Music

Daptone Posthumously Releases Charles Bradley's 'Black Velvet'

Photo: Isaac Sterling / Courtesy of the artist

One more time for the Screaming Eagle of Soul. Charles Bradley's Black Velvet stands tall as a significant addition to his oeuvre.

Black Velvet
Charles Bradley

Daptone

9 November 2018

Charles Bradley used to call himself "Black Velvet", "The Screaming Eagle of Soul", and even "James Brown Jr." during the early part of his career when he fronted a James Brown cover band. He convincingly evoked the Hardest Working Man in Show Business through his sweaty, throaty interpretations of the man and his music. Bradley was "discovered" by Daptone Records in 2011 and put out three wonderful albums beginning in 2011. He died of cancer last year at age 69, but Daptone has found nine finished tracks (some were B-sides of singles) that never made it on an album, added an instrumental track written in his honor, and released the disc Black Velvet for his fans.

Bradley sang with passion and muscle. He could take a song, like Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and turn the sunny California ode into a soulful powerhouse where the search for a better life had connotations of Biblical proportions. The gospel-tinged ache in his throat suggested Bradley was not messing around. He was looking for God, love, and a reason for existence and wouldn't settle for just getting old.

The roots of rock in rhythm and blues are well known. Bradley turned the conventional process around by downplaying the pop elements and showcasing rock music's roots. That is true of his self-penned songs like "Fly Little Girl", "Can't Fight the Feeling", "I Feel a Change", that contain latent elements of past radio hits but more overtly suggest 45s at a juke joint in the black part of town. When he sang about desire, as on "Luv Jones", he convincingly sounded like someone caught up in deep emotions.

It was also true of his cover versions. Here he turned Nirvana's "Stay Away" into something more raw and earthy than the Seattle band over did. Lines like "Give an inch / take a smile" come off as something much more invidious than on the original, which is appropriate for a song whose title makes it clear that the other person is not wanted. When Bradley got hold of a lyric, he took it all the way there without irony.

That drew him to some strange places. He crooned "(I Hope You Find) The Good Life" by invoking the lyrics of the old Carole King/Gerry Goffin composition "Go Away Little Girl", best known by teen idols and adult crooners like Bobby Vee, Steve Lawrence, and Donny Osmond, and recited them over a drum machine beat. But the weirdness didn't stop there. Before the song was over Bradley launched into Barbara Streisand's hit "The Way We Were" with its maudlin opening lyrics, "Memories light the corners of my mind / Misty water-colored memories of the way we were." There would seem to no song less soulful than this, but Bradley makes it sad and affecting.

Bradley's presence is sorely missed. He was a dynamite live performer who gave everything he had to every show. His three studio albums revealed his commanding vocal talents. The fourth and last is less than 40 minutes long yet stands tall as a significant addition to his oeuvre.

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