The world lost not only a truly talented musician over the weekend, but a truly beautiful soul as well. Charles Bradley, the former James Brown impersonator turned “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” lost his year-long battle with cancer on Saturday, leaving behind a legacy of love and revival, and a lifetime of pain and perseverance.
Bradley hadn’t heard much about James Brown before his sister took him to a show at the Apollo Theater in 1962, when Bradley was just 14. The experience was transformative in Bradley’s life, making an impression on him that he work for the rest of his life to actualize. In his own words, “When they called James Brown onstage, I’ll never forget they had this purple light and yellow light – my two favorite colors. And when they introduced him, he came flying on the stage on one leg and I said, ‘What in the hell is this?’ [Laughs] And I was mesmerized. I was just gone. I was just shocked. Shocked. I said, ‘Wow. I wanna be something like that.”
He spent the next five years practicing his Brown in private, taking on the persona Black Velvet as he practiced the singer’s bombastic mic swings, cape deftness, and all the flyin’ and dyin’ Brown brought to his onstage performances. Bradley performed his first Black Velvet show in 1967. As the story goes, Bradley was so nervous his friend snuck in a bottle of gin, and the fire was lit. “I said, ‘Give me that mic!’…I ain’t never stopped yet!”
Bradley traveled to Maine and eventually settled in California, finding sporadic shows, but never finding any real success. After being laid off from his job of 17 years, Bradley returned to Brooklyn to take care of his dying and estranged mother Inez.
While caring for her, Bradley nearly died from an unknown penicillin allergy. After he recovered, his brother Joseph encouraged him to take his life back in his own hands and live it his way, the music way. Shortly afterwards, Joseph was robbed and murdered by one of Bradley’s nephews. The 2011 song “Heartaches and Pain,” is about the tragedy.
Following his brother’s advice, he revisited his dream of music success, carving out a name for himself around New York incorporating self-made costumes into his performances all the while working as a handyman to keep the lights on. Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth showed up to one of these performances and was so impressed, he introduced Bradley to label producer-musician Tom Brenneck, who went on to produce all three of Bradley’s albums, telling Rolling Stone, “I’ll carry that man in my heart for the rest of my life.”
After a string of singles, Bradley’s debut album No Time for Dreaming was released in 2011 at the age of 62; an album Rolling Stone named one of the top 50 of the year. Bradley continued to win over the hearts and blow the minds of listeners with his two follow-up albums 2013’s Victim of Love and last years Changes. When seen live, he had audiences wrapped in his heartstrings, evoking the loudest silences and energies as he deftly transitioned between ballads and full-throated powerhouses.
Last year Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer, forcing Bradley to cancel the rest of his tour, saying “I will fight this like I’ve fought every other obstacle.” On his passing, Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth said, “The world lost a ton of heart today,” …Charles was somehow one of the meekest and strongest people I’ve ever known. His pain was a cry for universal love and humanity. His soulful moans and screams will echo forever on records and in the ears and hearts of those who were fortunate enough to share time with him. “
Just a few weeks ago, doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized to Bradley’s liver, forcing him to once again cancel the remainder of his current tour to undergo another round of treatment. During his last days, when Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth told Bradley his music will continue to inspire love and music for generations, Bradley responded simply by saying, “I tried.” Charles Bradley was 68.