Charles Bradley waited more than 60 years to tell his story on his debut album, 2011's No Time for Dreaming. Even as he was touring relentlessly to support that album with his backing group, Brooklyn's Menahan Street Band, he was impatient, itching to get back into the studio.
"All it did was open the first page of the first book," says Bradley, whose second album, Victim of Love (Dunham/Daptone), comes out April 2nd. "A lot of things inside me have not been told. They're crying for a chance to come forward."
Whether he's singing about his hungry heart or his deep despair over the world's inequities, Bradley has become known for his pleading brand of hard, classic soul. Though he's been billed for years as Black Velvet, appearing in a James Brown tribute show with another Brooklyn group, the AllStarz (whose members have toured with the Intruders, Clarence Carter and Brass Construction), he's not about smooth: Bradley, also tagged the Screaming Eagle of Soul, emotes like he's trying to be heard in a "Hurricane," to name one new song.
Storms are a recurring theme. Another new track, the aptly disorienting "Confusion," borrows from the psychedelic soul of the Temptations' later period. It was written, like a lot of Bradley's songs, out of a Menahan jam. "Tom [Brenneck, guitarist] started playing it and it hit me," says Bradley. "It came out naturally."
Bradley's tough-luck story – involving a lifetime of odd jobs, occasional homelessness and the murder of his brother – is told in the documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America. It premieres on April 10th on EPIX after a well-received SXSW debut last year.
Filmmaker Poull Brien says he first encountered Bradley's music when a buddy was catching him up on recent neo-soul acts such as Sharon Jones and Ale Blacc. "I used to be an old soul and funk DJ," Brien says. The song "The World (Is Going Up in Flames)," which would become the lead track of Bradley's debut album, "totally dialed me in," and soon he was offering to make a video for Daptone free of charge.
That led to the documentary. "He was everything you could possibly want in a subject," says Brien. "Here's this enthusiastic crew in his face all the time, hanging on his every word. And he was completely open – there was no moment he wouldn't let us into. We felt blessed, lucky to find a guy like that."
The singer begins touring behind Victim of Love on April 12th, hitting the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival later that month before coming home to New York for a gig at the historic Apollo Theater on May 16th. Bradley was there for Brown's funeral in 2007. He met his idol once, while working as a cook in San Francisco.
"I went to his dressing room and we rapped," he recalls. "I said, 'James, give me a chance, man.' He looked me up and down and said, 'Young man, I can tell you're a good artist.'" But the Godfather of Soul was not about to share the stage with a low-level soldato.
Since launching his own career, Bradley has performed with another idol, Stevie Wonder. He also loves him some divas, including Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand, he says. But he's becoming best known for his own over-the-top performances, in which he drops to his knees and wades into the crowd for group hugs.
His energy, he says, is boosted every night by his audience. "When you been looking for something all your life . . ." he says, trailing off. "I just take care of my health and keep knocking down doors. I'm out here to please everyone and show you a good time."
At 64, after a lifetime of struggling, he has no intention of slowing down. "You're never too old until you're in the ground," he says. "When I stop singing and dancing, it's time to go home to a greater afterlife."
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