Charles Bradley, the acclaimed soul singer and exuberant live performer who saw his career ascend late in life, died Saturday following a bout with stomach and liver cancer. He was 68.
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Charles Bradley,” the singer’s rep said in a statement. “Always a fighter, Charles battled cancer with everything he had. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the fall of 2016 and underwent treatment. Bradley headed out on the road earlier this year after receiving a clean bill of health but the cancer recently returned, spreading to his liver.”
Bradley’s reps added, “Thank you for your prayers during this difficult time. Mr. Bradley was truly grateful for all the love he’s received from his fans and we hope his message of love is remembered and carried on.”
Over the course of three albums – 2011’s No Time for Dreaming, 2013’s Victim of Love and 2016’s Changes – Bradley, known as the “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” blended heartfelt ballads of love, longing and remorse with raucous tracks celebrating joy and the survival of a hardscrabble life.
“The world lost a ton of heart today,” Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Bradley’s label Daptone Records, said. “Charles was somehow one of the meekest and strongest people I’ve ever known. His pain was a cry for universal love and humanity. His soulful moans and screams will echo forever on records and in the ears and hearts of those who were fortunate enough to share time with him.
“I find some solace knowing that he will continue to inspire love and music in this world for generations to come,” he added. “I told him as much a few days ago. He smiled and told me, ‘I tried.’ It was probably the simplest and most inspiring thing he ever told me. I think he wanted to hug each person on this planet individually. I mean that literally, and anyone that ever saw him knows that he honestly tried.”
“RIP to our dear brother Charles Bradley,” veteran Afrobeat group and Daptone Records labelmate Antibalas wrote on Twitter. “Your heart was too big for this planet. See you on the other side. We love you.”
Charles Edward Bradley was born November 5th, 1948 in Florida but his mother, who had left for New York, moved Bradley to Brooklyn when he was 8 years old. At 14, Bradley left home and became homeless, sleeping on New York subway trains for warmth. “I was afraid that she was going to hurt me, so I left,” Bradley said of his mother in the 2012 documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America. “We couldn’t see eye to eye and I was getting blamed for everything, so I was very bitter.”
In 1962, Bradley’s sister took him to James Brown’s landmark performance at the Apollo Theater when he was 14. The show transformed Bradley, who would later find regional success in New York as a James Brown impersonator named Black Velvet.
“It was breathtaking,” Bradley told Rolling Stone of the Apollo show in 2016. “I didn’t know who James Brown really was but I wanted to go see. When they called James Brown onstage, I’ll never forget they had this purple light and yellow light – my two favorite colors. And when they introduced him, he came flying on the stage on one leg and I said, ‘What in the hell is this?’ [Laughs] And I was mesmerized. I was just gone. I was just shocked. Shocked. I said, ‘Wow. I wanna be something like that.'”
The fledgling impersonator went home, attached string to a broom to emulate Brown’s bombastic mic swings, and began impersonating the singer in private before performing his first show as Brown at age 19 in 1967. “I was really scared to do it, so they snuck a bottle of gin [laughs] in the gym with 7-Up in it, and I got fired up,” he told Rolling Stone. “I said, ‘Give me that mic!’ … I ain’t never stopped yet.”
A drifter as a teen who battled with illiteracy, poverty and chronic unemployment, the Brooklyn singer would later nearly die from a penicillin allergy and find his brother murdered by Bradley’s own nephew. Bradley became an itinerant after leaving home, traveling across the country in 1977 after spending 10 years as a cook at a Maine hospital for the mentally ill before ending up in California. Shows would come occasionally, but Bradley was unable to find any success in music at the time. After getting laid off from his job after 17 years in 1994, Bradley reconnected with his estranged mother Inez, moving back to Brooklyn to take care of her.
At the time, Bradley nearly died from an allergy. “I was sick as a dog,” he said in Soul of America. “I was close to death. I’m allergic to penicillin and they was feeding me penicillin and my body had shut down.” After recovering, his brother Joseph told him, “Now do something that you want to do. Follow your dreams. You love music. Do it.” As documented in Soul of America, the singer was a functional illiterate, able to read at a first-grade level and seeing a tutor weekly to improve his reading skills.
Shortly after his hospitalization, Bradley endured one of the biggest tragedies of his life when his older brother Joseph was robbed and murdered by one of Bradley’s nephews. “I stopped dead; I blocked it out of my head,” Bradley told Okayplayer in 2011. “I said ‘Lord, please don’t let it be true.’ … I went down screaming.” Bradley detailed the event in 2011’s “Heartaches and Pain,” singing, “I woke up this morning/My momma she was cryin/So I looked out my window/Police lights was flashing/People was screaming/So I ran down to the street/My friends grabbed my shoulder/And he said these words to me: Life is full of sorrow.”
With his brother’s call to “follow his dreams” echoing in his head, Bradley eked out a living in New York clubs covering Brown, incorporating wigs and costumes he would hand-sew himself. (During the day, Bradley worked as a handyman to make ends meet.) Roth saw one of Bradley’s shows and introduced him to label producer-musician Tom Brenneck, who would go on to produce all three Bradley albums.
“I’ll carry that man in my heart for the rest of my life,” Brenneck said in a statement.
In 2011, at the age of 62, Bradley released his debut album No Time for Dreaming with the Menahan Street Band after a string of singles. The album, which included the galvanizing “The World (Is Going Up in Flames),” was named by Rolling Stone as one of the 50 Best Albums of the Year. “Don’t tell me how to live my life / When you never felt the pain,” Bradley sings.
”I been struggling for over 42 years trying to make it in the industry,” he said in Soul of America. “And at the age of 62, I’m just beginning to find my way through. I never made enough money to support myself in music, but I’m hoping that this album will make a turning point for me … I ask myself why it took so long, but you can’t question God when he want to do things.”
Victim of Love, with its unlikely hit “Strictly Reserved for You,” would follow in 2013, earning near-universal critical acclaim and bolstering Bradley’s status as a soul star with unmatched authenticity.
Bradley’s final album, Changes, arrived in 2016, taking its title from a cover on the album of Black Sabbath’s 1972 ballad. Bradley hadn’t heard of the heavy metal pioneers, but connected with Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler’s personal lyrics about transformation as Bradley watched his mom’s health deteriorate.
“The verse that really stuck to me was, ‘It took so long to realize/That I can still hear her last goodbyes/Now all my days are filled with tears/Wish I could go back and change these years,'” Bradley told Rolling Stone. “Because it was like my mom saying she was sick and she was leaving me and something about that song … I just took the last lyrics and wow. So I got stuck on it. I didn’t really have to ‘learn’ it; it just stuck to my brain.”
The minimalist video, shot shortly after Bradley’s mom’s death, consists solely of a close-up one-shot of the singer at his most vulnerable.
As fiery and poignant as Bradley could be on record, his live shows allowed the singer to both channel his decades of adoration for Brown alongside his own boisterous flourishes. Like labelmate Sharon Jones, a Charles Bradley show balanced the flamboyant with the crestfallen, alternating between elated party and a singer’s catharsis laid bare in public. Bradley was a relentlessly transfixing presence onstage, able to quiet an entire audience with a ballad before turning a crowd frenzied with full-stage dancing and a deep, full-throated roar.
Last year, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in his stomach, forcing Bradley to cancel his fall tour. “I will fight through this like I’ve fought through the many other obstacles in my life,” Bradley said at the time. “Music is how I share my love with the world, and the love that my fans have given back brings me so much joy.” Earlier this month, the cancer metastasized to his liver.
“I love all of you out there that made my dreams come true,” Bradley said earlier this month. “When I come back, I’ll come back strong, with God’s love. With God’s will, I’ll be back soon.”
“Right now, I don’t see a stopping point ’cause I don’t see no place where I can stop at and rest in peace,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “But I know that from doing shows for the public, the love when I go out into the audience and hug ’em and the things that they say to me personally … [pauses] Wow. It’s not only me onstage doing it. I open their hearts up and they feel the love of my heart and when I go out there and really respond to ’em and talk to ’em, they tell me some things.”
Toward the end of Soul of America, Bradley cried when discussing his place in the world. “Sometimes I say, ‘God, just call me home.’ Because every day I get out and I fight and fight to keep the honesty [and] the decency of a human being walking the planet and loving everybody as God asked you to love everybody,” Bradley said. “How much more can one give before they find love on the planet? I say, ‘Father, when the time of the hour you want me, I’m ready to go.’ And before I leave this world, I say, ‘Let the world know they can’t change me … I love everybody. I never do nobody no harm.'”