It's a safe bet that Robert Bradley is flashing a wild grin and a sparkle in each of his cloudy, opaque eyes. On a break from a day-long trek across the Midwest to a mid-December 2001 gig in Chicago,
It's a safe bet that Robert Bradley is flashing a wild grin and a sparkle in each of his cloudy, opaque eyes. On a break from a day-long trek across the Midwest to a mid-December 2001 gig in Chicago, the blind, raspy-voiced soul singer is reminiscing about Christmastime at Detroit's Eastern Market -- where he spent some 14 years busking.
"I made me a fortune with my song 'Detroit Christmas,' " says the gray-haired 51-year-old, whose "New Ground" (Vanguard) arrives Feb. 5. "I had done that every Christmas. One time, I made, like, $2,000 in about four hours. It was so much change, man. I'll tell ya, I couldn't even hardly get up."
Since leaving the market to form -- in rather fairy tale-like fashion -- Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise (RBBS) with a group of local "white boys," nearly every day has felt like Christmas for the Alabama native.
Five years since the release of the act's first album, the lanky Bradley says he's still amazed by the twist of fate that brought him to those white boys -- local musicians Jeff Fowlkes and Michael and Andrew Nehra.
It was just days after he and his fellow street musicians had been booted from the Eastern Market in 1992 -- after a local controversy led to the Detroit City Council's banning of all busking at the downtown hot spot -- that Bradley moved to a nearby street corner close to where Fowlkes and the Nehras had rented a rehearsal space. Arriving late for practice one day, Fowlkes happened upon Bradley and found himself so struck by the singer's voice that he later convinced the Nehras to have a listen. In just months, the band's powerful mix of soul, rock, and blues was born. Bradley says, "The Lord moves in mysterious ways."
After moderate success with two albums-the first, an eponymous effort, spawned the moderate MTV hit "California" -- that fairy tale hit a speed bump early last year, when RBBS parted ways with RCA and, shortly thereafter, saw the departure of the Nehras, who left to spend more time at home and on their vintage musical gear business in Detroit.
But it wasn't long before Bradley found replacements and Vanguard chief Kevin Welk -- a "huge" RBBS fan since its debut ("It was just so real and just so authentic.") -- signed the group. The label previewed "New Ground" with a three-song holiday promo disc that includes "Detroit Christmas" and is organizing combination in-store performances and live radio broadcasts across the U.S.
"Robert's got an interesting style," says Scott Arbough, PD at Boulder, Colo.-based KBCO, which is already spinning first single "Train." "He certainly commands that R&B/blues thing quite well. And, ya know, he's fun to watch in concert."
Of his fiery performances, Bradley says, "That's one of the most joyful times I have -- it makes me forget about blindness."