A former James Brown impersonator may seem like an unlikely champion of authentic soul, let alone someone to breathe new life into the genre.
But if you have to suffer to be a soul singer—Brown himself once said it’s the word “can’t” that makes you one—Charles Bradley has paid his dues. At age 67, Bradley has overcome homelessness, illness, illiteracy, and broken relationships. Following the murder of his brother, he was nearly driven to suicide after repeated encounters with racism and police brutality.
The documentary Soul of America recounts Bradley’s difficult life. After spending decades impersonating Brown under the stage name Black Velvet, Bradley was discovered by Brooklyn’s indie-soul powerhouse label Daptone Records, home-base for fellow late bloomers Lee Fields and Sharon Jones. These days the dynamic performer is doing Bradley, not Brown, his style more reminiscent of Otis Redding than the Godfather of Soul. In his five years with Daptone, Bradley has released three studio albums and toured extensively over Europe and the U.S., quickly gaining a multi-generational fan base.
He credits his current success to his difficult past, which he draws on to fuel his lyrics and performances: “I really feel that if you wanna be good at singing, you have to go through some heartaches and pains and the stresses of this world,” says Bradley in a phone interview. “Some people can sing and it sounds great, but they got no feelings behind it. I wanna hear something that makes me say, ‘Wow, that person really feels what they singing, they been through some hardships in life.’”
Bradley’s dramatic performances have earned him the nickname “The Screaming Eagle of Soul.” His deeply wrinkled face is expressive in the extreme, stretching into raw kabuki-like contortions. He puts his all into it: “All of my songs got a moment of truth. I’m tryin’ to show all my brothers and sisters that I’m just gonna do what I like to do, and I like to do it with honesty, and I’ll give you the best of me,” says Bradley. “This is what I’m doin’ right now, and back when I was in the kitchen cookin’, and when I was shinin’ shoes—no matter what I was doin’, I put my feeling into it.”
For Bradley, every performance is an opportunity to connect with his audience. “At my shows I’m lookin’ at so many personalities,” he says, “and I’m lookin’ at all these people, and all of them are very different from me, but I respect all of ’em!”
The singer recounts an incident at a recent show on his U.S. tour where he locked eyes with an audience member: “I was onstage, and I was lookin’ at the person lookin’ at me, and this person is just cryin’ like a baby! I said ‘Oh my god, what is wrong with this guy?’ So I get out, I walked off stage, I went into the audience, but when I try to get to him, everybody got at me and cornered me and I couldn’t get out!” he says. “But I kept movin’, kept movin’ till I got to this guy. And he came up to me and he grabbed me and he still cryin’ like a baby, and I say, ‘My God, what’s wrong there?’ And he said, ‘Man, my brother just got shot last night, and I know what you mean now.’ And boy, we both broke down cryin’.”
A friend had given the man a ticket to see Bradley, whose ballad “Heartaches and Pain” vividly describes the night Bradley’s own brother was shot. “When he told me what happened, I broke down, he broke down … I can’t just walk away from him like that. I sat there in the audience, and wait till he finished [crying]. And it was so emotional. It wasn’t about no show. It was about a human being so hurt,” says Bradley.
There’s no doubt Bradley’s suffering has made him a soul singer, but there is purpose to his pain.
“What joy do I get outta hurt? Nothin’. But what joy I get is when people have a hurt moment inside them, I’d like to share it and talk to them, and maybe my own deepness and my hurt inside me, maybe it can help,” he says. “Maybe you can look inside you and find things in you that you never seen. And maybe I help you to open up to it.”
Charles Bradley performs at 8 p.m. Monday, May 16. Catalyst Club, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $20/adv, $25/door. 429-4135.