Charles Bradley - The Legendary Late Bloomer
Charles Bradley is the perfect example of an artist searching for their musical dreams in America. In comparison to many succesful artists, Charles struggled through poverty his entire life and did not make his first single until 2002. His story of fight, mental health, poverty, and talent is told through his soul shaking performances in the last decade of his life.
The Story Behind the Soul
To understand Charles Bradley’s success and the emotion in his music, you must know the life he led before the fame. Charles Bradley uniquely made a debut into the music industry in the early 2000’s with his debut single, Take it as it came. But before all this Charles was just a youngman struggling through poverty. He was born in Florida, November 5th, 1948 and raised by a single mother. His mother chased a man up to New York, leaving Charles with his Uncles until the age of 8 when he went to live with him mother full time. Charles struggles with living with his mother, because they would constantly argue. At the age of 14, Charles left his home and became homeless in New York sleeping on subway trains for warmth. He then joined the Job Corps in order to avoid the drug habits that plague many homeless New Yorkers, and here he learned to cook as a trade.
The Draw To Music
Around the same time that Charles left his home, and joined the Job Corps, He saw James Brown in concert for the first time. The famous soul musician was playing at the Apollo Theatre in New York City when Charles Bradley had the opportunitiy to see him. The beautiful performance of James Brown sparked a light inside Charles Bradley that could never be put out. Following the show, Charles began to perform with a group of buddies, from the Job Corps, as a James Brown cover artist, Black Velvet. Charles Bradley would fully encompass himself into the identity of Black Velvet for the next 40 years. This group would soon break up when all of the young men were drafted into the Vietnam War except for Charles. From then on, Charles was on his own to tackle his musical aspirations.
Besides the major influence music from James Brown had on the creation of Charles Bradley’s unique sound, other people such as his family and recording label played a major role in his life. Charles Bradley grew up in a large family of 7 other siblings. Although he did not have the best relationship with most of them, his older brother Joseph was his saving grace. Joseph took it upon himself at a young age to be a father figure to Charles and keep him motivated to reach his dreams in music.
In the beginning of Charles Bradley’s musical career, as a James Brown cover artist, he performed with a group of friends from the Job Corps. Outside of this group, Charles has worked with other independent bands such as the Menahan Street Band, and the Budos band. Both of these bands strictly provide instrumental aspects to Charles’ music. The Budos band was known for its African sound and combining it with some soul undertones (2020, Himes)
Charles Bradley released his first album, No Time For Dreaming, in 2011 at the age of 62. This album showcases his amazing composition of soul and funk through songs such as ‘The World (is Going Up in Flames)”. This album is all about the struggles he faced trying to break into the entertainment industry as a full-time artist. He recognizes that this is his very first album, but not close to reaching his goals (2017, Newman). The emotional inflections and groans in his singing are meant to reflect the emotions and rocky experiences of his past (2011, DaptoneRecords).
Even from his early performances while being a cover artist to James Brown, Charles Bradley has always performed in an emotional and rambunctious manner. His performances often included jumping, screaming, falling onto the ground and many other emotional displays, similar to gospel style musical performance (2017, Newman). The year following his first album review, Charles hit the road with Daptone Records on his very first music tour. This tour took him through 17 different countries performing at 110 shows (Soul of American, 2011).
Charles Bradley spent an entire lifetime struggling to achieve his “American Dream”. While fighting poverty, an abusive mother, teenage homelessness, and depression, and suicidal thoughts his whole life, he was able to lean on his music and performances. Charles’ story of struggle and heartache is now seen in his originally crafted music, which transcends the other soul music of it’s time.
Bradley, Charles. Charles Bradley Interview Face Culture, 3 November 2016.
Charles Bradley: Soul of America. Dir. Poull Brien. Prod. Alexander Brough. 2012. Documentary.
Daptone Records. “Charles Bradley .” n.d. Daptone Records. 8 March 2021. <https://daptonerecords.com/artists/charles-bradley/>.
—. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming. 2011.
Himes, Georffrey. The Budos Band & the Holy Hive: Life after Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley . 15 August 2020. 18 March 2021. <https://americansongwriter.com/long-in-the-tooth-budos-band-and-the-holy-hive-album-interview/>.
Larsen, Crystal. GRAMMYs On The Road With Charles Bradley, Ben Kweller, And Victor Wooten. 10 December 2014. 22 March 2021. <https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/grammys-road-charles-bradley-ben-kweller-and-victor-wooten>.
Moon, Tom. Review: Charles Bradley, ‘Changes’. 22 March 2016. NPR. 8 March 2021. <https://www.npr.org/2016/03/22/471312866/first-listen-charles-bradley-changes>.
Newman, Jason. Charles Bradley on Covering Black Sabbath, Confronting Tragedy on New LP. 6 May 2016. Rolling Stone. 8 March 2021. <https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/charles-bradley-on-covering-black-sabbath-confronting-tragedy-on-new-lp-99123/>.
—. Charles Bradley, Acclaimed Soul Singer, Dead at 68. 23 September 2017. 8 March 2021. <https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/charles-bradley-acclaimed-soul-singer-dead-at-68-201609/>.