Excerpt: How Charles Bradley Went From James Brown Impersonator to Soul Legend

No other label has carried the torch more for soul and funk music than Daptone Records, the beloved New York institution who, for two decades, have both revived and minted some of the best musicians and singers the genre has to offer. Through the work of a group of music obsessives working out of a small Brooklyn recording studio, artists like Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Antibalas, the Dap-Kings, Lee Fields, the Budos Band and the Menahan Street Band helped resurrect and modernize soul and funk.

In celebration of the label’s 20th anniversary, journalist Jessica Lipsky lovingly and painstakingly dives into the label’s rich history in It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records and the 21st-Century Soul Revolution. The book charts the “history, players and sounds, while dissecting the cultural underpinnings that continue to reverberate in pop music.”

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In this edited excerpt from the book, Lipsky traces how Bradley evolved from a Brooklyn James Brown impersonator to a celebrated soul sensation.

In July 2011, Charles Bradley stood center stage, his bright red matador jacket with long, sequined lapels dripping with sweat, and let out a guttural howl. At age sixty-two, he had completely done away with pretense (though it’s unlikely he ever had much) and laid bare the depths of his soul to a hundred strangers. Bradley shared with the audience at Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park his most painful memories of losing his brother to gun violence, stretching into the distressed cry of a man consistently put down by life and taking a knee through powerful declarations of love. He suggestively wound his hips, dead-dropped onto the stage, and shed true tears of heartache and joy, before running out into the audience to give hugs to dozens of fans, all of whom seemed genuinely moved by his performance.

As the singer and his musicians — [Tom] Brenneck’s Menahan Street Band — came back for an encore of “Golden Rule,” the late-July storm that had been looming all evening broke wide open. Cymbals and bongos flew as thunder and lightning crashed; Victor Axelrod grabbed his organ before it was blown away and ran for cover; yet Charles Bradley, dubbed the “Screaming Eagle Of Soul” by his adoring band, remained onstage, drenched and lamenting, “How can we stop the changes going on in America today?” The New York Times, long respectful of Daptone and clearly enraptured by Bradley’s intensity, noted that, “having shed too many tears for one man, he made the sky cry.”

“A lot of artists is out there, but when they get out in the lamp lights they just want to sing and make money,” Bradley said from a hotel where he was taking a brief break during a 2016 European tour, his voice raspy but soft. “Yes, I want to sing and make money, but I want to give [audiences] something too, and thank them for the opportunities that I’m given. I want to give up the depths of my soul. I want to let the world know me as a person and an artist. The things that my eyes, my heart, my soul have seen while walking this planet.”

By the time Bradley was hugging his audience, pleading from his knees onstage, and wailing in the key of James Brown, he was in the midst of a meteoric rise to fame — which only took most of his life to achieve. His first LP, No Time For Dreaming, was released on Dunham/Daptone in January 2011 and almost immediately received critical praise for its orchestration and Bradley’s primal take on soul. Perhaps even more than Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley was soul music — the love, sorrow, exuberance, and fear written in the wrinkles of his face and his story were a true triumph of spirit which audiences ate up.

Charles Bradley was soul music — the love, sorrow, exuberance, and fear written in the wrinkles of his face.

Bradley was born in Florida but, like Jones, grew up in Bed-Stuy, [Brooklyn]. Fearing violence from his mother, he left home in 1962 at age fourteen — the same year his sister bought him a ticket to see James Brown’s legendary stand at the Apollo — and became homeless, sleeping on the subway. Bradley dropped out of school and spent ten years cooking at a Maine hospital for the mentally ill (a period that would establish his love of cooking for groups — and his inability to make a small meal), then hitchhiked across North America, stopping in Alaska, Canada, and Seattle before landing in California, where he spent most of the Eighties and Nineties working odd jobs. Once, Bradley sat in a pizza parlor contemplating suicide after a run-in with a state trooper robbed him of his dignity. But when another patron dropped change into the jukebox to play the Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit,” Bradley was shaken as if “God had blown the spirit into that song.” He ran out of the restaurant, encouraged to give life a try once more, and never stopped pushing.

Bradley’s big eyes and soft-spoken nature belied his many life challenges, including poverty, illiteracy (Bradley read at a first-grade level through much of his adult life), and near death from a penicillin allergy. After being laid off from his job of seventeen years, he moved back to Brooklyn in 1994 to care for his mother, with whom he had rekindled a relationship. Not too long after, his older brother Joseph — an income-tax broker and Vietnam veteran whom the singer described as the backbone of his family — was robbed and murdered by their nephew. The murder was recounted years later as “Heartaches And Pain” on No Time For Dreaming, but in the intervening years Bradley forced himself to take it to the limit while grieving a devastating loss. He worked as a handyman while living on the sixteenth floor of a housing project and occasionally in his mother’s basement.

Before his death, Joseph had encouraged his brother to follow his musical passions — first manifest during that 1962 James Brown show, after which a young Charles would do his best impressions of Soul Brother No. 1 by singing into a broom he had attached to a string. With a little liquid courage in the form of gin and 7-Up, and his hair curled to resemble Brown’s coif, Bradley made his public debut as a James Brown impersonator during a JobsCorp event at age nineteen. He recalled singing “Can’t Stand Myself When You Touch Me” and “Please, Please, Please” in front of five hundred girls; although he felt the rumblings of stage fright, Bradley was hooked.

Forty years after that first James Brown performance, Bradley stood at the apartment doorway of a quizzical Gabe Roth. “I heard you’re looking for a singer,” Bradley said, handing over his phone number. No one at the then-brand-new Daptone could figure out how Bradley heard about the label or found Roth’s address, but the co-founders agreed to see the singer do James Brown impersonations under the moniker Black Velvet with Jimmy Hill & The Allstarz Band.

“It was funny because it was winter, and I didn’t have a coat, so I went to a thrift store and grabbed a long leather coat. And I’d like sprained my knee or my ankle or something, so I had a cane,” Roth recalls, unaware at the time that his outfit would be on point for the occasion. “So, me and [Daptone co-founder/saxophonist Neal Sugarman] Shugs walk into the Tar-Heel Lounge on Bedford Avenue and it looked like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It seemed like it was all fucking pimps, like matching hats and fur coats and shit.”

After years of gigging around town at Essence Lounge in Weeksville and the Hiro Ballroom in Manhattan, Black Velvet had evolved into Bradley’s safe haven. The singer donned a variety of wigs (which he rarely took off) and wore hand-sewn costumes, shirking off his troubles by embodying his hero.

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Daptone musicians were recording Pure Cane Sugar around the same time, and had connected with funk and R&B showman The Mighty Hannibal to lend some vocals. But when Hannibal, then in his early sixties, came by the Afro Spot, he was drunk. “At one point, I tried to get him to sing a song ‘Take It As It Comes,’” Roth remembers. “He started singing with his nose, which was real weird, and we made a mistake of kind of laughing, which just encouraged him. We couldn’t get him to sing anymore. I had Charles’s number and was like, Man, lemme call this weird dude.”

Bradley’s guttural grunts and Black Velvet vocals appeared on the funky rocksteady track, and while Daptone would have worked with him again, Bradley was busy hustling outside the studio. Tommy Brenneck, still a teenager, had been petitioning Daptone to work with The Bullets — a new band his Staten Island crew had put together — and Roth shepherded Charles Bradley across New York Harbor for a rehearsal. “I could hardly understand what he said when he spoke at that time,” Brenneck says. “He was such a crazy, different person than I’d ever met in my life. And he rocked a James Brown wig all the time, which is an amazing persona.”

**

The singer’s visceral performances were often laced with tears, culminating with hugs and blessings.

Following the [2011] album [No Time For Dreaming] and [2013] documentary [Charles Bradley: Soul of America], Charles Bradley toured widely —the singer’s visceral performances were often laced with tears, culminating with hugs and blessings. Charles Bradley was sincerely grateful to be in front of fans, and his earnest, powerful shows elevated him to an almost saintly status. On at least one occasion, a pregnant fan asked Bradley to bless her unborn child; multiple fans named their sons after the singer.

However, Bradley suffered from a powerful stage fright that lasted the majority of his career and was intensified by illiteracy. “Charles was really forgetful with lyrics if I wasn’t riding him so hard,” Brenneck says. “I fucking paid for him to take reading classes when we were first getting started so he would be a little bit easier to work with in the studio. But the reading classes never really took off, because he was already, like, fifty-nine years old. He just charmed all the teachers; they loved him, but they weren’t hard on him.”

Bradley would have to memorize lyrics by ear, and he regularly became frustrated. “He’d ask me, ‘Why does it matter?’ I would have to explain to him that the music is moving around these lyrics and the record’s come out and people know the songs. You could change the melody, you could dance around the thing, but you really kind of have to say, ‘heartaches and pain.’”

Bradley almost left an early European tour opening for Lee Fields, Brenneck adds, “because he’s really not having a good time, because I was giving him such a hard time about remembering the lyrics.” Before Bradley was set to take stage, Fields gratefully stepped in and convinced Bradley to stay on the tour, put up with Tommy, and learn the lyrics. “He needed to hear that from somebody else — aside from somebody half of his age and the opposite color,” Brenneck states. Bradley also needed to see his words resonate with the audience. “I was afraid to get on the stage to sing it,” the singer recalls, “but then Lee Fields came over and said, ‘You better get on the stage and sing it, people came here to see you.’ But when I got on the stage to sing it, they just opened their arms and voices and showed me so much love,” he adds, the weight of that moment still palpable in his voice through space and Skype.

Experiencing that love — even from an audience that didn’t understand the language he was singing in — changed everything for Charles Bradley, who now put great effort into learning the lyrics to his songs. “He would sit in the dressing room and he would iron shirts to relax—for the whole band,” Brenneck recalls. “And he would just sit with his reading glasses and study his lyrics.” Even for simple songs like the hard-hitting psychedelic “Confusion,” which used more of an improvisational vamp than a serious story, “he would be sitting there practicing. Like ‘Confusion, confusion, baby confusion. Oooh confusion mama!’ I’m like, Charles, you’re fucking crazy.”

**

As he came into his own, Charles brought a lot of sexual energy to the stage, channeling the spirits of Bobby Womack and Luther Vandross

As he came into his own, Charles brought a lot of sexual energy to the stage, channeling the spirits of Bobby Womack and Luther Vandross to deliver the sort of “grown folks” music that championed slow motion over the raunchy antics of other artists. (Once, however, during a 2015 performance at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Bradley’s tour manager dared him to take off his pants onstage and suggestively grind his hips through a love song.) “Charles wasn’t comfortable with his sexuality anywhere else,” Homer Steinweiss says. “So, if you ever asked him, What’s going on onstage?, he’d just be like, That’s just what’s going on onstage. We’re not going to talk about it.” Bradley was rumored to have a male lover for years, but he was extremely private about his relationships; like Sharon Jones, he wasn’t known to date anyone at the height of his career. “I think he was really self-conscious, and he became kind of asexual for a long time,” the drummer theorizes, picking his words with sensitivity. Bradley told Vice that his real love was music, though it took ten years to get over the heartache of one major relationship. “It’ll be a strong person who can move that mountain out of my heart again. Because I do have the love inside me to give, but if I stumble this time I don’t think I’m gonna get back up, so I’m kind of real afraid of it,” he said.

For someone who spent the majority of his life behind a stove and seemed most comfortable donning a persona before getting onstage, performing as himself and tapping a bottomless well of emotion night after night (and also during soundcheck) took its toll. “Charles would put his all into the show, all of his energy, all of like everything he got,” saxophonist Freddy DeBoe says. “He would get nervous and had built up anxiety sometimes while getting ready, but we were always there to make him feel comfortable.” Brenneck recalled jamming to William Bell’s “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” whenever Charles would get weary on the road: “I’d play that opening lick and he would instantly light up and start screaming, Tommyyyyyy. Tommy you too much. You know me too well,” he wrote on Instagram. The song “would always lift his spirits so he could find the strength to get back on stage and give a 1000 percent of himself as he’d done the night before and the night before that to every audience large or small.”

Bradley would often pause during the set, covering his face with his hand or touching his forehead in pain. “When the soul hit me and the spirit hit me, sometimes you’ll be watching me onstage, when I just like to be standing in one spot and get quiet,” he explains. “I be resouling myself. I’ll say, ‘Lord this is the gift you give me, teach me how to stand strong with it and give it the way I feel it in my heart.’ Sometimes I get very emotional with it.”

While the members of his band (who were easily forty years younger than their leader) were down to party and DJ after gigs, Charles didn’t indulge in much beyond a good meal. “When the show was over, it was a huge relief for him,” DeBoe continues. “He would crash pretty soon after.” Bradley didn’t sleep in the tour bus bunks, so The Extraordinaires relegated the lounge area at the back of the bus as Charles’s chill-out spot. “I think he lived vicariously through us. He saw our youth, and he saw us having a good time, and it kind of made him feel like a kid again. He had a lot of tragic experiences earlier in his life. And he also kind of had his childhood stripped away from him in a way. I think he kind of relived some of that in a positive way by experiencing the world with us.”

This is an edited extract from It Ain’t Retro: Daptone Records & The 21st-Century Soul Revolution by Jessica Lipsky © Jessica Lipsky / Jawbone Press 2021

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