This Singer Has A Story To Tell
Back before there was Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, before the MTV video and the national tour, there was the blind man with the guitar and stool riding the Greyhound from city to city for 18 years. Bradley would hop off the bus, hang out on street corners and play songs he made up on the spot.
From his neck, he hung a cup so he could feel the weight of the coins that people dropped in.
“Whenever I hear people walking I just start to play. Play for an hour, make a hundred bucks and get back on the bus,” Bradley says of his street-playing days.
Today, he’s the gravelly voiced lead singer of Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, a mix of blues, rock, funk and soul that has yielded two albums, a music video and an appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”
About 100,000 copies of the band’s first, self-titled album were sold. Now, the band is on tour promoting is new release,Time To Discover.
The group came together in a third-floor studio of a virtually abandoned downtown Detroit building, after brothers Mike and Andrew Nehra heard Bradley playing on the streets.
“As an acoustic thing it was great, but it needed a band,” Andrew Nehra says.
Knee-deep in their own projects, the Nehra brothers weren’t thinking that they might be that band. And Bradley wasn’t interested anyway. Playing informal venues was his thing – he’d been doing it since he was about 11 and sang in churches with some of his eight sisters.
Then they started playing together.
The band’s first album came out in 1996. Many of the songs came from Bradley’s cache ofmaterial from half a life spent on the road, where the stories in the songs just came to him.
“I’m just writing about how someone else told me they were in love. … I like to write about other folks. It seems like their life more interesting than mine. You get bored with yourself,” he says.
He insists it’s his lyrics aren’t based on his own life, but on the stories that 1960s “tramps” or hitchhikers used to tell. “My grandfather had a little store and they’d stop and get a pop and they’d tell these stories,” Bradley says. “It was basically about people traveling.”
Bradley was born in Evergreen, Ala., one of 14 children living on a 500-acre farm.
He sang and played piano in churches, getting paid sometimes with money the congregation donated. His musical influences then included Otis Redding, Hank Williams Sr., and Ray Charles.
“It was just amazing to me that this was a blind person and he was doing this,” Bradley says of Charles.
He started traveling in 1974, settling in Detroit in 1977 and often playing at the city’s Eastern Market – a farmer’s market where he says he could make $700 a day – when not on the road.
But that came to an end in 1991, when the city started cracking down on people who hung out in the streets. Bradley headed out West for a while, but then returned to Detroit.
It was in 1992 that the Nehra brothers heard him singing, his voice floating up through their studio window. When they jammed together, Nehra says, the sound was “real untried andeffortless.”
“I don’t know if it’s his blindness, but he has a vision in a way, an interpretation that’s justdifferent,” the bassist says. “The songs are real simple, real moving. The music is real visual.”
Whatever it is, Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise is getting heard. The latest album features fellow Detroiter Kid Rock on two tracks and is selling at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 copies a week since its March release. The band is on a five-and-a-half-week tour in cities including Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Nashville. “It’s just going to be a party, with a little work mixed in,” Bradley says. “But it ain’t work for me.”
It couldn’t be. From the churches of Alabama to the streets of Detroit, his life’s been spentsinging for the love of music and playing to an audience he couldn’t see.
“They make you feel like more than what you are … but you’re just like them. We’re all thesame.”