2008 Artist Lineup

Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise

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Simply put, Robert Bradley’s life is the stuff of rock and roll legend. Born the blind son of an Alabama farmer, and one of 14 children, Bradley had spent a lifetime singing in churches and on the streets of Detroit before his childhood dreams of life as a soul singer finally came true. Now 56, Bradley was in his 40s when he signed his first record deal, debuting on the RCA label with his band of white Detroit rock musicians, the Blackwater Surprise. Immediately striking a chord with fans of sweaty, heartfelt soul music, Bradley’s deep, raspy voice was—and is—very much a pure representation of who he is: It bears both the sweetness of his country roots and the grit of the Detroit sidewalks where he made his living for more than a decade. It beautifully blends his loves for everyone from Chuck Willis and Otis Redding to the Rolling Stones and Fats Domino. Born in Evergreen, Alabama, the son of a homemaker and a farmer, Bradley bounced back and forth from Alabama, Detroit and California, before he became somewhat of a local celebrity as a busker at Detroit’s Eastern Market in the ‘70s and ‘80s, where he strummed out hours of originals occasionally interrupted by a gospel standard or Temptations cover. As a child, he grew up listening to country and western and the local blues programs favored by his father: But the likes of Louis Jordan, Elmore James and Robert Johnson were forbidden in his grandmother’s home, where he was schooled on gospel. “She had a piano, and when I was a kid, I’d go over there and play it, but that’s all we were allowed to play—gospel. No boogie-woogie.” At home, it was a different story: “When I was seven or eight years old, my little sisters and I used to play this game called Jukebox, where they would put a penny down on the table, and I would sit under it and sing songs by Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, Ricky Nelson, whoever was popular at the time.” Before he was a teenager, and after painful experiences trying to get an education in intolerant public schools, Bradley’s parents enrolled him in The Alabama School for the Blind, the meeting place of future gospel legends The Blinds Boys of Alabama. By the time he was 14, his voice began to morph into the strong, deep baritone that it is now. And not only did it help him fall in with classmates, with whom he would regularly harmonize, but it paid dividends back at home in Evergreen: “My job on the farm was to feed the chickens, and the cows and the pigs, and when my voice got stronger, I could call ‘em easier.” That was in 1992, and over the next few years, Bradley, Fowlkes and the Nehras built the tracks that became Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, a mix of classic soul, blues and R&B, Stax- and Stones-inspired rock music that even dipped into psychedelia. The album spawned hits with “California” and “Once Upon a Time” which scored regular rotation on MTV, its classy video featuring Robert singing the hell out of the vocal, eyes closed. Scoring tours with the likes of the Dave Matthews Band and the Allman Brothers Band and on the mammoth H.O.R.D.E. festival, the band returned in 2000 with Time to Discover, featuring guest vocals from old friend and fellow Detroiter Kid Rock on two tracks, one (“Higher”) used in a popular Gatorade commercial. Again unearthing some decades-old tunes Robert had stored in the back of his head but never recorded, Time to Discover was another mix of rockers and ballads, spiced with a little hip-hop and funk. In 2002, Bradley returned with New Ground, a varied set featuring everything from “Willie Lee,” a fun, acoustic ode to his pot-puffing brother, to the beautiful, patriotic anthem “Born in America,” which has become the theme song of the Henry Ford Museum. The next year brought the humble Still Lovin’ You, a quiet, piano-based record that featured some of Bradley’s finest ballad work yet. Also in 2003, Robert was prominently featured in the documentary Playing for Change, an arty film celebrating street singers and the great U.S. street-singer hubs: New Orleans, New York, Venice Beach. The next year he made his acting debut in a major film, starring as bluesman Otis McClanahan in HBO’s award-winning Lackawanna Blues. For the film’s soundtrack, he covered Elmore James’ “Something Inside Me” and Floyd Jones’ “Dark Road” and dueted with Macy Gray on “Down on Me.” With the 2006 release of the two-CD live album What About That: New Year’s In Bloomington, he spans his catalog with two electric sets caught before and after midnight on New Year’s Eve 2005 at one of his favorite tour stops, the Bluebird in Bloomington, Indiana. In the four very special soundcheck recordings that end the album, he also dips into his gospel roots, delivering the new spiritual “What About the Man (Who Died on the Cross)” and an a capella version of the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a song he used to sing with classmates at The Alabama School for the Blind. “I’ve always been into ballads, love songs,” he says. “I’ve never been into shake-your-booty kind of things. I was into more religious, spiritual-type stuff. Those kind of songs, and music in general just soothes the savage beast in me. It soothes it. It takes it out. It takes out that ‘Why me?’ part, that ‘Why did I have to be blind,’ part of me. When I sing, I just get so happy that I believe I can see, that I can fly.” — Wes Orshoski, NYC (March 2006)

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