Charles Bradley left us with something more powerful than great music
Charles Bradley had a lot of suffering in his life. His brother was murdered, he was abused as a child, he was homeless for large stretches of time, he almost died after an allergic reaction to penicillin and he lost his first band after its members were drafted into the Vietnam War.
As heartbreaking as his loss is to the music world, he didn’t deserve to suffer with liver cancer any longer than was necessary. Besides, the mark he left on this world was indelible. In the final few years of his life, he gave the world so much pure joy and love.
Like many, the first time I heard Charles Bradley was in the mid-2000s with his outstanding double A-side ‘The World (Is Going Up In Flames)’ / ‘Heartaches And Pain’.
I was hosting a radio show on Brisbane’s 4ZzZ when Bradley’s debut album No Time For Dreaming came out on the Daptone label in 2011. I must have played every single song from that record on our show over the next year and I’d frequently have people ask who the guy with that voice was.
At 62-years-old, Charles Bradley was one of the best new artists of the year.
Everything about the record was appealing. From the photo of Bradley lying down at Western Australia’s Wave Rock on the cover, to his versions of Neil Young and Nirvana classics that close the record, and the perfect complement of the slick and soulful Menahan Street Band.
What really stood out though was this man’s voice. How could a singer this good remain so unknown for 45 years? Why have we been denied this powerful vessel of soul for so long? We continue to mourn the soul heroes of the 60s who died too young, but why weren’t we seeking out people like Charles Bradley? Are there more singers like him out there?
As great as that record was, I didn’t fully understand the power of Charles Bradley until Sunday 10 March, 2012. Bradley and his Extraordinaires had a prime spot on the final night of the Golden Plains festival and no amount of anticipation could spoil the show they played that night.
It was an hour of energetic deep funk and impassioned soul executed by a true gun performer. But Bradley truly wasn’t playing showman this night. He felt something deep. An unbelievably stong, reciprocated connection with the audience. He also, at 63-years-old, had hit a certain level of stardom one imagines he felt was out of reach long ago.
In this clip you see Bradley walk into the audience at the end of the show and start hugging people. The joy was palpable. It felt like everyone had witnessed something truly powerful. You could sense from his reaction to the adoring crowd that this was a watershed moment for him too.
I was lucky enough to see Charles Bradley many times after this first show. But nothing compares to the sheer euphoria that both artist and audience shared on that Sunday night. It was the beginning of something great. No matter how long it lasted, it felt good to know that this man was finally getting his due.
Not long after this show, I sought out the fantastic documentary Charles Bradley: The Soul of America (streaming now on iView).
This is where I direct everyone when they want to know about Charles Bradley, because it shows you exactly how tough his journey to success had been. I won’t go through his whole life story here, but there was more tragedy in his life than anyone deserves. Through it all was a burning desire to entertain, to make a connection, and to spread love.
My favourite part of the film comes towards the end when Bradley is about to launch his debut album with a big show at New York venue Southpaw. We follow Bradley through the streets of Brooklyn as he hands out flyers for the show, and you can't help but feel so excited for him.
It’s such a big occasion that he allows himself a trip to the local haberdashery to purchase some new sequined fabric to add to the jumpsuit he’d be wearing on stage that night. He then goes home and sews his new ensemble together.
It’s such a short moment in the documentary – no more than a minute – but it feels like such a monumental moment in his life, such a peak, and something so serious.
My obsession with Charles Bradley came to a head in 2014 when I had the chance to speak with him. I listened back to that interview after hearing of his passing yesterday.
His scratchy voice sounded even grittier over a terrible phone line from his apartment in Brooklyn, the same one we see in The Soul Of America. He spoke slowly and incredibly quietly at first. He gave each question thought and wanted his responses to be meaningful.
After a few minutes of talking about his journey, about James Brown, about religion, and about what Bradley feels he has to offer the world, he couldn’t keep talking in such a measured fashion. His passion and fervour for music overcame him and, listening to it years later, it still gives me a jolt and gives me faith in the power of music.
Halfway through, as we were discussing the difference between learning music from books and learning music from living a rich life, he stopped to tell me that we were making a connection. It felt that, after so many years of wanting this fame, he was going to make every moment of it count. Even every one of these hundreds of phone interviews he was now obligated to undertake. He was going to embrace every part of it.
“Hey brother, it takes two to tango,” he said as we wrapped up the interview. “With this conversation, we have started a new friendship. That’s the way I look at it.”
While I knew this was something he told a lot of people, to this day I truly know that he meant it. These connections were what he lived for.
The Charles Bradley story is about more than great music. It's about redemption, it's about the power of music to heal and to bring people together and it's about the importance of never giving up, even if you're 62-years-old and looking for your first big break.