Robert Bradley's long road to stardom

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— Music is the eyes of Robert Bradley. Blind since birth, Bradley, 52, was a street musician who now leads one of the most interesting bands touring, Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise. But it was a long musical journey before he was discovered in 1991.

As a child, Bradley realized singing well makes people accessible to him. Socially, being blind isn't always conducive to hanging out with people, or going to new places.

Music solved that problem.

"They didn't leave me at home because I could sing," Bradley said from his tour bus traveling through California.

He first performed in church on Sundays while growing up on a farm in Alabama. He was one of 14 kids. Once his singing developed, young Bradley's talent allowed him to perform at church functions with the gospel band The Five Blind Boys From Alabama.

In 1966, the family moved to Detroit, and Bradley, a seasoned performer at 16, began soaking up the Motown sound.

During school a few years later, he popped up in California, where he would go see the popular bands of the west, such as Credence Clearwater Revival, The Doors and Three Dog Night.

Bradley sang in small bands most of his life, but what turned out to be one of his most important stages as a performer didn't get set until 1975, when he was 27 years old.

After living in Alabama and divorcing his wife, Bradley landed in Detroit. A friend there told him to learn a few chords on the guitar and sing on the street.

"I had played piano, so I just translated some chords onto the guitar," he said.

The street produced $80 for Bradley the very first day. For the next 15 years, the pavement of the United States was Bradley's stage.

"I used it to finance my traveling that way," he said.

Singing only songs he wrote, the streets of Sacramento, Los Angeles and Denver, among other cities, supported Bradley.

Sometimes a hotel was his home on his travels; other times, it was the houses of nice people.

"Most of the time, I'd be singing, and someone would ask, 'Where you staying?'" Bradley said of his travels.

"I'd say, 'I don't know,' and they take me home with them."

Through the years, people in the music business perked their ears at Bradley's street music and often coaxed him into a recording studio. Usually, nothing worked out, until something unlikely happened.

In the early '90s, while playing at his usual spot in Detroit, the Eastern Market, Jeff Fowlkes, drummer for the area rock band Blackwater Surprise, heard Bradley playing and singing. Fowlkes brought him to the attention of the rest of the band and they laid down a few tracks in a nearby studio.

The music was a gritty, Gen-X rock style mixed with Bradley's R&B sound.

The singer was reluctant at first, but the work got the band signed, and one of the best music stories of the '90s began to take shape: the story of the street musician-turned-rock singer for a band that got famous. It is now nearly a legendary tale.

It wasn't expected, and though Bradley had rock influences, he didn't envision himself in such a band.

"We just got a recording deal so quick," Bradley said.

The 1996 self-titled debut album became a hit, due in large part to the video "Once Upon A Time," earning strong play on MTV.

Bradley proved to be a prolific songwriter, too, adding up maybe 1,000 songs he'd penned or committed to memory.

But in some respects, the story was too good to be true. After the second album, "Time to Discover," brothers Michael and Andrew Nehra left the original Blackwater lineup. RCA Records also dropped the band.

Bradley and Fowlkes were left to form a new Blackwater Surprise and bridge a recording deal with Vanguard Records.

"The first guys, we didn't blend all that well they were born with a silver spoon," Bradley said. "The drummer, me and him came up from the South and we stick together."

They signed guitarist Matt Ruffino, bassist Tom Wilber and keyboardist Randy Sly to the band. Through Vanguard, February marked the released of a third album, aptly named "New Ground."

Bradley said the new lineup is made up of top-notch musicians who love their trade above and beyond anything else.

"First they are musicians that love to play," Bradley said.

Critics say "New Ground" could be the best Blackwater effort, at least in its attempt to mix the loud alternative-rock style with Bradley.

"That's what I try to do with this music, to fusion R&B and rock, with a little folk and blues," Bradley said.

The band stops to play in Steamboat Springs on Saturday to play at Levelz that night. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Bradley said people should expect a good time.

"They are going to hear some great music," Bradley said. "We also always invite some girls to dance on stage for a song or two."

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