Bassist Andrew Nehra remembers, as if it were yesterday, the moment in 1992 when he and his brother, Mike (guitar), and drummer Jeff Fowlkes heard Robert Bradley’s voice wafting up into their third-floor recording studio in downtown Detroit.
“It’s like a little corridor of buildings, and Robert had been playing down there that afternoon,” Andrew Nehra said recently. “We happened to be upstairs in the studio, and our studio has a bunch of real big windows that we had open in one of the cutting rooms, and he was downstairs just singing and playing in the corridor. It was pretty loud down there. If someone’s down there playing an instrument or screaming or whatever they’re doing, you can hear them pretty clearly.
“Robert was playing some songs and singing, and he sounded great. We were just wondering what this blind man was doing out there and what he had going on. My brother and I were going to help him out, and we weren’t sure exactly what we were going to do, but that was the beginning of it.”
Rather than throw money into the cup hanging from Bradley’s neck, the Nehra brothers brought him into their studio, created a band around him and have transformed him into one of rock’s more remarkable feel-good stories.
Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise’s self-titled debut RCA album has sold more than 100,000 copies since its release in 1996. The group’s follow-up, “Time to Discover,” was released March 21 and they have an emerging hit with the first single, “Baby,” which mines the pop and soul of the 1970s much like Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Til It’s Over.”
Of course, Bradley was skeptical of the trio’s plot. Blind since birth, he was set in his ways, preferring to go from town to town, street corner to street corner, with his guitar to create songs on the spot for passers-by. Making $100 a day on his own wasn’t too bad.
“He had basically experienced things with other people who had tried to help him out musically,” Nehra said. “Still, he agreed to sit down with us and let him record some acoustic demos. It sounded great. It was just him singing the better songs he’s written over the past 20 years. Out of 20 years of writing songs, you’re bound to write some good songs.”
One of them was the compelling “California,” which became the centerpiece of the group’s first album.
“When we heard ‘California,’ we thought, ‘Well, shit, what can we do with this situation?’ ” Nehra said. “We could get a production deal, maybe get him to play in a band, see if that’s cohesive and see if we can develop it into something I guess where we can get out it to an audience.
“Him singing acoustically, it was definitely a cool thing, but we weren’t going to be able to get it very far unless he had sold a million records. So we just decided, well, let’s just get together ourselves before we go through the trouble of getting other people together just to see if it’s cohesive, if it’s even worth putting time into it. And we got together, and that day was pretty much instant magic. We put together quite a few songs that day that were on our first record. At least, we sketched out the ideas and tried different stuff, and that’s how it all started.”
The gamble paid off. Critics raved about the album and “California,” and a video for “Once Upon a Time” made it onto MTV’s rotation after it got several thumbs-up on “12 Angry Viewers.”
Since then, the group has augmented its rock-meets-soul sound with keyboardist Tim Diaz. The chemistry is just right, Nehra says.
“Robert will bring in songs that he’s written and we’ll build off that and flesh it out, so to speak,” he said. “Aside from that, we all try to come together as a unit. With ‘Baby,’ Tim started the chord change and I started playing bass on the guitar and started singing the hook and Robert started singing the verse. It all comes together. There’s not a lot of retro-ness to it. It’s all natural. It’s just the sound that comes out.”
As with the first album, longtime friend Kid Rock provided some raps and rhymes, on “Higher” and “Tramp 2.”
“We didn’t want to use him just because of who he has become,” Nehra said. “We’ve been friends with him for 10 years and we’ve worked with him in the past. We’ve produced stuff of his, and I co-wrote something on his new record. If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be on there. It had to be organic enough.
“Musically, we come from similar roots. He does it his way, we do it our way, which is a cool thing. I’m very happy for his success, especially today when no one has the attention span for something that’s different.”
The group has since had a parting of ways with Kid Rock, Nehra says.
“I hope we work it out,” he said. “Not to get too knee-deep into it, but my brother and I co-produced a track on his new record that hasn’t been fully acknowledged and it needs to be acknowledged and the reason it hasn’t is because he did something for us on our record, which he’s trying to make as a tradeoff. You can’t do that; it’s not just my brother and I’s record. It’s trying to measure up something mathematically that’s impossible. If he helps us sell records, there’s no way of me mathematically figuring out what he’s helped so we can get paid for what we’ve done.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I really didn’t have to buy any, because I had two brothers who would buy records that I would end up listening to. My first one, though, was probably something by Bob Seger, ‘Live Bullet.’ “
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “It was some obscure ’80s band that had one hit song. I saw them at St. Andrews Hall. What were they called? Let me hum the song (singing) … it’s a great song, too. Damn. I think it was a band like Modern English, but it wasn’t them. Sorry.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “Morcheeba’s last album. Excellent production, excellent songs. I also love the old Mazzy Starr stuff.”
BWF (before we forget): It’s no surprise, Robert Bradley’s on the Web @ www.rbblackwatersurprise.com.
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