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Members include Robert Bradley (born on February 19, 1950, in Evergreen, AL), vocals; Tim Diaz, keyboards; Jeff Fowlkes, drums; AndrewNehra, bass guitar; Michael Nehra, guitar. Addresses: Record company--RCA Records, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036-4098, website: http://www.bmgentertainment.com/na/index_rcar.html. Website--Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise Official Website: http://www.rbblackwatersurprise.com.
From unlikely origins, Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise has enjoyed almost unanimous critical success since its formation in 1991. The release of the group's first album of blues- and funk-tinged rock, 1996's Blackwater Surprise, garnered comparisons to the music of Otis Redding, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Marvin Gaye. The band also built a loyal following with a series of dates with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Dave Matthews Band, and Sonic Youth. Helped by the video for the track "Once Upon a Time," the group expanded its audience and released a second original album, Time to Discover, in 2000. Emphasizing a more funk-oriented sound and featuring a guest appearance by Kid Rock, the album continued the band's streak of critical acclaim.
Born in 1950 into a family of ten children, Robert Bradley grew up near the south-central Alabama town of Evergreen, where his family farmed and his father worked as a mechanic. Born blind, Bradley attended the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega; when he was 16 years old, however, his family pulled up stakes and moved to Detroit. He attended Pershing High School for a while in his new hometown, but Bradley soon departed for California with a cousin. For a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bradley moved from city to city in California and pursued a career as a performer; influenced by a variety of singers from Hank Williams to Ray Charles to Marvin Gaye, Bradley performed in a number of different bands. "I sang in different rock groups and on the weekends. Teenage parties, proms, stuff like that. Then I played a lot in church. Saturday night at the bar, Sunday morning in church," he later told the Bloomington Herald-Times.
Settling back in Detroit in 1972, Bradley married and subsequently divorced; the father of five children, he made a living by singing around Detroit, often in public spaces like the city's Eastern Market, a farmers' market that does a brisk business on Saturday mornings. Sometimes accompanying himself on a guitar, Bradley would often improvise the lyrics as he went along. "I'd be here awhile playing in the market or in other places like a K-Mart, looking for that kind of sweet sound that makes you sound like you were amplified when you weren't," Bradley told Thom Jurek of the groovengine website. "I was happy and free doin' this. People would come out, put down some money, listen for a bit and move on. I did this for years, man. I left a family behind to do this. For me, music is the only thing."
In 1991 Bradley's singing at the Eastern Market gained him the attention of two Detroit musicians and producers, brothers Michael and Andrew Nehra. The Nehras had been members of their own band, Second Self, and owned and operated a recording studio, White Room Records, in Detroit. During rehearsals at their studio, the brothers noticed Bradley's voice coming in from down the street; after listening to him for an hour or so, they asked the singer to sit in on a jam session in the studio. "There are no words to explain what happened to my brother and I as we heard him down on the street," Michael Nehra told groovengine. "I've never had a feeling like that. I know it is a cliché, but it was truly a spiritual experience."
Although the Nehra brothers--along with fellow musician, drummer Jeff Fowlkes--shared many common musical influences with Bradley, such as classic 1960s R&B and the funk sounds of the 1970s, the formation of a group seemed far-fetched. Yet everyone realized that Bradley's voice and the top-notch musicianship of the other members would make the fledgling group unique. As Andrew Nehra told Detroit Monthly, "Robert breaks barriers for us. We're both able to do things we wouldn't be able to do otherwise." Despite the immediate rapport, however, getting the group together was difficult; after his debut jam session with the Nehra brothers, Bradley departed for a six-month sojourn in Alabama. When he returned, he found it hard to believe that the brothers were serious about forming a band with him.
From his days as a freewheeling busker at the Eastern Market, Bradley adapted to the demands of being a full-time band member in Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, as the group came to be known. As Bradley told People, "The biggest part [of the transition] was people telling me, 'You got to be here on time. You got to stay here for so long.' Before, I'd go where I wanted, and if I only needed twenty dollars, I just made twenty dollars and went home." Laying down tracks for its first album, produced by the Nehra brothers, the band tried to keep as much of Bradley's spontaneity as possible. "We made it to sound exactly like we were at the time. And part of that is that we were just experiencing Robert's life, his experience being a street singer for so long," Michael Nehra told groovengine. Nehra further explained the band's approach to Guitar Player, saying that "Robert's deep voice had to be the focal point. We wanted the feel of the songs to come through him. I downplayed my guitar, and just let it weave in and out."
The resulting album, Blackwater Surprise, was released in 1996, and the band slowly built its sales by touring as the opening act for the Brian Setzer Orchestra; eventually, the group also toured with the Dave Matthews Band and Sonic Youth. The selection of "Once Upon a Time" as the video of the week on the MTV program Twelve Angry Viewers jump-started sales from the clip's heavy rotation. Soon, Bradley's story as a street busker in Detroit and his unlikely discovery by the Nehra brothers became something of a music industry legend. Critics were nearly unanimous in their praise of the group's debut effort, and audiences responded enthusiastically to Bradley's presence on the stage, as a live album released in 1999 demonstrated.
The band had already adopted a fuller sound in its live performances with the addition of keyboardist Tim Diaz, who joined after the debut album had been released. The trend continued on the 2000 release, Time to Discover. For this album, the band compiled a set of 12 songs, most of them co-written by the Nehra brothers and Bradley. Detroit-area rapper Kid Rock, a longtime friend of the Nehras, appeared on two tracks: the opening tribute to Detroit, "Higher," and the blues-oriented song, "Tramp 2." Once again, critics praised the effort. "There's no doubting that Bradley and his crew have held tightly onto rock's holy grail, half a decade after stumbling onto it. Let the winds of pop style blow where they will," a Detroit Free Press review concluded, "there's a reason they call this stuff timeless." A Las Vegas Weekly critic agreed, noting that "With one note, Robert Bradley can have your soul in a submission hold.... Time to Discover is one of those albums that's more cherished than listened to." National reviewers were no less stinting in their praise. Rolling Stone raved that the album "proceeds as though the coolest job in town is rocking your neighborhood block. Time to Discover is proof that even bar-band music, done right, can surprise people all over again." The album's mid-tempo tracks also gained attention; Billboard called one song, "Baby," the "perfect song for the end of the summer, and the down-home feel is great for hangin' around and just relaxing to the groove."
After two acclaimed albums, the members of Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise have continued to build an avid following for their live performances. Bradley said that he enjoyed touring in memory of his days as an itinerant musician, though he missed busking on the street for spare change. "I have tried to go street sing, you know, over at the market and that," he told groovengine. "But it's too hard now. People be comin' up and wantin' a picture with me, or an autograph or something.... So, for now, the band is my singing thing. If it ends someday, then maybe I can go back on the street, some corner somewhere. I don't really care, so long as I can keep on singing."
by Timothy Borden
Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise's Career
Group formed in Detroit, MI, 1991; released first album, Blackwater Surprise, to critical acclaim, 1996; released Live, 1999; released Time to Discover, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Blackwater Surprise RCA, 1996.
- (Contributor) Hempilation 2: Free the Weed BMG/Volcano/Capricorn, 1998.
- Live RCA, 1999.
- Time to Discover RCA, 2000.
- Billboard, September 16, 2000.
- Daily Variety, April 25, 2000.
- Detroit Free Press, April 4, 2000.
- Detroit Monthly, September 1996, p. 14.
- Guitar Player, May 2000, p. 47.
- Herald-Times (Bloomington, IN), January 9, 1998.
- Las Vegas Weekly, March 23, 2000.
- Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2000.
- People, February 2, 1998.
- Rolling Stone, April 13, 2000.
- "Biography," Hip Online, http://www.hiponline.com/artist/music/b/bradley_robert/ (December 10, 2001).
- "In Search of the Almighty Groove," groovengine, http://www.groovengine.com/featuredartists/robertbradley/ (December 10, 2001).
- Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, http://www.rbblackwatersurprise.com/index.html (December 10, 2001).
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