When Charles Bradley, the “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” died last week of cancer at the age of 68, the music world lost one of its most sincere voices and exuberant live performers. Gabriel Roth, whose label Daptone Records released all of Bradley’s music, had first seen the singer as Black Velvet, Bradley’s James Brown-impersonating alter ego who performed in small bars around New York. Along with musician-producer Tom Brenneck, Roth helped Bradley throughout his career and watched the singer rise from obscure vocalist to critically acclaimed performer. Here, Roth remembers what made the cathartic singer so resonant and vital.
I was able to spend a day with him at the hospital last week. [Pauses] Even before he was sick, the way he spoke about love and humanity and trying to do the right thing and reflecting on his life was like he was on his deathbed anyway. He just had one speed and it was sincerity. He didn’t like to bullshit; he liked to speak from his heart. So when I saw him last week in the hospital, it was not an unfamiliar tone to have those kinds of conversations with him. He was talking about how hard he tried and trying to give me advice to make sure I rest; it’s all the kind of stuff that we would be talking about anyway.
He was very grateful for the amount of love that he was able to give and receive in this life. That dude just wanted to hug everybody and lift everybody up. He had a lot of pain in his life and his reaction to that was to try and reach out to other people and alleviate pain. He was hugging people because he thought they needed hugs, but he needed the hugs too.
People dwell on some things in his past like being homeless and poor which is something that’s despicably common – unnecessarily so in this country. But if you look a little bit deeper into Charles and his story, he had a lot of pain and suffering and challenges that went beyond that as far as abandonment from his mother and seeing his brother get killed. He went through some terrible things in his life and you see a little bit more complex picture.
“He just had one speed and it was sincerity.”
The things that made him special was not not being poor and getting lucky – that’s just the mediocre, shitty American story. His particular story is deeper as far as the pain and the challenges he had as a human and his reaction to that and who he became. His ability to transform that into something so cathartic for thousands and thousands and people all over the world. I’d get letters from people all the time who had these life-changing moments at his shows.
He had a certain humanity to him; a certain empathy and a sense of love and being in this together as humans and somehow suffering together being a little bit easier than suffering apart. It was all about just him wanting so bad for people to be better and more loving towards each other. It was really inspiring and that’s the stuff that made him more than just “some homeless guy who caught a break.”
The one thing that I think gets passed over too much with Charles are [Bradley’s backing band] the Extraordinaires. That was his family. They were living with the dude day in and day out bringing life to his music. Those guys end up being unsung heroes that disappear in these histories, man. You have these meteorites that come out of nowhere and blaze through our lives like Charles and you miss on the thing that was giving them their fuel.
“[His voice] was beyond guttural; it just hit people in the heart.”
When he moaned or screamed on record or on the stage, that’s coming from a deep place, man. That’s coming from a real, raw pain. There was something for him about turning that into a sound that was so important for him and that’s what resonated with people. It was beyond guttural; it just hit people in the heart.
I never translated it as sympathy. I don’t think people heard him and went, “Oh, he sounds like he’s had a hard time and I feel sorry for him.” There was something powerful and empowering and uplifting in the way he did those things. That’s what soul music is about to me; soulful music is about bearing the human soul and being able to express something common between all of us.
It’s a feeling that all of us have but not all of us have the ability to make those sounds and wretch something up from our guts and have it come through a microphone and it just lays your feelings out on the table in front of you. Charles did that for thousands of people at a time and hit people right in the heart. People need that.
As told to Jason Newman