“Before you leave tonight, I’m gonna put on a show for you… you deserve it.”
The success of Charles Bradley has been a delight to witness. In part, this is because of his incredible, yet often tragic, life story. Born in Florida, the young Charles was left with his grandmother for the first eight years of his life, before moving to New York to live with his mother. He would run away from home, enlisting in the Job Corps and training as a chef. During this time he was told he looked like James Brown and developed a show in tribute of the Godfather of Soul, and for the next few decades after leaving the Jobs Corps, lived across America doing small gigs and small jobs to stay alive.
Then in 1994 Bradley got sick, and his mother invited him to come back to New York and live with her. But he recuperated, despite being near the end, and fought back to full health. He turned to music, and developed his James Brown tribute further going under the name ‘Black Velvet’. Fortunately for Bradley, he was spotted by Gabe Roth of the soul revival label Daptone, and was signed to the label, recording his debut album at the age of 67. Fortunately for us, this was captured on film on Bradley’s life, appropriately titled ‘Soul of America’, which shows us amongst other things, Bradley caring for his elderly mother, his financial struggles, and in one touching moment, him trying to better himself by learning to read and write.
Fast-forward to now and Bradley’s life has been transformed for the better: this week he performed a to a sell-out crowd at London’s O2 Forum in Kentish Town in support of his latest album Changes. Backed by a stellar seven-piece band, Bradley delivered one hell of a funky set, packed with gritty soul, fantastic dance-moves, and a whole lot of love.
Taking to the stage decked out in a dazzlingly white suit and black embroidered waistcoat, Bradley dipped into his James Brown bag of dance moves, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy, before throwing the microphone one way, diving the other, and somehow catching the microphone to let rip an almighty soulful scream. They don’t call Charles Bradley the ‘Screamin’ Eagle of Soul’ for nothing. And while Bradley is still the man who performed as James Brown, he’s now his own man, and has found his own style, and the people of London loved it.
Bradley opened the set with ‘Heartaches & Pain’, taken from his debut album No Time For Dreaming, a brilliantly sad, yet awfully sad, that tells the story of Bradley finding out his brother had been shot and killed. Both Bradley and the band hit the groove straight from the start, hitting that retro-soul that Daptone has pioneered in the past decade or so. Bradley also performed a stunning rendition of the equally sad ‘How Long’, also from his debut album.
A blistering half an hour later of gritty soul, and after a fabulous rendition of the joyful ‘You Put The Flame On Me’, Bradley left the stage, leaving his musicians to perform a couple of incredibly funky instrumentals, dipping into soul of all genres, getting those down below dancing despite the heat of the Forum. Before long Bradley was back with a new outfit, this time black and gold, and launched into the first single from his debut, the brilliant ‘The World Is Going Up In Flames’. The second set also included new songs from his recently released album Changes, the title track, plus the hard-hitting soul of ‘Change For The World’, and the delightful funk of ‘Ain’t It A Sin‘. The band really dug deep, and the horn duo on sax and trumpet really excelled.
It was clear that Bradley was enjoying himself, and told the crowd as much on several occasions throughout the night, telling us that he loved us deeply. And it showed. And the London crowd loved him back. Bradley looked as if he was about to burst into tears on stage, as the crowd cheered and those of us in the balcony stood and applauded.
At the age of 67, after five decades of struggling through life, Charles Bradley has finally made it. He’s lifted himself out of the ghetto; it might have taken almost sixty years, but he did it. He’s lived in the projects of New York; now he’s on top of the world as one of the finest soul singers and performers on the scene. No man deserves it more.