It’s difficult to understand how he didn’t turn out bitter. In his 68 years before his death from cancer, he was estranged from his family, homeless and sleeping on subway cars as a teenager and jailed for using a knife in self-defense when he was attacked at one of his many itinerant cooking jobs. He endured many other hardships over the decades, all while keeping up a side career as a James Brown cover act.
The two biggest tragedies of his life can be understood as detailed in two of his songs. “Heartaches and Pain,” from debut LP No Time for Dreaming, released in 2011, details the night his brother was shot down the block from their home in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. His last album, Changes, is named for its cover of the titular Black Sabbath ballad, which he recorded in honor of the death of his mother, Inez. She had abandoned him when he was a few months old, but they reconciled and he took a bus back to Brooklyn from where he’d been living on the West Coast. They lived together until she passed in 2014. Their relationship, living in a modest apartment, is a central theme of the 2012 documentary, Charles Bradley: Soul of America.
Like many stories about artists who “make it,” Bradley’s break came at the meeting point of opportunity and luck. He was performing as Black Velvet, a James Brown impersonator, at a Brooklyn bar when Daptone founder Gabriel Roth happened to be there. Bradley had a natural talent for flair and style, on top of his powerful voice. Roth hooked him up with Thomas Brenneck, a white guitarist from Staten Island over 30 years his junior, who encouraged the veteran performer to write his own material, and helped develop his band’s sound. The two of them hanging out would look, on its face, to be a relatively random best-friendship, but once you saw them together you’d see their affection was deep and genuine -- two people from very different backgrounds, connecting over a shared sense of what they loved about music and humanity.
The first time I saw Charles was at Stubbs’ in Austin while singing “Heartaches and Pain”: Dropping to his knees, splitting, and dancing with the dexterity and style that few performers in any age range can replicate. I’ve never seen a crowd won over in just a few seconds like this one -- mostly they were there to see alt-rock acts TV on the Radio and Foster the People. But after the band’s intro, when he sung out in his slight rasp, “There a time in my life/ When it ran so cold,” I remember sensing a collective gasp, where everyone immediately fell in love with Charles. I remember watching as a bunch of fans turned their heads to each other and said some variation of "Holy shit, I love this guy.”
Charles remembered that night fondly when I met him in person for an interview a few years later. And when we met after his performance at Piano’s a few nights after that, he gave me a mighty hug on his way to change -- then, post-show, held my and my wife’s hands, with his calloused palm, and kissed them both, to thank us for being there. I posted that interview the day I got laid off from my job at AOL Music, because if I had to go out, I might as well have my last post be about him.
Last year, Charles and I spent an hour so at an office discussing his new album. He didn’t interrupt me, but at the end of a question about 10 minutes or so into the interview, he wanted to know what was going on with my life. I told him some personal things, and he gave me some advice, then I tried to advise him on getting back into dating. He was afraid of getting his heart broken again, and would rather spread some joy into the world than risk his own.
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He told me all he really wanted was a house and a little piece of land to call his own, with a garden he could tend to, where he could live a quiet life. It’s heartbreaking he never quite got to that place, because after all the heartaches and pain, he deserved tranquility. Nonetheless, I’m sure his last moments were spent in peace, because of his faith, and because he was with his family and friends.
The last time I saw him was after he headlined the Beacon Theatre. He gave me one of his great hugs, then thumped me on the chest, and said he could tell that I had a lot of love in my heart, and that I needed to spread it out there. I demurred, but he wouldn’t let me off the hook, saying that I was a better person than I thought I was. I hope I am.