Heartaches and Pain

With the release of his final album, delves into the fascinating and tragic life of Charles Bradley


On his first album, No Time for Dreaming, Charles Bradley, in his characteristic raspy cry, sang the words: “Why is it so hard to make it in America? I tried so hard to make it in America.” These lines, so scathing, so simple and so passionately delivered, sum up much of Charles Bradley’s story. Born in to the fabled “land of milk and honey”, making it big didn’t come easily or quickly to Bradley. Like many great artists, he suffered, and he only got to share his talent, his honesty and his message with the world for a few years at the end of his tragedy-filled life.

Although he was hardly a global superstar, Charles Bradley’s story has been told a fair few times, including in numerous newspaper articles and the BBC Four documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America. Yet, the story is often told best through Bradley himself, and his fiercely impassioned lyrics.

The long and rocky road to Bradley’s success began in Gainesville, Florida in 1948. Here, Charles Bradley was born and abandoned by his mother. Bradley never met his father and, for the first eight years of his life, it was his grandmother who raised him. It was only after nearly a decade that Bradley’s mother returned, asking the boy to move to Brooklyn to live there with her. He followed her to New York and lived for several years along with his sister and brother Joseph. It is Joseph who had a crucial impact on Bradley’s life and would go on to play a defining role in his music too.

In a home life that Bradley has suggested was far from stable, he lived unhappily and, sick of his strained relationship with his mother, left home. Here began a period of homelessness in Bradley’s life that, for many others would have been the beginning of the end. Things looked bleak as he spent much of his time on subway trains, and perhaps even bleaker when he turned down a place on a friend’s sofa after staying a night in the rat infested house. This chapter in Bradley’s life is where so many would have turned to drugs. While he admits to having tried soft substances once or twice, he stayed away from the slippery slope of heroin. The decision to resist hard drug use is something Bradley partly attributed to his terrible fear of needles. Instead, he enlisted in the Job Corps, a large American education and training program that helps get people into work.

At several points throughout Bradley’s catalogue of music, we can find lyrics that relate to his life. Perhaps one such example is the title track from his debut LP No Time for Dreaming. Hearing Bradley sing, “No time for dreaming/ Gotta get on up and do my thing,” it is easy to imagine him thinking these words as he moved out of the streets and subways of The Big Apple and around the country, eventually to Maine, where he worked as a chef.

During this time, Charles Bradley began to find his voice. With a deep and gravelly delivery that makes him sound permanently on the edge of emotional breakdown, Bradley’s classic soul voice marks him as an outlier in the modern era. He has often been compared to the likes of Otis Redding, Al Green and James Brown. It is the latter who had the greatest impact on Bradley’s career. He and his sister saw the “Godfather of Soul” at the Apollo Theatre when Bradley was 14 and while working as a chef, he began to make extra money doing a number of gigs, including as a James Brown impersonator. Over the years, he did this under several names including “Black Velvet” and “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”. The latter seems particularly apt for Bradley. Just look at any picture of him singing; he looks magnificent, powerful, and as if he is baring the very soul of his being to you. That’s how he looks, and it’s how Charles Bradley sounds too.

Nouse spoke to Liam Hart, host of The Blues Kitchen Radio podcast, about Bradley’s personality and music. Hart addresses the Brown comparisons: “I absolutely adore James Brown, but there seemed to be more melody in what Charles Bradley was doing. […] James Brown’s not necessarily pouring his heart out, he’s very much a bandleader. I’m not saying Charles Bradley is better, I’m just saying he’s different.” Hart’s comments are an example of how Bradley, in the modern era, called to mind so many soul greats, but was very much his own man, and held his own amongst the legends of the genre.

Bradley continued impersonating James Brown for many years, during which even more hardship was endured, including a short stint in prison. Most shockingly, however, Bradley nearly left this life for the next when he was struck down with a terrible fever. He was treated using penicillin, which he happened to be severely allergic to. By this point, Bradley had moved back to Brooklyn to reconnect with his mother, and he recounts his brother Joseph coming to see him at his bedside in hospital and helping him to pull through his illness. After Bradley recovered, Joseph was very loving and supportive, encouraging his brother to pursue a musical career.

What came next is therefore most heartbreaking of all. Joseph was shot and killed by one of Bradley’s own nephews, leaving the singer devastated. After suffering so much throughout his life and then confronted with this news, it is difficult to imagine how Bradley must have felt. It is therefore best to let him say it himself, in the lyrics to the superb ‘Heartaches and Pain’. He sings, with great class and pain about how he discovered his brother had been shot, prefacing this with the devastatingly prescient advice of Joseph himself: “So my brother said to me/ Charles gotta stand tall/ Because life is full of sorrow/ Heartaches and pain.”

All of this must have had a profound and humbling effect on Bradley as a person, which Hart says came across when meeting him. “Whenever you spoke to him, he was just full of emotion, at all times, whether it was pure joy, sadness, or a combination of the two. I interviewed him three times, and twice he was in tears,” Hart explains, adding that, “I have been very lucky to meet some heroes over the years and interviewed some pretty interesting people, but Charles Bradley was the one that warmed my heart the most, by a million miles. There’s no one like him.” The genuine, honest emotion that Hart describes eventually impressed Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records. Bradley was signed by Daptone and paired with Thomas Brenneck as his producer, who also plays the guitar in the Menahan Street Band, who supported Bradley on most of his releases. Hart stresses the importance of Daptone in Bradley’s success: “Daptone knew how to present him, which with all due respect to Charles, he probably didn’t know how to do.” Bradley trusted Brenneck and Roth, which Hart points out you can see in the astoundingly emotional cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘Changes’. Bradley didn’t know the song, but “he put trust in those guys and it paid off.”

In 2011, at the age of 62, Charles Bradley released his first album into the world. Given everything he went through, it is hard to do justice to what an incredible achievement this was. Hart suggests that Bradley’s age and experiences contributed to the quality of his music. “I work a lot around blues,” he says, “and there’s something much more believable about the older guys, because they’ve lived it.” He also points out the somewhat sad truth: “Pain, nine times out of ten, creates the more interesting music.” If nothing else, Bradley certainly knew pain, and his music is all the richer for it.

Charles Bradley died of cancer in 2017, at the age of 68. His fourth LP, made up of material recorded throughout Bradley’s career, has just been released. It is, fittingly, named Black Velvet, in a nod to his James Brown days. Hart acknowledges: “Sometimes with posthumous releases you think, ‘Would the artist be turning in their grave if they heard this?’” but assures Nouse that, “I absolutely don’t think Charles Bradley would. I think he’d still just be absolutely delighted that people still cared, and probably cared more than ever about his canon of work.” Let me assure you, the pleasure is all ours Charles.