The night of January 25th, 2011 saw the Southpaw venue in Brooklyn become host to one of the most unadulterated and authentic voices to channel deep and meaningful soul into the New York music scene. Many there would only be attending after meeting the star of the night earlier that day hastily handing out flyers, but for Charles Bradley, it had been sixty two years in the making.
Born in Gainesville, Florida in 1948, life’s trials and tribulations decided to become a regular feature of Bradley’s existence from the onset. When he was merely eight months old his mother Inez abruptly departed, leaving him with his maternal grandmother. Upon her return eight years later, a young Charles did not recognise the same woman who abandoned him as his parent. Nevertheless, he was taken from his lifelong home to live with her and his brother Joseph in New York. It was not to be a happy family reunion.
At the age of fourteen, Bradley had to escape a venomous reality, unable to share an occupation with his mother. A humble yet content childhood had been cruelly twisted, and the six years he had spent away from his first home had not been kind. The short years he had been allowed to enjoy in Gainesville were replaced with the cold and unwelcoming touch that Brooklyn had to offer. His bedroom in the basement of Inez Bradley’s home was replaced by subway trains and abandoned cars when he left. A lack of warmth seemed to be the running theme in Bradley’s adolescence. It was a meagre and discordant life on the streets, but one that seemed better than living in fear of the one who should have cared for him most.
Bradley’s impact in the musical world was to be enormous but likely would not have happened if not for a trip to the Apollo Theatre in 1962. James Brown was a performer like no other at the time, and it was the so-called “Godfather of Soul” who tempted Bradley into a life on stage. “When I first saw him, it was like the resurrection. I’d seen entertainers, but nothing like James Brown.” It was not until four years later, influenced by gin while training as a chef at a Jobs Corp, that he wowed his audience (the girls dormitory) with an outstanding impersonation of the man who inspired him to bare his soul to the world.
Emboldened by his success, Bradley formed a band with co-workers and enjoyed a string of shows, but his fellow musicians were to be drafted for the Vietnam War before any momentum could begin to mount. Instead, he spent the next ten years cooking in a Maine hospital before embarking on his travels around North America in 1977. For close to two decades he took various jobs where he could, moonlighting as the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Black Velvet and James Brown Jr. Bradley made a name for himself in small circles, traversing through Canada, Alaska and Seattle, eventually settling in California. A desperate plea from his mother asking him to return home in order to repair their relationship called him back to a ruthless city in 1996.
New York appeared as merciless to Bradley on his return as it did in his adolescence. Despite somewhat restoring his relationship with his mother and strengthening the bond with his brother Joseph, he was racked with fever and almost died after allergic reactions to penicillin. “I had a fever of 104.7F” he recalled, “they put ice all over my body to break the fever. They would stick this big needle in my back four times a day.” Joseph was shot not long afterwards by one of Bradley’s nephews. The depression that inevitably followed would have been irreversible if he had not been told by his brother to pursue his dreams.
The rhythm and deep feeling that resonated throughout James Brown’s music appealed to one particular man as it did to a certain fourteen-year-old kid in the Apollo Theatre. Gabriel Roth spent the bulk of his teen years in a Californian dormitory room delving through the late entertainer’s eclectic and obscure collection, from ‘Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs’ to ‘Gettin Down On It’. Fifteen years on he was the co-owner of Daptone Records, one of Brooklyn’s humble record labels. A honed bass player, songwriter and producer, Roth created a band called The Dap Kings, fronted by legendary soul icon Sharon Jones, who had been a regular club performer in similar circles to Bradley at the time. Her thriving partnership with Roth led to the meeting of two genius musical minds.
Roth was impressed by Bradley’s raw and powerful vocals, but his transition from Black Velvet into a recording artist with Daptone was not a smooth one. His performances mimicking Brown’s actions, gyrations and lyrics came naturally. Considering he had utilised these skills since he was eighteen, they were instantly accessible to his repertoire. Now it was to be expected that Charles Bradley, not a club impersonator, step forward and announce himself to the world. It took a number of unsuccessful attempts before the right man was found to unlock what Bradley needed to channel his sorrows, dreams and hopes to the world through a microphone; thankfully, Roth had Tom Brenneck, another producer, songwriter and guitarist, at his disposal to liberate Bradley’s extraordinary talent.
The collaboration between the pair proved to be momentous for Bradley’s career. A man of extraordinary accomplishments, Brenneck had already worked with Amy Winehouse on the record “Back to Black” as well as artists such as Rufus Wainwright, St. Vincent and label-mates Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. His relationship with Bradley, however, would be like none of his previous. Brenneck spoke to Aly Comingore in 2012 about the first time he and Bradley crossed paths. “The story goes that Charles knocked on Gabe’s door one day and said, “I heard you’re looking for a singer!”, [so] Gabe brought Charles out to our rehearsal spot in Staten Island and that was the first time I ever met him. It was a trip – Charles was the real deal”. Once their partnership had been established, Bradley would create lyrics through his stories whilst the Menahan Street Band, the session players of which Brenneck was the lead guitarist, played riffs accompanied by a drum beat. Their relationship became a thriving one, releasing a number of 45s before, on the 25th of January 2011, Bradley’s debut LP “No Time for Dreaming” was released, and Bradley delivered a pure and emotional performance in a sell-out show at Southpaw in Brooklyn at the age of sixty-two.
His dream had been finally been realised in what Brenneck saw as an agony-ladened record. Hidden away in the depths of the album is a song called “Heartaches and Pain”, a heart-rending dedication to his lost brother. It’s a personal favourite because it portrays the hurt and tragedy that Bradley had to experience in order to become the person he did. If there was a piece of music that truly grasped the idea behind No Time for Dreaming, it was that.
“Victim of Love” followed as a sophomore effort two years later. Its message seemed to be of lighter sentiment in comparison to its dark predecessor. The closing track fittingly has the opening lyrics “I thank you / for helping me through the storm” as an ode to the support of his fans, of whom he held in the highest regard at every show he performed.
“Changes”, Bradley’s third album, was released in 2016. Its title track, a cover of the same Black Sabbath song, was a dedication to his late mother. The effect his session players (The Menahan Street Band and touring group The Extraordinaries) have is somewhat dampened – Bradley’s voice takes over and carries the record home through his raspy, heavy and authentic sound. At sixty-seven years of age, the Screaming Eagle of Soul soared.
It proved to be Bradley’s last musical contribution to the world. A diagnosis of stomach cancer last year proved to be the beginning of the end for one of soul’s finest artists. In a battle that typified Charles Bradley as a man, he would go on to recover and return to perform before the sickness spread to his liver. Two weeks after cancelling the rest of his tour dates for this year due to ill health, Bradley passed away.
It’s been just over a month since I discovered the news that one of my personal heroes had departed the world. My introduction to a man who would go on to be one of my idols and most cherished figures was altogether ordinary – a hat tip to the legal drama Suits, who featured his music in the show from the beginning of the series. The love, hurt, pain and anguish you experience when listening to a Charles Bradley record is like no other. The man who put him on the path to success, Gabriel Roth, spoke to Rolling Stone about his impact in the world. “He had a certain humanity to him; a certain empathy and a sense of love being in this [life] together as humans, and somehow suffering together being easier than suffering apart. He had one speed, and it was sincerity.” Amanda Petrusich, a New Yorker journalist, fully appreciated how and why Bradley’s vocals were truly unique: “My sense is that we were getting all of Bradley, unmitigated and pure. He didn’t have the time or patience to mess around.”
In truth, the sensational art of one of the most revered musicians in soul will never be conveyed to its full capacity through word alone. Purchase an album, close your eyes and experience the Screaming Eagle of Soul. The world deserves to know Charles Bradley’s name forevermore.