Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
One thing is for certain: When Robert Bradley says, "Everything this band does is a story. Each song has its own story — hell, when we go out to eat it’s a story," he means it.
But Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise’s stories all flow from the source — Bradley himself. With making music the only constant, Bradley has found his muse from coast-to-coast and has drank deeply from the well of American music — from R&B to gospel, rock ’n’ roll to country. The result is Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, an ongoing trip down the river of American music that embodies Bradley’s approach to listening to the world with open ears.
The Detroit singer-songwriter has lived a life full of great tales little and large — each writ significant by his telling. Luckily for us it’s Robert himself that gets to tell his tales and tell them in one of the most distinctive, soulful voices to jump off a record in the past decade (or any decade, for that matter).
Born in Evergreen, Alabama February 13, 1950, Bradley was one of 14 children and born sightless. The precocious Bradley began singing and performing early, despite his physical limitation. His first performance experiences were singing in church on Sundays with groups of older performers such as Five Blind Boys, who at the time were making the gospel rounds. "I could sing so they would take me on their church functions," recalls Bradley, "Like the Five Blind Boys -- they would take me with them. They’d give me a quarter or 50 cents -- and that was a lot! You could get a Baby Ruth and a Coke with that!"
While at the Alabama School for the Blind, he also found that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso player to move people with your music. "I knew a few chords and I had rhythm and time," he says of his early performances. "I don’t care how good you are -- if you don’t have time and rhythm you don’t have anything."
The insatiable Bradley also found his ear gravitating toward the eclectic mix made possible by the early days of rock ’n’ roll radio. When rock ’n’ roll meant everything from Ray Charles to Elvis to the latest country 45, the boundaries were wide open. To this day, Bradley hasn’t let genre borders fence his music in. "I’d listen to whatever was available -- Elvis, Jimmy Reed, Otis Redding, Hank Williams Sr. All that nasty ol’ Memphis stuff," he remembers fondly.
By now, Bradley was playing regularly with various outfits throughout the South — playing piano and singing. "I’d play at church on Sunday and then Friday and Saturday we’d play at some funky hole in the wall," he recalls.
Bradley’s family moved to Detroit in 1966. For a young music lover (and, by now, a seasoned performer), this was fortuitous timing. He was able to immerse himself in the city that produced not only the Motown sound, but also such urban blues sounds as John Lee Hooker’s "Boogie Chillun’." Detroit was also the home of a nascent rock ’n’ roll scene that was about to burst into the national spotlight. And Bradley was a diligent sponge of all the sounds he heard coming from his new city.
"When I came to Detroit in the ‘60s, I got into a lot of Marvin Gaye, Temptations… and when I got up this way I started listening to the blues again. B.B. King, Little Junior Parker," he recalls of his influences. "At that time in the ‘60s you could hear a lot of different music on the same station. Back then one station played everybody (such as Detroit’s CKLW)." It’s exactly this appreciation for the full spectrum of American music that Bradley conjures in his songwriting, playing and singing.
Get him to talking and he’ll mention, in an almost off-handed manner, that, yes, he lived in California for a time, singing in bands on Friday and Saturday nights and in churches on Sundays. Press him a bit, though, and he'll really start to talking: "Yeah, I was in a straight a cappella singing group called Exposure — Impressions, Temptations, that kind of stuff," says the 51-year-old Bradley. "But I was also in a mixed rock band — Liquid Letters. When I say mixed, it was like we had a Korean guy, a Japanese guy, a white guy and me! The Doors didn’t have nothing on us!"
"I used to go see the Doors for 50 cents, when I was at the Braille Institute of America. People would come and volunteer and we could go anywhere for 50 cents — and get a drink with that 50 cents, too! Man, it was beautiful. I saw Three Dog Night, CCR, Dodgers games, everything…" he recounts with his trademark gruff-but-warm laugh.
If you’re starting to see a picture of a life spent truly seeing America, you’re starting to understand the source of Bradley’s art. See, his songwriting isn’t merely informed by "the road" as it is inspired, created and tempered by Bradley’s travels. His extended cross-country jaunts were often traveled on Greyhound buses, so it is the slow, open road of America and the time spent traveling with real people that finds its way into his songs.
His Street Beginnings
Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise even has its beginnings in the street. From the time of his return to Motown in the late ‘70s until very recently, Bradley could be found busking every weekend in Detroit’s Eastern Market. It was here that Blackwater Surprise drummer Jeff Fowlkes first heard Robert and brought him to the attention of former Blackwater Surprise bandmates Michael and Andrew Nehra, who had been laying down tracks in their nearby studio.
The story is so legendary that it’s almost apocryphal — Fowlkes and the Nehras invited Bradley up to the studio. Bradley was reticent at first, having been burned or nearly burned before. But the chemistry was irresistible, with the players who would comprise Blackwater Surprise finding a groove behind Bradley’s soulful singing and fleshing out and complementing his bare-bones song structures.
It almost didn’t happen though. A crackdown on street performers in the city of Detroit nearly 20 years ago left Bradley without a weekend gig. Fortunately, then-mayor Coleman A. Young frequented Eastern Market and had been known to drop some coins in Bradley’s cup. "In the end he called them and told ‘em ‘don’t fuck with me no more,’" recalls Bradley.
And so it was that the patronage of Mayor Young became another story in the Robert Bradley book. Playing on the street for a living also drove Bradley to become a prolific songwriter — particularly since he refused to play cover songs! "That was my thing. Just write a new song everyday," he recalls. "When you’re on the street you have to do something original. Otherwise you have to know every damn song. I have a rule -- just do Robert Bradley."
"By playing songs all day long you can get it in your head so it’s there forever. You learn how to do it one time, play it over and over and then it just sticks. Over the years I wrote maybe a 1000 songs," says Bradley. "Writing songs comes easy to me. I’m a singer-songwriter."
Over the course of his career (and three studio albums over the past half-decade), it’s become clear that Robert Bradley is a singer-songwriter in the classic mode — cutting to the heart of a story with his writing, telling it in his own voice and acting as a catalyst to bring the right folks together to make the rest of the song come truly to life. "When you’re not just-plain-gifted as a musician it makes it a lot easier to write your own songs. Studio musicians they’re awesome but when it comes down to writing a hit, they just can’t do it. They’re the players. If they could sing they wouldn’t need me. If I could play, I wouldn’t need them. One hand washes the other," says Bradley.
The New Band Much like the rest of his story thus far in which the river flows and Bradley takes the twists and turns as he finds them, he has recently put together a new lineup of the Blackwater Surprise. The new lineup is built around Bradley and stalwart drummer Jeff "Shakey" Fowlkes. But "new" may be a bit of a misnomer as two of the members have been deeply involved with the band for years now.
Guitarist Matt "Mutt" Ruffino, bassist Tom Wilber and keyboardist Randy Sly are seasoned players with the chops to take Bradley’s music wherever it needs to go. The incarnation of Blackwater Surprise that you hear on New Ground gelled quickly in early 2001.
"I think that we’ve kicked it into another gear that we thought might exist. But we’ve definitely found that ‘sixth gear’," says drummer Jeff Fowlkes. "Matt was pretty hip to our stuff and was a fan. So he kinda got a head start," says Fowlkes. "What Matt did was learn the songs that he didn’t already know. He was the guy hanging out backstage."
"We tried other people," says Bradley of the period in which he and Fowlkes were rebuilding the Blackwater Surprise. "Matthew, he worked on the ‘California’ video and he was an extra and a sound technician. I was in Mt. Pleasant [Michigan] and he said ‘I wanna be in your band.’ But I didn’t know I was gonna need him," laughs Bradley.
In Wilber’s case, the existing connection to the band was even stronger. "Tommy had been with us for a while already as our sound guy and road manager. He left for a while to play bass with Shannon Curfman, but ‘returned to the fold.’" Randy Sly’s versatility on keyboards, organ and piano adds a depth to the Blackwater Surprise sound that can be heard throughout New Ground. His textured, grooving or subtle keyboard parts are often one of the first apparent sonic differences between this incarnation of the Blackwater Surprise and its predecessor.
After finding the right players to round out the sound, Bradley and company did what they have always done — played live. Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise went on the road for six weeks to road test the new fellas and somewhere along the way, the band became the so-tight-they-seem-loose outfit that’s heard on New Ground. "Didn’t nobody kill each other, so we knew it was OK," says Bradley of the "trial by tour."
Just as nothing gels musicians like playing live together, that familiarity sows fertile songwriting soil, too. "You can write a song with Robert, sitting side-by-side and I’ll say sing this or sing that and he’ll take one word or one line and he’ll ‘Bradley-ize’ it," says Fowlkes, "He’ll make it his own no matter what." "There’s some stuff that he comes in with that are a given," continues Fowlkes. "The closing track from New Ground ‘Born in America’ -- that’s a song that Robert wrote 20 years ago. I’ve been in love with that song and the old band never got around to it."
"‘Train’ is an idea Tommy had been kicking around," says Bradley. "We were in Detroit and someone was looking for an upright piano and we ended up getting one for free. When we finally got it home only certain notes would play -- It would only play in C. I just started playing those notes and I came up with the rest of ‘Train.’" "It’s a new day and a new thing and something new’s gonna happen. That’s the way we work," says Bradley simply.
"After I’m dead and gone Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise will go on," says Bradley. "That’s why it’s Blackwater Surprise ‘cause you never know what’s gonna happen. It’s truly a Blackwater Surprise and it’s gonna keep flowing. It’s true. It’s music."
Like the record says, New Ground, that’s where it’s at. One thing’s for sure, come hell or high water, from street to center stage, coast-to-coast, Robert Bradley’s going to keep telling his stories. And we’re all the better for listening in.