It’s hard not to shed a tear, listening to Charles Bradley’s music. At the same time, it’s impossible not to feel uplifted too. Such is the anomaly that is the 67-year-old soul singer, whose passion radiates so strongly it feels like he’s right there beside you even when he’s streaming through a set of speakers. But crazily, Bradley’s singular sound was almost never heard; it was only at the ripe age of 62 when Daptone Records released his debut album, No Time for Dreaming, when the “Screaming Eagle of Soul” was finally given the chance to soar.
He’s since melted hearts from New York to Paris, because the “screaming” is really an honest crooning, and his lyrics and delivery are so genuine you can’t help but become emotionally invested in everything he puts forward. Particularly when he’s performing, and you can see what he describes as a physical shock that goes through his body when he really feels the groove. “They always say when you love what you do, you put your all into it. People think I be jokin’ sometimes when I’m on stage, and I get this little pain and I sing, ‘Ooooh!’ But that’s really a pain!”
Bradley, who was born in Gainesville, Florida and raised in Brooklyn, saw this kind of penetrating performance himself at 14 years old, when his sister Virginia took him to see James Brown at New York’s Apollo Theater. “I said right then, ‘Wow, I wanna be something like that.’ Because he put his all into it.” The Godfather of Soul had a tremendous effect on him, so much so that many years later Bradley “earned an honest buck” by performing as a James Brown impersonator. Those gigs helped Bradley overcome his shyness and also gave him time to think about why he related so organically to Brown’s music.
“James Brown came from that hard, rough life that I came from,” says Bradley. “He took the blues, and added rhythm to it. And he always had the most funkiest band; I liked the way he took his words and mixed it in with the band.” Taking a cue from his idol, Bradley does the same by mingling his vocals with the Tom Brenneck-led Menahan Street Band. It was Brenneck (who’s worked with everyone from Nas and Jay Z to Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones) who took Bradley under his wing, and gave him the opportunity and tools to record his own music by working collaboratively. They started with “Heartaches and Pains,” a powerful song that recounts the death of Bradley’s brother, and which would set the tone for Bradley’s fruitful career as a soul-baring artist.
Today Bradley drops his third album Changes, named for his candid rendition of the Black Sabbath track. But whereas Sabbath’s song was inspired by drummer Bill Ward’s divorce, Bradley’s version is about the guiding light in his life: his mother. “I was learning ‘Changes’ at the time that my mom was sick and she was leaving me,” he says. “And those last verses in that song, they really struck my soul, totally. ‘Cause I’m a mama’s boy, and she always told me, ‘You’re my heart, son.’” You can see how much she meant to him in the video for the title track: shot in a single take, it shows Bradley breaking down over the highly emotional song.
His mother isn’t the only subject of his songs, though her teachings are the reason for the other message Bradley continuously puts out, that of finding truth in yourself and in the world. He tells us, “My mama always said, ‘Be honest. Do the work and know who you are as an individual, not a number following everybody else’s ways that they do.’” Bradley’s virginal spirit is the epitome of such advice, and he hopes his music inspires greatness in others. “Your heart is the one that carries all the truth,” he says. “If I can give you something that can help you be a stronger person and the person that you wanna be, then it shows me that I’m doing something good, and I’m gonna keep on doing that.”
I’m just only one little instrument but I will show you the love that I have inside me and the way that I feel about the world
For someone who has faced tremendous hardships in life—including a few years of homelessness—he is filled with positivity. He’s had a long time to contemplate his life and the hand it has dealt him. In Changes, Bradley spells it out with the mostly spoken introductory track, “God Bless America,” in which he explains that while he’s “a brother from the hard licks of life” he wouldn’t change a thing. “Just know that all the pain that I’ve been through, it made me strong,” he continues.
Bradley hopes his music serves as a common denominator among a diverse population and all types of religions. “I hope my music can help many nations all over the world see that the true things come out of the earth and then they go back into the earth,” he explains. “But the true love you have to find within yourself, and learn to respect one another from nation to nation. I’m just only one little instrument but I will show you the love that I have inside me and the way that I feel about the world.”
Changes is out today (1 April 2016) via Daptone Records imprint Dunham. For a deeper look at Bradley’s life, check out the feature-length documentary “Charles Bradley: Soul of America” by filmmaker Poull Brien.
Black and white image courtesy of Shayan Asgharnia; Remedial Media LLC, Final image by Karen Day, all others courtesy of Mark Shaw and Daptone