A Victim Of Love: Remembering Charles Bradley
When I think of the late Charles Bradley I first think of love.
Bradley’s currency was love and he traded in it whenever he was in front of an audience.
Bradley’s story by now is well-known: following a troubled childhood that included time spent homeless, later as a James Brown impersonator known as Black Velvet he was discovered by Bosco Mann of Daptone Records. The singer was paired with Menahan Street Band to record his debut album No Time For Dreaming in 2011. He was 62-years-old at the time of the release. Along with subsequent LPs, 2013’s Victim Of Love and 2016’s Changes, the trio of albums make up the extent of his discography. Bradley was 68-years-old when he passed away from stomach cancer on September 23.
Despite a late start and all-too-early end, The Screaming Eagle Of Soul’s abbreviated career soared on the basis of his desire to share his love of making music with others. Think Bradley wasn’t serious about the importance of love? Check out these song titles from his three albums:
“I Believe In Your Love,” “Lovin’ You Baby,” “In You (I Found Love),” “Let Love Stand A Chance,” “Victim Of Love,” “Love Bug Blues,” “Things We Do For Love,” “Crazy For You Love,” “Slow Love.”
Perhaps it’s just my projecting, but when I saw Charles perform it seemed like he was savoring every moment, eternally grateful for the successes afforded to him, no matter how long he had to wait for them to be achieved. Bradley’s performances were about connecting with his audience through the universal language of music, but his was spoken with a soulful accent.
Backed by His Extraordinaires and still presenting the stylish flare and gusto from his time as Black Velvet, Bradley always appeared at home onstage where he could interact with an audience. Here’s an exchange with a fan Bradley described to NPR in 2016:
You know, I did this show the other night, and I got offstage — I was singing “Changes” and I went through the audience. I always try to get in the back of the audience, because people really want to get close to me, and I want to get close to them.
This young guy came to me, and he was crying. He said, “Charles Bradley, my brother died last night. The words that you put: I felt that.” And I just broke down and cried with him, because I really felt this guy’s love.” I said, “Well, son, let me tell you one thing: Your brother is right up in heaven with my mom. They’re looking down on us right now. So just know that your brother is in a better place, and he ain’t got to worry about all these trials and tribulations down here no more.” We sit there about two or three minutes. And then my tour manager came and said, “Charles, it’s time to go. Gotta go back on stage.”
Charles Bradley made soul music, and to do so with such conviction and honesty you have to believe that the soul of humanity rests within the embracing arms of love. A person who lacks compassion, who lacks love is labeled soulless. Without soul there is no love, without love there is no soul.
A certain amount of authentic passion is needed in order to transcend as a soul singer. Otis Redding had it, Bradley’s Daptone label mate Sharon Jones had it, and no doubt The Screaming Eagle had it too. The key metric being authenticity. Is the emotion real? Are the drops of sweat well-earned? Is the howling sincere? Are the exaggerated movements inspired?
Everything about Charles Bradley’s music indicates an utmost authenticity. It’s not lost on me that I’m saying that about a man who was discovered while impersonating James Brown. Instead, I think that actually helps prove my point about Bradley’s authentic nature. It was his true self, his true passion for performing and connecting with an audience that broke through the Black Velvet facade and made Bossco Mann want to sign him.
He may have been channeling The Godfather, but it was The Screaming Eagle that was being heard.