Original image courtesy of NRK P3
Feature by Charlie Saperstein
Charles Bradley, iconic soul and funk singer, died late last month at age 68. Bradley’s story is an almost unprecedented one: he was 62 years old when he released his debut album, No Time for Dreaming, in 2011. Bradley was known for his raspy, gritty voice, his trademark howl, and his searing songs that seem pulled straight from Stax-era Memphis soul.
A unique voice in today’s music scene, Charles Bradley was a throwback that always felt authentic. Through his three albums, Bradley was able to carve out a signature sound—a voice that simmers and crackles over vintage-sounding rhythm tracks, almost as if the analog recording he used couldn’t contain him. His music always sounded like it was being played through a vinyl record player, but it came with an immediacy that reflected Bradley’s late entry into the music industry.
Charles Bradley endured a long road before reaching success—a life filled with setbacks, heartbreak, and pain. Effectively abandoned by his mother at a young age, Bradley became homeless at the age of 14, sleeping on subways around his home of Brooklyn. That same year also marked a new chapter in his life, when his sister brought him to a James Brown concert at the Apollo Theater—an experience so eye-opening, he explained to the Chicago Tribune, that it “showed me what I wanted to be.”
The performance proved to be such an inspiration that Bradley worked on and off as a James Brown impersonator for much of his life, eventually using the moniker “Black Velvet” in clubs around New York. He was a chef at a Maine hospital for ten years, crisscrossed the country working odd jobs, and eventually landed back with his mother in Brooklyn in 1994—where he suffered an allergic reaction to the penicillin he was given for a prior illness that left him on the verge of death. In Soul of America, the 2012 documentary chronicling Bradley’s rise to fame, he credits his brother Joseph for helping him push through his illness. Bradley said that he “had given up totally” before his brother begged him to fight, and to follow his musical dreams. “Joe was like a father and a brother,” Bradley said. “He was a beautiful brother.”
Tragically, shortly after his recovery, Bradley woke up to awful news—Joseph, 48, had been murdered in a robbery, by one of Bradley’s nephews. Bradley memorialized this incident, and his brother, on “Heartaches and Pain,” off of his debut album, singing: “I woke up this morning/My momma she was crying/So I looked out the window/Police lights was flashing.” Bradley goes on to detail the incident in searing, descriptive language, with the swinging horns of the Menahan Street band behind him.
Bradley finally caught his musical break in 2002, when Gabriel Roth—founder of the soul-revival label Daptone Records—saw Bradley performing as “Black Velvet” at a New York club. Roth, in turn, introduced Bradley to Thomas Brenneck, a guitarist and producer on the label, a man who is easily young enough to be Bradley’s son. The Bradley-Brenneck collaboration has proved extremely fruitful, with the two working together to write nearly every song in Bradley’s catalogue, even though their songs took nearly a decade to be released. Of Bradley, Brenneck says: “Charles has the craziest stories. So as a songwriter, I just sit around and hear Charles tell these stories and say, ‘we gotta write a song about that!’... We’re always trying to translate his stories into songs.”
Charles Bradley’s story would be incomplete without Sharon Jones, his longtime friend and labelmate on Daptone. Like Bradley, Jones found success at a later age, after a long and winding career that included two years as a Rikers Island corrections officer. Like Bradley, Jones helped to usher in a soul and funk revival, bringing her boisterous voice and personality to music that had previously been out of style. And, like Bradley, Jones has unfortunately passed away this past year due to cancer.
In 2011, Bradley opened for Jones’s band, the Dap Kings, to rave reviews. His live shows soon became legendary, with Bradley commanding the stage with the swagger of someone a third of his age - and earning his nickname, “The Screaming Eagle of Soul.” Bradley performed in elaborate, extravagant jumpsuits, commanding his band, shaking and swinging like James Brown in his prime. Through his songs about pain and struggle, the common theme at all of his shows is love; Bradley constantly embraced his audience with cries of “I love you! I love you!”
It would be a disservice to Bradley, and his immense talent, to claim that he wouldn’t have been able to succeed without the struggles he went through. But Bradley acknowledged that his age gave a sense of urgency to his career: “I want it, and I ain’t gonna let it go.” Each time he performed, it was clear that he put his whole self into the music—not just putting his past behind him, but channeling it into a raw power and emotion that is almost unparalleled. At the same time, the singer always seemed acutely aware of his mortality. In Soul of America, Bradley, through tears, expressed how long his life has felt: “How much more can one give before they find love on the planet? How much more can you give? I say, ‘Father, At the time and the hour you want me, I’m ready to go.’”
In the same documentary, one particularly poignant scene shows Bradley, jubilant, speaking with Jones after a successful show on their first tour together. “If I don’t see you at the top, I will see you in heaven,” Bradley says, after thanking Jones for her friendship and love. Jones, while younger, responds with the confidence of someone who has been selling out shows for more than a decade: “Oh, you’re gonna see me. You’re gonna see me at the top!” And then, after a pause: “You’re gonna see me in heaven. And you’ll see me while we’re down here too.”