Fame came late to the soul singer Charles Bradley, who died on Saturday of cancer aged 68. He did not record his first single until 2002, and made his debut album only in 2011. Nonetheless he seized his opportunity, and in the last years of his life was able to build a devoted audience while basking in belated critical acclaim.
“If I’d gotten that break when I was 25, the world wouldn’t have known what to do with me,” he said in 2014. “I know so much more now and I know how to deal with things better. I can dig into a lot of my memories. I can do things I was afraid to do before.”
Bradley's first album, No Time for Dreaming (2011), on Daptone Records, sounded like a throwback to the classic soulmen of the 1960s and 1970s, but his impassioned delivery and ability to embody the torrid emotions he was singing about rendered the music timeless. Most of the songs were newly written by Bradley and his bandleader and producer, Tom Brenneck.
The opening track, The World (Is Going Up in Flames), was as stark and raw as anything by Sam Cooke or Bradley's idol, James Brown, and the track received a boost in the UK when it was featured in Channel 4's Hackney gangland drama Top Boy (other Bradley tracks have subsequently been used in TV shows such as Suits and Ray Donovan). Rolling Stone magazine made No Time for Dreaming one of their 50 Best Albums of the Year.
Bradley released two further albums, Victim of Love (2013) and Changes (2016). Once again the Bradley/Brenneck partnership had written most of the material. Brenneck had discovered that the best way to tap into the singer’s creativity was to play a guitar riff with a drumbeat and then get Bradley to tell stories about his painful and star-crossed life over the top of it.
“You have to tape it right then and there, because that’s when it comes out natural,” Bradley observed. “When I have the blues and I have things bothering me deeply, that’s the best time to write a song.”
In 2012, Bradley’s story was told in Poull Brien’s documentary film Charles Bradley: Soul of America, Brien having met the singer when he directed the video for The World (Is Going Up in Flames). Brien realised that Bradley’s life story was something a fiction writer would barely have dared to invent.
Born in Gainesville, Florida, Bradley was raised by his maternal grandmother until he was eight, when he moved to Brooklyn, New York, to rejoin his mother, Inez, who had left him when he was eight months old, and his older brother, Joseph. He never met his father.
At 14 Bradley left his mother’s home, where he had only a basement to sleep in – “I was afraid that she was going to hurt me,” he said in Brien’s film – and for a time survived by sleeping on subway trains or sheltering in old cars. But at about the same time, in 1962, his sister took him to a James Brown concert at the Apollo theatre in Harlem, and this proved to be a pivotal moment in the boy’s life. “When I first saw him, it was like the resurrection,” said Bradley. “I’d seen entertainers, but nothing like James Brown on stage.”
Bradley practised Brown-style microphone moves using a broom with string attached, but was initially shy about performing in front of an audience. He finally managed it when he was 18 and working at the Jobs Corp, a government training centre, in Maine, when his workmates persuaded him to sing in the girls’ dormitory. Fortified with gin, he thrilled the crowd with a James Brown impersonation.
For 10 years Bradley worked as a chef at a Maine hospital, then in 1977 decided to travel across North America. He arrived in California via Canada, Alaska and Seattle. For nearly two decades he took a variety of jobs while picking up extra money doing his James Brown performances, where he used such stage names as the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Black Velvet and even James Brown Jr. In 1994 he moved back to Brooklyn after receiving a call from his mother (“She said, ‘Son, give me a chance to know you. Come back home’.”)
In New York he struggled to shake off a fever, then almost died in hospital when he was treated with penicillin, to which he was allergic. “I had a fever of 104.7F [40.4 degrees Celsius],” he remembered. “They put ice all over my body to break the fever. They would stick this big needle in my back four times a day.”
Even worse followed when his brother was shot and killed by one of Bradley’s nephews. Bradley remained haunted by the sight of Joseph’s murdered body, but also recalled his brother telling him to “follow your dreams” and pursue a musical career. The song Heartaches and Pain, from No Time for Dreaming, is a vivid depiction of Joseph’s death.
Bradley had been persevering with his James Brown shows in New York as Black Velvet, but when he heard that another New York club singer, Sharon Jones, had been enjoying some success with Daptone Records, Bradley approached the label. After some unsuccessful recording attempts, the label paired Bradley with Brenneck, who was the songwriter and guitarist for the Bullets and then later with the Menahan Street Band, who would become Bradley’s regular accompanists. His first single release was Take It As It Come, Pts 1 and 2 (2002), and he released several more singles over the next few years, which would reappear on his debut album.
His second, critically acclaimed album, Victim of Love, sealed Bradley’s reputation, and spawned the hit Strictly Reserved for You. The third and final long-player, Changes, took its title from a cover of the 1972 Black Sabbath song, the lyrics of which struck a chord with Bradley following his mother’s recent death.
He performed many times in Ireland, including at the Body & Soul festival and The Sugar Club concert venue in Dublin. He appeared at leading festivals such as Coachella, Lollapalooza and, in 2014, Glastonbury as part of the Daptone Super Soul Revue alongside Jones.
Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2016. He had apparently recovered and returned to touring, but the cancer then spread to his liver. – (Guardian Service)