The Courage of the Soul Singer Charles Bradley
The soul singer Charles Bradley died on Saturday morning, in Brooklyn. He was sixty-eight. Last year, Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but he continued to perform until just a few weeks ago, when it was finally suggested to him that he cancel the remaining dates of an international tour. Bradley shared the news with regret and optimism. “I love all of you out there that made my dreams come true,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “When I come back, I’ll come back strong, with God’s love.”
Bradley was born in 1948 in Gainesville, Florida. His mother split when he was a baby, and his grandmother raised him until he was eight—that’s when his mother returned, to collect Bradley and bring him to New York City. Their reunion was not harmonious. Stories of Bradley’s adolescence in Brooklyn are bleak: he ran away, he slept on subway cars, he begged, he scavenged for food. At the time, these desperate acts felt inevitable; he could either flee and try to make it work on the street, or he could face worse at home. “I was afraid that she was going to hurt me, so I left,” he explained in the documentary “Charles Bradley: Soul of America,” from 2012. “We couldn’t see eye to eye and I was getting blamed for everything, so I was very bitter.”
In 1962, when he was fourteen, his sister took him to the Apollo to see James Brown. Like almost everyone who encountered Brown in the nineteen-sixties, Bradley was a different kind of person afterward. “When they introduced him, he came flying on the stage on one leg and I said, What in the hell is this?” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. The question still feels reasonable. Brown’s “Live at the Apollo,” released the following year, is so incendiary—so hilarious and wicked—that it rearranged everything. For young performers, there was suddenly a new sense of what was possible.
Bradley internalized that challenge. By 1967, he was working as a Brown impersonator named Black Velvet. He’d mix ribbons of gin into a bottle of 7 UP and get either brazen or agitated enough to sprint onstage, shirtless, or maybe in a white sequinned cape. Brown occasionally whacked his microphone stand over, only to reach down and right it at the last possible moment, a swoop so fluid and triumphant that crowds reliably went nuts. Bradley practiced his own version of the move, using a broom tied to a length of string. There’s something hugely bolstering about Bradley’s iteration of Brown’s save; even when you think his eyes and mind are elsewhere, he’s still on it. Every fall is interrupted—every collapse, redressed. To count on rescue is what I take away from it. What a beautiful idea.
Bradley eventually took a job as a cook at a hospital for the mentally ill in Maine, where he worked for a decade. In 1977, he became itinerant again, travelling the country, taking odd jobs and playing periodic gigs, until 1994, when he returned to New York and his mother. They moved in together again. Things didn’t get any easier. His nephew killed his brother. He nearly died from an allergic reaction to penicillin.
In 2001, Bradley was introduced to Gabriel Roth, a co-founder of Daptone Records. Roth took him to the producer Tom Brenneck, then the songwriter and guitarist for the Bullets (later the Menahan Street Band); Brenneck and Bradley began collaborating, messing around in the studio. Bradley invented lyrics as he sang. They recorded a handful of 45s for Daptone. Then, in 2011, at age sixty-two, Bradley released his début LP, “No Time for Dreaming.” Two more records would follow: “Victim of Love,” in 2013, and “Changes,” in 2016.
What does it mean to come into an audience at that age? Bradley had been singing since he was a teen-ager, but it was surely a different feeling to suddenly have his face featured on the cover of an album, to perform on television, to sell out clubs. The hope, I think, is that we get a little less guarded or self-conscious as we age. You begin to see the beauty in being honest about your particular idiosyncrasies, or at least come to recognize the futility of bucking against them. My sense is that we were getting all of Bradley, unmitigated and pure. He didn’t have the time or patience to mess around.
At some point, Bradley was given a nickname, the Screaming Eagle of Soul, which suits him. There’s something indelicate about his voice. It’s not sweet or teasing, like Otis Redding or Al Green, but tough, raspy, and terrifically dense. He lands on each note squarely, like a person slowly and deliberately climbing a staircase. There’s the melody, which is delivered with precision, and then there are his shrieks, which are often so guttural as to feel unreal, animalistic. I’ve often wondered if Bradley simply endured the verses to get to the end—to the moment at which he could dissolve. Roth, who also championed the soul singer Sharon Jones (like Bradley, she released her début late in life, at forty, and also died of cancer, in 2016), seems instinctively attracted to these sorts of voices. (Anyone who believes she has a record collection that showcases unapologetic vocalists would do well to dip deeper into the Daptone catalogue.)
It’s temping to read narratives of heartache and loss as generative for artists, and to presume that our best singers are capable of metabolizing pain—of transforming it, via some mysterious alchemy, into something different. This is a dangerous reading. Compelling art doesn’t hinge on grief, and fury can devastate a person, rendering him callous, remote. But sometimes it’s also plainly true that the anguish sparks the work. In interviews, Bradley was frank about how his losses fed his music. He admitted it all the time. When he sang, he often winced, as if recalling some past slight. I remain struck by the immediacy of that ache—how close to the surface it all seemed.
In 2016, Bradley recorded a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” from 1972. “I feel unhappy, I feel so sad,” the song opens. It’s a lament: How does a person reckon with regret, and the ways in which such feelings transform us? About four minutes in, Bradley’s voice fractures in a way that feels uncharacteristic: “It took so long / to realize / I can still hear her / last goodbye.” I’m certain that some specific memory comes back to him during the “I can still hear her” part, though of course it’s impossible to say precisely what or whom he was thinking of. What’s remarkable to me is that whatever it was remained accessible to him. To survive what Bradley survived, yet to nonetheless resist the urge to suffocate it—and instead to excavate it, draw it out—requires extraordinary courage. Which is merely to say: Charles Bradley, you already came back strong.