A few days before his debut album came out, soul singer Charles Bradley got a call from a friend and band-mate who told him that the New York Post had carried a story on him that morning. Excited, Bradley rushed out of his modest housing project apartment in Brooklyn to a nearby kiosk to get a copy of the newspaper. The first kiosk he went to didn’t have the Post but he finally got one at the next. After flipping open the paper and seeing the story and his photograph, Bradley was so elated that he stopped strangers on the street to show it to them and then, in a gesture of gratitude, he knelt down on the sidewalk. It was 2011, Bradley was 62 and after years of struggle he was about to begin a proper career in music. When his debut album, No Time For Dreaming, came out, it sold briskly, got rave reviews and Rolling Stone magazine listed it among the 50 best albums of the year. For an unknown musician, this was a feat. For someone who was at an age when careers often start to plateau, decline, or even end, it was a miracle.
That debut album was indeed the beginning of a career for the soul and R&B singer of whom very few had heard of but it lasted for all of six years. In 2017, Bradley’s late-blooming career ended when he died of stomach cancer, leaving us with just three studio albums, including the debut release. Till now. Late last year, the independent soul and R&B label, Daptone Records, known for discovering and releasing yet another great late-blooming soul singer, the late Sharon Jones, posthumously released a fourth album by Bradley, Black Velvet. That title is significant because for decades before he came into his own with the release of his first album, Bradley made a living by, among other things, impersonating the late great king of soul, James Brown, performing his songs in small nightclubs under the name Black Velvet. So authentic was his James Brown act that Bradley would be recognized in the streets as Black Velvet or, sometimes, James Brown Jr.
The anecdote about Bradley being overwhelmed by his photo and small story in the Post is from a documentary (available on YouTube but perhaps not officially) on him titled, Charles Bradley: Soul Of America. His was a life of acute struggle and sadness. Abandoned by his mother when he was eight months, Bradley later was reunited with her but ran away from home at 14, often sleeping in New York’s subway trains and streets. Eventually, he found a job as a cook and on the side did those James Brown impersonations. Till he showed up at Daptone in his 60s and got a chance to record his own songs with a great band that the recording company helped him access. All this and more is documented in the touching biopic, directed by Poull Brien, and premiered at festivals such as South by Southwest and Tribeca.
Soul music, a form that originated in the African-American community, melds jazz, blues, and R&B, and is often described as one of the most intimate, emotional, and heartfelt genres of contemporary musical styles. Those phrases don’t even begin to describe the way Bradley sang soul. On Black Velvet, there is a song titled Stay Away. Yes, die-hard Nirvana fans would be quick to have guessed it right. It’s an anguished Kurt Cobain track that features on Nevermind and on which Cobain repeatedly shouts “God is gay". Bradley’s deeply emotional version of it is hardly recognizable as the original Nirvana song but, as with many of his songs, you can feel the hairs of your arm stand up when he sings it. Bradley covered quite a few other well-known rock tunes. On Black Velvet you can hear his version of Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold, and the last album that he released before he died is titled Changes, after one of the songs on it—a cover of Black Sabbath’s song by the same name, a version that even Ozzy Osbourne was said to have been moved by.
But it is his originals, with lyrics often written off the cuff as he rehearsed with his band, which stand out. Black Velvet has several of these. I Feel A Change is probably the one that showcases Bradley’s powerful ability to infuse emotions into his songs and connect with his audiences. Bradley never allowed his struggles—with poverty, with family tragedies, and life in general—to tinge his songs with self-pity. Yet his honest, heart-felt vocals nearly always transmitted the inner hurt that he obviously felt. Much credit goes also to Bradley’s band, the Brooklyn-based Menahan Street Band, led by guitarist Thomas Brenneck, which elevated his compositions to what are surely among the best of contemporary soul music.
Bradley was immensely influenced by James Brown, of course, but also by other soul greats of the past, such as Otis Redding. His vocals—raspy but powerful and uninhibited-—earned him the nickname, “Screaming Eagle of Soul", and his live concerts (if you watch video recordings or the biopic) will show you why. Black Velvet is actually a collection of Bradley’s songs—some of them unreleased takes, others a different version of previously released ones—but it sounds like a complete album. Older soul music fans will love it but it is also a great gateway to step through for relative newbies to the genre before they start exploring Bradley’s short but rich previous discography.
The Lounge List
Five tracks by Charles Bradley to bookend this week
1. ‘I Feel A Change’ from ‘Black Velvet’
2. ‘Stay Away’ from ‘Black Velvet’
3. ‘Changes’ from ‘Changes’
4. ‘The World (Is Going Up In Flames)’ from ‘No Time For Dreaming’
5. ‘Hurricane’ from ‘Victim Of Love’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.