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Charles Bradley | Rolling Stone
Charles Bradley | Rolling Stone

Charles Bradley: The Soul Sensation Who Found Fame In His Sixties

Picture of Hannah Robathan
Updated: 1 September 2016
Aptly nicknamed ‘The Screaming Eagle of Soul’, Charles Bradley’s singing is just that: an impassioned cry wrenched straight from his spirit, which – in his meteoric rise to musical fame – has ceaselessly moved those lucky enough to see him perform in person. We can vouch for it – this writer had the fortune of witnessing his headlining performance at the WOMAD festival with his band The Extraordinaires, sparking a further touching encounter at the autograph table and revealing a man whose soft demeanour is seemingly at odds with his public persona. 

‘It’s for my friend Lottie, spelt L-O-T-T-I-E,’ she explained eagerly as she handed her vinyl over to Charles Bradley.

He picks up his Sharpie and slowly begins to write, struggling over each letter, a man by his side gently aiding him in his process. ‘No, next is a T…you’ve done the L and the O, look; now you have two Ts…no, two…yes, that’s it.’ It became apparent that this man, whose astonishing vocals convey so much meaning through their raw and emotional lyrics, was barely literate. Charles Bradley has never been to school; in fact, he has had no ordinary life at all. Only releasing his first solo album in 2011 at the age of 62, his life leading up to recent success has been one full of hardships, sorrow, and strife.

Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires | Peta Azak / Flickr

Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires | © Peta Azak/Flickr

A Rough Start

Born in 1948, Bradley was abandoned by his single mother at just 8 months old. He lived with his grandmother and siblings in Florida until he was eight years old, his mother returning and moving him to New York with her. Their relationship was quite complex. Refusing to throw accusations, Bradley explains in Soul of America (the 2012 documentary made about his life) that he and his mother simply ‘didn’t see eye-to-eye.’ In truth, he was scared and lonely, and living in the dark and dirty basement of her Brooklyn apartment.

Fearing that his mother would hurt him, Bradley ran away from home at the age of 14. He lived on the streets for two years, sleeping on subway trains and in a bedroom that he shared with drug addicts who would spend evenings shooting up next to him. He did not use himself, and being offered hard drugs scared him into applying for the Job Corps; he eventually found work at a kitchen in Maine.

Apollo in the Kitchen 

Bradley’s peers in the kitchen would often remark on his resemblance to the founding father of funk music, James Brown. This was no coincidence; in 1962, his sister had taken him to watch Brown perform at The Apollo, and ever since then Bradley had mimicked his mannerisms and his distinctive curled hair. One night, bolstered by the enthusiasm of his peers in the kitchen and the gin that they had sneaked into a 7Up bottle, he sang a few of Brown’s songs. Stunned by his talent, the other kitchen workers encouraged him to perform for a crowd, a moment he mentioned in an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I said, ‘I ain’t goin’ on that stage,’” he laughs, “and this guy Mooney came behind me, gave me a big push and I went running out onstage and everybody went crazy. I ain’t never stopped yet.”

Charles Bradley impersonating James Brown | © The Film Review

Charles Bradley impersonating James Brown | © The Film Reel

Between Two Coasts 

In 1977, Bradley moved to California, where he worked odd jobs and occasionally performed with different bands. In this time, he was slowly reconnecting with his mother, their relationship gradually rebuilding. Some years later, she begged for him to come back to New York and give her a chance to properly get to know him. Recognising that she was getting older and frailer, he realised, ‘it’s not for me to crucify her for what she did in her life. So I came back to New York in 1994.’

Back in New York, Bradley was in and out of hospital, sick with a fever that he could not shake, and simultaneously battling unemployment. Looking after his mother had become a full-time commitment, moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator under the name Black Velvet in Brooklyn bars by night. Three years later, back in the hospital, a doctor administered him with penicillin, not knowing that he was highly allergic. “I was sick as a dog. I was close to death”, he explains. “My body had shut down.” It was his brother Joseph, he explains, who pushed him to keep on fighting. Once out of hospital, Joseph became Bradley’s absolute support system. However, in 2000, tragedy struck yet again. At the age of 48, Joseph was murdered in his own home, leaving Bradley desolate.

From Impersonator To Solo Career 

It wasn’t until 2001 that Bradley, still performing as Black Velvet, was discovered by Gabriel Roth, the co-founder of Daptone Records. Roth then introduced Bradley to Tom Brenneck, his future producer. Bradley went on to perform with Brenneck’s band and make some initial recordings, produced by Daptone, in 2002. While he was able to jump on tours with acts like Sharon Jones, collecting an awestruck fan base as he went along, he failed to secure a headlining spot. So it went until 2011 when he was finally able to release his debut solo album, No Time For Dreaming.

‘I never really made enough money to support myself in music,’ he explains in Soul of America, discussing the days leading up to the debut album release. He speaks from his Brooklyn Housing Project, where he was living with his mother and his pet parrot. He talks about his past and his suffering, and the realisation that, after a whole life devoted to the pursuit of music, this could be his last chance. Captured beautifully in the documentary is his endless enthusiasm and positivity. ‘I’m thinking the sky’s the limit,’ he beams, unaware that this album is about to take the world by storm.

Soul of America has an undeniably happy ending, but we are left with a warning by Roth; a warning that success can be fleeting and that he’s ‘gonna have to sing at a lot more shows, and release a lot more records’ for his fame to continue. Thankfully, Bradley has done just that. The year following the release of his debut album, Bradley performed at 110 shows in 17 countries across three continents. In 2013, his second album, Victim of Love, was perfectly summarised by Josh Stillman in Rolling Stone as ‘a heartfelt soul storm marked by the singer’s intimate familiarity with defeat, despair and, ultimately, triumph.’

Charles Bradley Performing | © Susan Moss

Charles Bradley Performing | © Susan Moss / Shtetl Montreal

In January of 2014, Bradley’s mother died in the apartment he had shared with her for so many years. Despite a tumultuous past blotted with quarrels and estrangement, the pair had become very close in her later years, and her death shook him considerably. He had a concert that night in New York, which Brenneck told him he absolutely did not have to attend. However, too agitated to sit in her apartment and mourn, he went on stage and used music as his outlet of grief. He opened the concert with the song Heartaches and Pain, which he originally wrote about the death of his brother Joseph – it had suddenly gained another level of resonance. ‘I cried like a little baby on stage [after the song],’ he told Rolling Stone. “I turned my back and boy, I just let it out.”

His propensity for channeling real, gritty sorrow into moving music is his raison d’être. On his most recent album, Changes, he covers a Black Sabbath song by the same name. The song is about an ex-lover, and begins with the lyrics:

I feel unhappy
I feel so sad
I lost the best friend
That I ever had

She was my woman
I loved her so
But it’s too late now
I’ve let her go

I’m going through changes

Bradley had never heard the Black Sabbath original, but once he covered it, the song took on a whole new meaning. “I think about the lyrics very closely when I sing ‘Changes’, and I get emotional,” he explained in an official statement. “It makes me think of my mother, and the changes in my life since she passed away.”

Charles Bradley in music video for Changes | Zumic

Charles Bradley in music video for Changes | © Zumic / www.zumic.com

Despite the fact that he has now gained worldwide recognition as a soul sensation, Bradley is still totally overcome by his success. He has the same infectious enthusiasm he had when he first stepped onto a stage and the same humbling, genuine appreciation for his fans.