We bring the sad news that Charles Bradley – the Screaming Eagle of Soul – has sadly passed away at the game of 68. We take a look back at his career, and pick our top ten Charles Bradley tunes.
Charles Bradley, one of the great soul singers of the modern era, has passed away at 68 after a long battle with cancer. Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2016, which led to the cancellation of several tour dates while he went under treatment. Earlier this year it was revealed he was cancer free and he hit the road again. However, all dates of the tour were cancelled earlier this month as it was revealed the cancer had returned, this time to his liver. At the time, Bradley released a statement saying: “I love all of you out there that made my dreams come true. When I come back, I’ll come back strong, with God’s love. With God’s will, I’ll be back soon.” However, it was not to be.
It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Charles Bradley. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time pic.twitter.com/FFqQ1K1pX5
— Charles Bradley (@Charles_Bradley) September 23, 2017
Life was never easy on Charles Bradley. Born in Florida in 1948, he was abandoned by his mother aged just eight months. Seven years later, his mother reappeared and took him to New York to live. Then, aged 14, he ran away from home. He later joined the Job Corps and trained as a chef in Maine, and it was here he first began his musical journey, performing in a small group. He remained a chef for about a decade, then spend the next two decades living across America, living hand to mouth, for a time homeless, other times working odd jobs and doing some small performances.
In the nineties, Bradley’s mother asked him to come look after her. He would care for his mother until her recent death, forging a close bond (Bradley would later say that “I have no life. My life is [looking after] her”). In New York he would work as a handyman to pay the bills, but he also performed as a James Brown tribute act named ‘Black Velvet’ around the city, earning a reputation as an energetic performer and talented singer. It seemed that Bradley was destined just to be another James Brown tribute act. He then got sick after having a reaction to penicillin, and was nursed back to health with support from his brother, who told Bradley once he was well enough, he should concentrate on music full time. Bradley vowed to do that, but life would rob Bradley of his brother shortly after his illness. Just as Bradley was getting better and beginning to work on his dream of becoming a singer, his brother was shot dead by a family member.
However, Bradley’s local performances had led to his discovery by Daptone Records’s co-founder Gabe Roth. Impressed by his vocal ability and flamboyance on stage, Roth arranged for Bradley to record at Daptone, releasing some singles in 2002. However, the singles didn’t result in much, and Bradley slipped back into his role as ‘Black Velvet’.
Although success was at first not forthcoming, Bradley had developed a friendship with Daptone producer Tom Brenneck, and in 2011 the pair began work on Bradley’s debut album No Time for Dreaming. The album was released to critical acclaim, buoyed by the release of a documentary on Bradley’s life entitled ‘Soul of America’. Bradley’s inspirational story was broadcast around the world, including on BBC4, and it followed Bradley as he began to promote his first album. The film was nominated for an Emmy, and showed Bradley to be an extremely compassionate and loving man. It showed Bradley caring for his mother, living in borderline poverty, opening for his Daptone label mate Sharon Jones, and promoting his the launch of his album release party on his own, passing out leaflets across New York.
No Time for Dreaming established Bradley as a force on the retro-soul scene. His autobiographical and socio-political lyrics made for emotional listening, whilst the Daptone musicians cut out some infectious grooves. Bradley followed up his debut with his Victim of Love album in 2013, an album of mostly love songs, and released his final album Changes just last year.
Charles Bradley unique story is one, to quote one of his lyrics, full of heartache and pain. It seemed that with his new career as a fully fledged recording artist, and an artist revered for his energetic and entertaining live shows, that his life’s fortunes had been reversed. Sadly, Bradley was only able to enjoy a few years of hard earned success and fame before his untimely death. His death is even more sad, coming a year after the death of Sharon Jones – a double blow to soul fans, and Daptone Records. The music that Bradley (and Jones) created will, however, live on and he will undoubtedly be remembered as being a great soul singer, and a great human being. In his memory, we’ve picked out our top 10 favourite Charles Bradley tunes.
10. Strictly Reserved for You
Victim of Love is perhaps our favourite Charles Bradley album. It’s intensely personal and intensely emotional, being more diverse than No Time for Dreaming, and confirms Bradley as an incredibly versatile singer. ‘Strictly Reserved For You’, the album’s opener, is a beautiful ballad featuring all the hallmarks of a retro-soul classic, from the wailing horns and tight rhythm, making it one of the album’s standout numbers.
9. Ain’t It A Sin
Taken from his third and final album Changes, this is an uptempo scorcher of a track that has Bradley screaming and hollering with his unique gruffness. The lyric of the song reflected Bradley’s experience in life, as a man trying to become a better person in the face of adversity: ‘I try to be a righteous man/I try to give love all over the world/But I’m tired of being used!”
8. Victim of Love
Less frantic than many of his recordings, ‘Victim of Love’ has Bradley pleading and screaming like no other singer since perhaps James Brown. It shows, once again, Bradley’s incredible voice – his warm, aching scream is a treasure, that pours further heartache on the already hyper-emotional lyrics. The song is clearly how Bradley saw himself: a victim of love.
7. Why Is It So Hard
“Why is it so hard, to make it in America?” wails Bradley on the opening line. The song reflects Bradley’s incredibly tragic and sad life, recounting his struggles in “a land supposed to be filled with love”. Although the song is primarily a recounting of Bradley’s life, the song takes on greater meaning, asking why, in the land of hope and opportunity, is it so hard to be successful – particularly if you are non-white. Like so many of Bradley’s songs, it seems more apt today than it did when it was first released.
6. Where Do We Go From Here?
Taken from his Victim of Love album, this is one of Bradley’s excellent ballads, in which he speaks to his lover, asking what’s next in what seems to be a turbulent relationship. The Menahan Street Band provide a funky track, and Bradley provides the rest on this gutsy soul ballad.
5. Change for the World
Taken from Changes, ‘Change for the World’ was Bradley’s follow-up to ‘The World (Is Going Up In Flames)’, a highly charged protest song combined with Bradley’s message of universal love. It’s an incredible song, arranged beautifully (those horns!) and featuring some impassioned singing from the Screaming Eagle of Soul.
4. The World (Is Going Up In Flames)
Recorded in 2011 at the height of the Tea Party movement in America and the resurgence of the cultural right wing (now what we call ‘alt-right’), this song fit perfectly for the time. It resonated with the politics of the time, and in many ways foreshadowed what would come in future years with the unrest and rioting after deaths of African-Americans at the hands of white police officers. It also spoke of Bradley’s life as an American who struggled: ‘Don’t tell me/How to live my life/When you/Never felt the pain’.
3. Heartaches and Pain
Of all Bradley’s songs, this is perhaps his most personal, and his most tragic. Here, Bradley recounts his brother’s murder. Bradley puts into song the advice his brother gave him (‘So my brother said to me/Charles gotta stand tall/Because life is full of sorrow/Heartaches and pain’), as well as the events surrounding his death. It’s an incredibly open and honest song, dealing with a personal tragedy of epic proportions. It’s undoubtedly one of Bradley’s finest songs.
2. You Put The Flame On Me
Unlike many other songs in Bradley’s catalogue, this one is a cheerful, pleasant number that could have been recorded by Al Green in the seventies. Appearing on the Victim of Love album, it’s a nice contrast to the ballads and heartache of much of Bradley’s songs. The arrangement of the song is fantastic (particularly the horns) and it makes for a brilliant three minutes or so listening time.
Sure, this might not be a Charles Bradley original, but his version of Black Sabbath’s ‘Changes’ clearly surpasses the original on every level. Bradley, not aware of the original, was drawn to the song’s lyrics shortly after the passing of his mother. The Screaming Eagle of Soul turned a ballad about a lost love into a heart wrenching tribute to his beloved late mother, the lyrics fitting Bradley’s somber mood: ‘I feel unhappy/I feel so sad/I lost the best friend/That I ever had’.
The video for the song is simple yet powerful. It’s one long shot of Bradley hearing, possibly for the first time, the playback of his version of the song. Bradley, overcome with emotion, breaks down. Many in his situation wouldn’t have forgiven his mother for abandoning him as a baby, but Bradley harboured no such emotions, as shown in the ‘Soul of America’ documentary. This is our favourite Charles Bradley song – one perfectly suited to the sadness of his untimely death.
If you’re a Spotify user, then you can enjoy Charles Bradley’s performance at the Spotify House at South By Southwest (SXSW) below. It’s a brilliant performance from Bradley and his extremely tight backing band. If you’re not a Spotify user, fortunately there’s lots of great performances from Bradley on YouTube – we’ve picked out his performance for KEXP in Seattle.