Bradley was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents divorced when he was two, after which he was raised by his mother Gladys, who worked two jobs to make ends meet. Bradley, who was referred to with the childhood name of “Butch Bradley” was able to see his father, who was in the vending machine business and owned a restaurant in Detroit, in the summertime. When he was 9, his mother enrolled him in the Holy Providence School, an all-black Catholic boarding school run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament at Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania. He attended Mount Saint Charles Academy, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and then another historically black school, Cheyney State College (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, graduating in 1964 with a degree in Education. His first job was teaching sixth grade at the William B. Mann Elementary School in Philadelphia’s Wynnefield community. While he was teaching, he moonlighted at the old WDAS studios on Edgley Drive in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, working for free and later, for minimum wage. He programmed music, read news, and covered basketball games and other sports.
Bradley’s introduction to news reporting came at WDAS-FM during the riots in Philadelphia in the 1960s. In 1967, he landed a full-time job at the CBS-owned New York radio station WCBS. In 1971, he moved to Paris, France. Initially living off his savings, he eventually ran out of money, and began working as a stringer for CBS News, covering the Paris Peace Talks. In 1972, he volunteered to be transferred to Saigon to cover the Vietnam War, as well as spending time in Phnom Penh covering the war in Cambodia. It was there that he was injured by a mortar round, receiving shrapnel wounds to his back and arm.
Ed Bradley with Jimmy Carter in 1978In 1974, he moved to Washington, D.C., and was promoted to covering the Carter campaign in 1976. He then became CBS News’ White House correspondent (the first black White House television correspondent) until 1978, when he was invited to move to “CBS Reports”, where he served as principal correspondent until 1981. In that year, Walter Cronkite departed as anchor of the CBS Evening News, and was replaced by the 60 Minutes correspondent Dan Rather, leaving an opening on the program which was filled by Bradley.
Over the course of Bradley’s twenty-six years on 60 Minutes, he did over 500 stories, covering nearly every possible type of news, from “heavy” segments on war, politics, poverty and corruption, to lighter biographical pieces, or stories on sports, music, and cuisine. Among others, he interviewed Howard Stern, Laurence Olivier, Subcomandante Marcos, Timothy McVeigh, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Bill Bradley, the 92-year-old George Burns, and Michael Jordan, as well as conducting the first television interview of Bob Dylan in 20 years. Some of his quirkier moments included playing blackjack with the blind Ray Charles, interviewing a Soviet general in a Russian sauna, and having a practical joke played on him by Muhammad Ali. Bradley’s favorite segment on 60 Minutes was when as a 40-year-old correspondent, he interviewed 64-year-old singer Lena Horne. He said, “If I arrived at the pearly gates and Saint Peter said, ‘What have you done to deserve entry?’ I’d just say, ‘Did you see my Lena Horne story?'”
On the show, Bradley was known for his sense of style, and was the first male correspondent to regularly wear an earring on the air. He had his left ear pierced in 1986 and says he was inspired to do it after receiving encouragement from Liza Minnelli following an interview with the actress. He is also thus far the only male “60 Minutes” anchor to do so, though male correspondents from other network programs, including Jim Vance, Jay Schadler and Harold Dow, later wore earrings on camera.