Tom Brenneck’s frequent, 55-mile drives from Los Angeles to Riverside took an hour on most days, maybe 90 minutes on the odd afternoon when the 10 inexplicably came to a standstill. It was a heartbreaking commute, traffic or not, and he had nothing but a few reels of precious tape for company and the words he wish he could say to Charles Bradley, but couldn’t.
The reels — some labeled, some labeled incorrectly, some not at all — represent 16 years of collaboration and camaraderie with Bradley, the “Screaming Eagle of Soul” who succumbed to stomach cancer a few months earlier on Sept. 23, 2017 at the age of 68. Brenneck and Bradley were inseparable from 2001 forward, when they first began to work together after Gabe Roth, the co-founder of independent soul label Daptone Records, introduced his protege — the young, hungry, then-20 Brenneck — to Bradley, the James Brown impersonator performing under the moniker of “Black Velvet” on the regular at a few bars in Brooklyn.
At first, the prospect of working on any of his music with Bradley so soon after his death was unthinkable to Brenneck, who was still grieving the loss of his champion. In the spring of 2018, Daptone — which released Bradley’s three albums, No Time for Dreaming (2011), Victim of Love (2013) and Changes (2016) on Brenneck’s Dunham Records imprint — approached him about the possibility of a posthumous album. He’d written new material he’d written for the soul singer when he was sick — enough for another record, even — but those tapes stayed on the shelf. Brenneck brought some other reels, older ones, to Roth’s Riverside studio, and there they spent hours listening through and mixing the b-sides and rarities they collected for Black Velvet, which sees its release on Friday (Nov. 9).
“Because he hadn’t sang on anything I was working on, there wasn’t a lot, you know?” says Brenneck. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m sitting on all this unreleased Charles Bradley music…’ I really had to take the reel-to-reels off the shelf, throw them on the machines, and just listen to music and see what’s there.”
Nostalgia and grief were giant hurdles to jump for Brenneck, but so was the stack of unlabeled reels gathering dust across the country for the better part of a decade. The duo’s collaboration had been unusually close, in that Bradley told Brenneck his deepest, darkest truths from the jump out of necessity. Bradley’s illiteracy, which hovered around the reading level of a grade schooler, made it impossible for him to write down his own lyrics or read them off a sheet in the studio. Bradley would share stories of the hardship and losses he encountered in the brutal half-century he lived before he met Brenneck, and Brenneck would transcribe Bradley’s thoughts in some cases, or write them down and read them back to him in others. “Heartaches and Pain,” off No Time for Dreaming, embodies this: it’s a tribute to his slain brother, Joseph, who was murdered steps from his family’s home in Brooklyn. On Black Velvet, “Fly Little Girl” is a reluctant adieu to his niece, Kiki, who lived with Bradley until he kicked her out of after a disastrous row.
Nothing was off limits from the first session to the last, and his growing audiences latched onto Bradley’s vulnerability. Bradley’s touring schedule amped up after No Time for Dreaming. He would take off into the crowd for a minute or few at the emotional peak of “Heartaches and Pain,” though it started to take longer for him to get back to the stage each time as the crowds grew with every passing festival season. Music supervisors and late night TV show bookers caught on next; to date, Bradley’s voice has soundtracked moments in Big Little Lies, Orange Is the New Black and more.
“I would take his own words and give them back to him in a way that was still his own words, but it was put together and he could sing it,” says Brenneck. “Once he opened up and shared it with me, he felt comfortable with it coming out to the world, because I think he saw the power in it after the records were released and he’d go on tour and sing songs that he wrote. The response from the audience, it really empowered him and gave him confidence in himself that he didn’t have spending decades as a James Brown impersonator.”
Though Brenneck is now based in L.A., he recorded the bulk of his work with Bradley in New York at Daptone’s studio, which sprawls across the first floor of the Bushwick brownstone in which the label resides; Diamond Mine, the Long Island City studio Brenneck opened before he moved west; and his old Menahan Street apartment a few blocks away from Daptone, where “Heartaches and Pain” and the rest of Bradley’s first batch of songs were laid to tape. “None of this shit is catalogued in the computer, right, because all my productions are analog,” he says.
(Roth chuckles later when he backs this up: “Tommy’s shit’s not organized! His tape is all over the place! He doesn’t know what he has; the tapes are all mislabeled, and they’ll say stuff like, ‘Hot Jam’ on them, so you don’t really know what anything is.”)
“Once I began that process I knew there were a couple of songs floating around, but I honestly didn’t think that they were finished,” Brenneck continues. “Because they hadn’t made the record at the time, I just assumed that they weren’t great — if they weren’t on par with the record they were intended for, I didn’t think they were going to be so great now. Luckily, I was pretty wrong about that.”
Bradley’s most effective vocal performances didn’t require fully-formed phrases or complete words: they were often ecstatic or anguished utterances — Unnnhhh! Ahhhhh! Hah! — and Black Velvet kicks off with one of them, an exclamation point of an “OH!” on “Can’t Fight the Feeling.” What follows are ten tracks that faithfully convey Bradley’s ability to squeeze the most out of a vowel across his whole career, as the songs were pulled from sessions that fed his three albums. Some songs sound familiar, like one-off releases of Bradley’s take on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and Nirvana’s “Stay Away,” which echo his satiny rendition of Black Sabbath’s Changes, the title track of his 2016 album. Others, like “Luv Jones,” an undulating groove that could dominate any blaxploitation soundtrack, and “I Feel A Change,” in which Bradley wails an all-or-nothing ultimatum to his lover over the Menahan Street Band’s building din, reminded Brenneck of the range of Bradley’s talent, and what he captured in the studio beyond what listeners have already heard.
“It’s this beautiful ballad that was recorded for Victim of Love, but that album had four ballads on it. Even though this song was completed, it just didn’t make the record — never got mixed, just went right back on the shelf undocumented until I found it,” says Brenneck of “I Feel A Change.” “When I found it, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, how did I forget about this song?’ Charles’ vocal take is incredible and the band performance is killer. It teared me up a little bit — like, okay, there’s some sunshine in this endeavor. I’m finding music and it’s cheering me up, I’m starting to see the light, this record is starting to make sense. I see the beauty of it.”
Mixing the Black Velvet tracks with Roth in Riverside was therapeutic for Brenneck, as Roth sadly knew from experience what Brenneck was going through. Daptone’s roster of twelve acts is familial in vibe and scope: many bands share players, and Brenneck himself was a guitarist in the Dap-Kings before he got behind the board as a producer under Roth’s wing. Including Bradley, three of Daptone’s artists died between June of 2016 and September of 2017: Dan Klein, the lead singer of reggae act The Frightnrs, passed after suffering from ALS in June of 2016, and Sharon Jones, the label’s flagship artist and the enigmatic soul singer who worked closest with Roth, fought pancreatic cancer before it killed her in Nov. 2016. Having worked on the release of The Frightnrs’ Nothing More to Say and Jones’ Soul of a Woman following their deaths, Roth knew how impossible it could feel to listen to the music of silenced muses as the sudden architect of their legacies.
“I remember telling him, ‘These were the hardest parts for me when I was working on Sharon’s stuff,’” he says. “It wasn’t the music, because eventually you get deep into the work and you’re distracted by the duty of it. What was really hard for me was hearing the moments before or after a take when there’s just bantering: ‘That’s a good take!’ ‘Pass me that!’ It’s just casual conversation, not something you’re really used to hearing that much from people you’ve lost. It makes it that much harder to hear than a performance — maybe because you’re kind of expecting that.” (The final line we hear from Bradley on Black Velvet’s closing track, a previously unheard full-band version of “Victim of Love,” is one of these intimacies, a soft “I’m gonna keep on loving you” he insists before the track fades out. )
“We both lost giant figures in our life, the vessels that we connected ourselves to as artists,” says Brenneck of this new, unfortunate bond he shares with Roth. “That was the process of the first two records also — I’d track them and then I’d mix them with Gabe. Doing that to finish this record for Charles was cathartic, and it was nice to be in the company of my mentor again. With both of us having been through similar experiences with different artists, we didn’t have to say anything, but there was something really comfortable about finishing these songs with Gabe. God knows I don’t want to sit by myself and mix them, because that just would’ve been depressing as fuck, you know?”
For both Brenneck and Roth, it’s what you can’t hear on Black Velvet that strikes the most poignant chord.
“There are certain songs that the second I write them, I just know [Bradley’s] going to lose it when he hears it and get excited and start running around the room,” he says, referring to the the title track, a gauzy, three-and-a-half minute instrumental waltz. “As soon as I wrote that guitar riff, kind of beautiful but minor and sad, I was just like, ‘Charles is going to crush this shit.’” Bradley never regained the strength to head back into the studio, so “Black Velvet” became the album’s sole instrumental, a song that stresses what’s missing instead of what remains.
“I wanted this record to be just like all the other Charles records, and I realized there was always an instrumental,” be continues. “I put it on there to give the listener a break from Charles’ screaming. He’s the Screaming Eagle of Soul; he’s not a tender singer, singing from his gut and screaming and howling at the moon. I always like to put little instrumentals in there — to showcase the band, and to just give people a break from Charles.”
He adds that including this instrumental and placing it at the halfway point on the tracklist achieves the “complete opposite” of this effect. “If you’re a Charles fan and you’re listening to this record and this instrumental comes on, it’s the absence of Charles that’s so powerful. If you know Charles’ voice, you could just imagine him singing on this song. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, it’s a somber instrumental.’ It’s ‘Oh, this was intended for Charles to sing, and oh shit, Charles would’ve killed this.’” Roth agrees. “It’s a nod to the path that was supposed to be there for him.”
But Black Velvet offers resolution, too, as Brenneck and Roth offer the album up as a tribute to Bradley while securing his place in the pantheon of soul greats, and this monument stands in no one’s shadow — not even his hero’s.
“Black Velvet was this alter-ego for him, this superhero persona he created for himself,” says Roth. “In his life, he had a lot of different struggles. When he hit the stage as Black Velvet, he put on that whole outfit and there was something transcendent about it for him, where he was kind of in this make-believe world, this huge soul singer star like James Brown — somebody everybody knew and everybody loved and put out lots of records and had a history and a legacy. In the early sessions, Tommy was trying to get him to define his voice as Charles Bradley and not as a James Brown impersonator. It was a really important journey for Charles, to in some ways let down the facade of the character he was playing to figure out who he was and carve out something for himself.”
As such, Black Velvet is both send-off and a self-fulfilling prophecy all at once. It’s a testament to Bradley and Brenneck’s special bond, but it’s also proof of their commitment to the soul they share.
“Being able to bookend his career with Black Velvet is a way to acknowledge that he actually made Black Velvet real,” he continues. “He actually did all those things: he had a career that spanned all those records; he has a legacy and people knew him all over the place and loved him and he was known as a star and a soul singer and an incredible human. He actually realized his dreams. Giving him his title back and giving him Black Velvet back at the end was kind of a nod to him, just to acknowledge that he made his fantasy come true and actually became that persona.”