Last year, I interviewed Charles Bradley about his final album, Changes, for Napster’s short-lived blog. I also had the pleasure of seeing him at the 50th anniversary Monterey Pop Festival in August, a month before he died on September 23.
Charles Bradley calls himself the “Screaming Eagle of Soul.” The 67-year-old New York singer earned his nickname when he used to perform as a James Brown imitator at local house parties and clubs around the city, and someone in the audience awarded him the superlative. It’s an apt description for Bradley’s voice, which can switch from a gentle yet raspy croon to a piercing, heart-stopping wail. When you hear him cry out on “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” the bracing first track from his classic 2011 debut, No Time for Dreaming, he’ll make the hairs on your arm stand up.
“I’m not bragging or anything, but when I get into my zone, my music, I’m gone,” says Bradley during a phone interview at his home. He’s preparing to release his new album, Changes, and embark on a world tour with his group, the Menahan Street Band. “It comes from true feeling. Music is about getting out there, opening your soul and letting people feel you.”
By now, Bradley’s long and winding journey to a full-time music career is part of his legend. A 2012 documentary, Charles Bradley: Soul of America, chronicles how he grew up in a broken home, suffered through bouts of homeless, and wandered across the country as he worked odd jobs and a sideline as a James Brown impersonator, before Daptone Records signed him in the early 2000s. The Brooklyn, NY label is a post-millennial home for the kind of deep, bluesy funk and soul that once flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s, and for venerating older performers like Sharon Jones, the fantastic voice behind indie hits like “100 Days, 100 Nights” and “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects.” The film shows Jones taking Bradley on tour in the buildup to his No Time for Dreaming bow.
Bradley met James Brown twice before the rhythm and blues legend died on Christmas Day in 2006. One of the times was when Bradley was a cook at a nightclub in San Francisco. “I went backstage and met him, talked to him. I was begging him for an opportunity. I said, ‘James, give me a chance. I’ve been looking for you for a long time. And he looked me up and down, and said, ‘You look like a good entertainer. I’m not going to let you get on my show. But if you want an opportunity, go back to New York, and sign up for ‘Amateur Hour’ at the Apollo Theater.’ I did that, but when I went to the Apollo Theater, it’s not like it used to be.”
The landmark Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, where James Brown recorded his historic Live at the Apollo album in 1961, is no longer a mecca for African-American performers. It has mostly receded, much like soul music, into an urban pop culture that celebrates R&B and hip-hop. Although it still holds the famed “Amateur Hour” competitions, Bradley, says, “Nowadays, it’s so commercialized … they don’t care if a good artist can win.”
Part of the joy in seeing Bradley’s rise in the music industry is not only watching him find his place in the ongoing “retro soul” revival – a trend that peaked with Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, which she recorded with members of the Daptone crew – but also celebrating the triumph of a man who toiled as an unknown for decades, only to finally and deservedly emerge as a star in his 60s.
“I’ve been doing James Brown since I was 16 years old, and I learned to master it,” adds Bradley. “But the new guys [in the Menahan Street Band], they say, ‘We see you do the James Brown very good. But we want to see you do you. We want to hear you sing and come out with your own material.’ And that was one of the best things that I did.’”
On the surface, it seems unlikely that Bradley would find an audience in Europe before the States. After all, Soul of America ends with Bradley dazzling a packed house in January 2011 as he celebrates the release of No Time for Dreaming at Southpaw, a Brooklyn nightclub. The album drew laudatory praise from music journalists, and landed on countless top ten lists. When he appeared at summer music festivals such as Outside Lands in San Francisco, he often wore jumpsuits that displayed his thick, barreled chest, and proved as riveting live in person as he is in a recording studio. “You can buy the album. But when I do it live, I come out of my shell,” he says exultingly.
Forgotten amidst the well-deserved acclaim was that No Time for Dreaming was not only the culmination of an unsettled and frequently impoverished life, but it also was the reward for nearly ten years spent on the Daptone roster. Daptone may be renowned for throwback soul albums like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ Naturally, but it’s also part of a network of small independent labels that thrive on 7-inch vinyl singles aimed at collectors and soul enthusiasts around the world. Beginning in 2002 with “Take It As It Come,” a jumpin’ popcorn number made with the Sugarman 3 (and later collected on Daptone 7 inch Singles Collection, Vol. 1), Bradley recorded several one-off tracks with various members of the Daptone camp. Before it became the brilliant opening number on No Time for Dreaming, “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” appeared as a 7-inch in 2007. Those songs allowed him to find a substantial audience overseas.
“A lot of artists back in the days would say you have to go out of the country to make some money, and then you come back. I used to always disapprove of that, like it wasn’t true. Now that I did it myself, I know that it’s really true,” he says. “When Tom Bren and them picked me up and gave me a chance, I had to prove myself to them that I really wanted this opportunity. Now I’m being accepted to a lot of these places that I never was accepted to before.”
One of Bradley’s most memorable tracks is his 2011 cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” (It was later included as a bonus track on reissues of No Time for Dreaming.) While the Menahan Street Band turns Young’s folk melody into a sprightly, horn-driven rhythm, Bradley adds a restrained yet purposeful vocal that seems contented and optimistic, as if he’s eagerly anticipating the twists and turns life may bring as he “keeps searching for a heart of gold.”
A more recent cover, “Changes,” also gathers its power from Bradley’s ability to interpret songs as a metaphor for his life. Originally released as a 7-inch single in 2013, this take on Black Sabbath’s tearful number about band member Bill Ward’s divorce is given a steady drum pulse by the Menahan Street Band’s drummer Homer Steinweiss, and a horn section that underlines Bradley’s sorrow. A subsequent, heartbreaking video clip makes clear that Bradley is singing about his late mother.
“Tom Brenneck asked me to do that song. I didn’t know the artist [Black Sabbath] at first,” he says. “But when I talked to my mom, she was really going through changes. I know she was very ill. I talked to her so much – every time I had a chance to be home. When I read through ‘Changes,’ the lyrics actually fit my personal life. The song fit me. That’s why I do it the way I do it. I do it in a very soulful, painful, sweet way.”
Now, Bradley’s superior take on Black Sabbath’s “Changes” is the key track of his third album. The title seems apt: Three albums in, the 67-year-old is no longer a “new artist” in the music industry. “I’m a very spiritual person, and that’s what keeps me motivated,” he says. “I look at my past, and I don’t want to go back to my past. I’ve been seeking this opportunity for a long, long time. It’s a-late coming, but at least I got into it, so I’m just going to get into it.”
Listeners will also note that Bradley’s material has seemed to grow less political since the fiery social laments on No Time for Dreaming, but Bradley suggests that’s unintentional. The one explicit protest anthem on “Changes” is “Change for the World.” He says that we’re living in a time of Biblical revelation, deplores racism, and preaches that we need to love one another. “I ain’t afraid to love you/I come to you with open arms,” he sings.
“What you hear is what I’ve seen in my life, and what I’m seeing now. I’m watching the world. I’m a very intellectual person. I observe what’s around me, what I see, experience, and the things I have been through in life. I find a way to speak through my experience. I find a way to put it in the lyrics and give it to the world. That’s it,” he says.
A highlight of Changes is the irrepressibly strutting funk of “Ain’t It A Sin.” Perhaps in homage to Muddy Waters’ 1968 version of “Mannish Boy,” an unnamed voice yelps out “Yeah!” as Bradley growls, “If you don’t do me right…I just might do you in.” But as always, Bradley ends on a plea for universal love. “If you listen to the end,” he explains, “[I say] don’t do me wrong, I won’t do you wrong. We gotta make it right to make this world a better place. That’s really what I’m saying.”
As with Bradley’s prior two albums, including 2013’s forceful Victim of Love, Thomas Brenneck produced Changes. He and other members of the Menahan Street Band devised melodies and arrangements, while Bradley came up with the lyrics.
“Sometimes we’ll be on tour, and while we have mic check, the guys may play something, like an instrumental,” he says. Bradley notes how he’ll riff out lyrics spontaneously when he’s inspired by the right piece of music, whether it’s in band rehearsal, or when Brenneck plays bare-bones tracks from an archive of musical sounds. “Tom will call me and say, ‘I’ve got some music that I’d like you to listen to. Can you put some lyrics to it?’ If I like the music, the lyrics will come to me natural.
“He’ll put up a mic, and he’ll record what I’m singing. ‘Cause when I get into the spirit, and the music sounds good to me, the lyrics just flow right through me. We’ll get together, and we’ll listen to it again. Tom will say, ‘The lyrics were beautiful, but you didn’t rhyme them right.’ He’ll get in it, I’ll get involved in it,” he continues as he explains how the two will refine the words and music. “Whenever I say ‘Give me the microphone,’ they’ll hook me up, and they’ll record what I’m saying.”
Like all of his releases, Changes is both raw and refined, teetering between the unfettered emotion of Bradley’s performance and the tight, metronome-like arrangements of Brenneck and the Menahem Street Band. His voice is cathartic as he underlines every human craves love and understanding, no matter what our social conditioning and biases may be. At his best – and much of Changes certainly falls into that category – he taps into an element that lies within all of us.
“I’ve been through so many changes in my life. I’ve been out here since I was 14 years old,” Bradley says, noting how he left home at a young age. “Now I have a way that I can express myself to the world. And I see that a lot of things that I do really help a lot of other people that are going through the same changes that I go through. I’m a medium: I can help people with their personal feelings and help them come out of their shell.”