laffy Taffy. His biggest fan was Elvis Presley. His pompadour was the tallest in the business, taller than the Madame’s, and in the ’50s he already had the swagger and the sound that would have enabled him to corner the entire impending soul market. But that didn’t end up being his legacy, thanks to a series of tragedies that set in early. It started with a shooting in 1961 in which Wilson’s jealous girlfriend shot him in the back, leaving a bullet that remained lodged in his spine for the rest of his life. Then came financial distress, drug addiction, reclusiveness, and—in no particular order—a few other things including, but not limited to, the death of his three children (all of whom died before they were 25), rape allegations, a Patti LaBelle groping incident, and a massive heart attack that resulted in a nine-year coma. On the bright side of things, he did come out of his coma for two days in 1976, and was even able to walk a few steps, before collapsing back into it and sleeping his way to death. This story does have a happy ending fortunately, because thanks to the good people of Detroit, Wilson’s burial site was finally given a proper headstone three years after he was laid to rest.
Rock bottom often goes by another name: insurance salesman. This was the role soul legend Howard Tate found himself in after deciding to exit the music business in the late ’70s. Throughout the mid to late ’60s, Tate’s albums were critically acclaimed and he pocketed a few R&B chart toppers but no accolades could alleviate his general dissatisfaction with the industry. Tate claimed his overnight departure was a result of bitterness and resentment brought on by financial injustices (a common theme within the industry) and he tried to cope using the oft-successful method of suppression. He threw his records out, denied his radio the right to ever play again, and then, in a sweeping attempt to forget, landed a job as an insurance salesman. Of course the drudgery of that work coupled with his house burning down put him in the hands of more misery —cocaine. Riled up on Casey Jones syndrome, Tate spent the entirety of the ’80s trying to find work cleaning out people’s gutters so that he could make the 20 bucks he needed for another gram. These cold years came and went but eventually Tate was saved—in the higher power sense—and sobered up. He became a minister of a church that ousted him when he decided to record secular music again, something he wanted to do in order to raise money, help homeless people, and serve the Lord. But nay, the church still resisted and it was their loss in the end. Howard Tate’s tale of redemption ends sweetly with the reconnecting of his longtime producer Jerry Ragovoy. Together they created a comeback album as good as Al Green’s Lay It Down. Having survived his hard life, Tate was finally able to re-center his life on gospel and pop music, which as any good soul singer of the ’60s would tell you, is a mighty fine way to serve the Lord.