Looking every inch a soul legend, a lone man stands under a single spotlight at the front of an otherwise dimly lit stage. His eyes are visibly moist as he appears overwhelmed by the whoops of appreciation filling the hall. Clearly touched, he brings both hands to his lips and blows a kiss to the audience. The look on his face suggests he would readily hug and kiss every single person in that room if he could. He regains his composure, steadies himself and moves behind the mic-stand, gripping it tightly in his slightly trembling right hand. There are the familiar four taps on the hi-hat… 1, 2, 3, 4 and then a howling cry of such burning intensity. Of such otherworldly power that the audience stand in open-mouthed amazement, in awe of the voice and the presence of the one and only, the screaming eagle of love, Mr. Charles Bradley. That is how many will remember an artist that leaves the world a far richer place for having had him in it.
The story of Charles Bradley has been told many times and is wonderfully documented in the film Charles Bradley: Soul of America. Suffice to say, life had seemingly conspired against Bradley before he captured the imagination of audiences the world over. He had a tough childhood, being effectively brought up by his grandmother and then moving in with his mother at the age of eight, who he had an often difficult relationship with. At 14 he left home, riding the subway at night in an effort to sleep. As an adult, he had various dead-end jobs, finding himself at the age of 62, living in the projects, struggling to support himself and his aging mother financially. Bradley seemed destined to exist in the shadows of society. A man who harboured one dream that would sadly go unrealised.
Musically, he idolised James Brown and spent years performing as a Brown tribute act called “Black Velvet”. However, Bradley always had ambitions to strike out on his own but, as the years passed, the chances of that appeared more and more remote. That was until at the ripe old age of 62 he finally decided to strike out on his own. As he stated in the opening of that 2012 documentary, “I’ve wanted to be James Brown since I was 14 / Now I want to Be Charles Bradley.”
The odds of Charles Bradley making a success from music couldn’t have been more heavily stacked against him. Firstly, music is a young man’s game. To be 62 and releasing your first album is pretty much unheard of. There was simply no precedent for the journey he was about to embark on. Secondly, Bradley had the added pressure of having to make a great record from the very beginning. His great heroes, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Bobby Womack got the chance to build a career. To slowly lay the foundations for greatness before achieving it. Bradley had to do it from the off. It was literally make or break. If he failed, he would be right back to where he started—his lifelong dream effectively in tatters. As far as he was concerned it was a one-shot deal. What followed has to rate as one of the most remarkable careers in modern musical history.
Joining up with the superb Menahan Street Band, Bradley poured his heart and soul into his debut album, No Time For Dreaming. It was a spellbinding, timeless record, sounding like a lost ‘60s soul classic, frozen in time and thawed out for modern audiences. Slipping from more upbeat soul numbers to hauntingly fragile gospel ballads, Bradley’s voice shone through like a light in the fog. A force of nature that moved from soul-piercing, wailing cries to tender love songs that gently encircled your heart. He sounded, not like an artist making his debut, but a veteran soul legend furthering his legacy. Coupled with the potency of his lyrics, Bradley had succeeded in writing an album for the ages.
Bradley channelled all of those years of frustration, heartache and his unquenchable desire to spread love to the world, into the lyrics of that album. Here was a man carrying wounds from life’s battles but who wasn’t prepared to surrender to them. A man who had clearly reached breaking point more often than he cared to remember but who saw the answers, not in recrimination, but in his ability to give joy and love to others. He wanted the combination of his voice and his lyrics to stir others. To affect them in the way that great lyrics should.
Songs such as “The World Is Going Up in Flames”, “Golden Rule” and “Why Is It So Hard” addressed the issues facing humanity and the struggles faced by the disadvantaged in America. They were sung with all the power and emotion of a man who had faced those same struggles head on. They served as inspiring calls for action, for tolerance and the importance of love. As expected, there were more intensely personal songs on the album. “No Time For Dreaming” directly addressed his need to finally make something of his career. Then there was the most touchingly poignant song on the album, “Heartaches and Pain”. A song about his older brother and his inspiration who was murdered aged 48 in a botched robbery. As expected, it is a heartbreaking ode to his deceased sibling who he attributes his inner resilience to, evident in the painfully honest line, “So my brother said to me / Charles gotta stand tall / Because life is full of sorrow.”
No Time For Dreaming defied expectations to become a worldwide success and saw Bradley gain the attention and acclaim he so richly deserved. From then on, there was no time to waste as Bradley played prestigious slots in festivals across the world, made appearances on prime time television and most importantly brought love and happiness to countless people. From then on, he became the recording artist he always knew he could be. He became Charles Bradley.
That could have so easily been the end of the story. A narrative fit for a polished Hollywood Biopic. However, now that he had finally become Charles Bradley he wasn’t about to let him go. Follow up album Victim of Love saw him evolving further as a songwriter and saw some of the darkness lift from Bradley’s lyrics. The lyrics were still as affecting, but he was clearly challenging himself as an artist, having seemingly exercised many of his demons on No Time For Dreaming.
Final album Changes sounded like his most confident yet. An album that elevated him to become easily the equal of the 60s R&B singers that had inspired him. Similarly, it also found Bradley more at peace with the world and highlighted a man with a resounding love for his country. Opening with the spoken word “God Bless America” and “Good To Be Back” his love for the country he called home shone through. Despite everything he had been through, and all the obstacles and prejudices faced by many of his fellow countrymen in America, he never lost faith in the underlying possibilities and potential that goes with being brought up in America. No one would judge him for being bitter and resentful, but he never was. He had only love in his heart.
Bradley leaves behind three timeless albums that will mean as much in 30 years as they do now. As the finest lyricists do, he wrote about the universal truths that affect every single one of us. His belated success represented the realisation of a dream as well as the importance of perseverance, application, and faith with every album release feeling like a triumph. An artist who had finally found recognition so late in life felt like a victory, not just for him but all of us. A lesson to all of us to keep going. To not lose sight of your hopes and dreams. If he could do it, why couldn’t we?
It may seem strange to say it about a man of 68, but the real sadness comes in the realisation that he was probably cut down in his prime. He had a lifetime of regret and missed opportunities to make up for as well as a seemingly bottomless well of love to give, and he was only halfway started. That said, Bradley still surpassed even his own expectations and finally got to be the artist he always dreamed of being.
He should have been one of the defining voices of his generation, but we were lucky enough to have him as one of ours.
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