Most artists don’t wait until their early 60s to release their first album, but Charles Bradley wasn’t anything like most artists.
The singer, dubbed the “Screaming Eagle of Soul” for his powerful, raspy voice, passed away Saturday from stomach cancer, according to an official statement. He was 68 years old.
Born in Gainsville, Florida, Bradley moved to Brooklyn when he was eight to be with his mother, but their acrimonious relationship lead to him running away as a teenager, living on the street and sleeping on subway cars. After hitchhiking across the country and moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator under the name “Black Velvet” in New York clubs, he was discovered by Daptone Records co-founder Bosco Mann and invited to rehearse with his band in 2002 (events depicted in Poull Brien’s documentary Soul Of America, which premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival).
Backed by the Menahan Street Band’s triumphant horns and slinky grooves, 2011’s No Time For Dreaming received rave reviews, including from NOW, with critics praising Bradley’s world-weary tales of hardship and poverty that perfectly melded with his 60s and 70s soul sound. He followed it up with 2013’s Victim Of Love, a mix of upbeat Motown-influenced anthems and lovesick ballads, and played a three-night stint at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre alongside Daptone labelmate Sharon Jones, who died last year. Like her, Bradley’s music wasn’t “throwback” or “neo” soul. The pained fury of his music was fully authentic and totally cynicism-free.
Bradley gained a well-earned reputation as a charismatic performer. He’d stretch his arms like a soaring bird of prey, gyrating and shimmying across the stage in elaborately sequinned outfits with a seemingly impossibly youthful vigour. In between songs, he’d preach sermons about the importance of acceptance and tolerance, and frequently end his sets in the crowd hugging adoring fans.
Despite being diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2016, he released his third studio album Changes (named after his emotional rendition of the Black Sabbath song, which was a live staple), and appeared on an episode of Netflix Marvel series Luke Cage performing Ain’t It A Sin.
He was a tour warrior, and in the last few years he made appearances at numerous Ontario music festivals, including Panamania, Hamilton’s Supercrawl, and most recently, this summer’s WayHome, where he played a rousing, hits-packed set. At Field Trip in June 2016, NOW writer Matt Williams credited him with the festival’s most powerful moment, with an extended version of Changes with the spoken message “It’s time to bring love back, to make this lovin’ planet a lovely place to live.”
Amidst troubling political and social times, which he directly addressed in call-to-action anthems such as Where Do We Go From Here? and Change For The World (lyrics like “If we’re not careful, we’ll be segregated” and “Hate is poison in the blood” seeming all too sadly prescient today), he remained steadfast in promoting a message of love and positivity. He never wavered, even when his cancer diagnosis forced him to cancel some shows. He underwent treatment and hit the road again. But, sadly, after receiving his clean bill of health, the cancer returned and spread to his liver.
“If you want to give a show, make it real, and people will listen to you more carefully,” he told Pitchfork in a 2016 interview. “I’m singing the truth I put my heart and soul into it. If you’re gonna sing, sing from your heart and the world will hear you.”
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