Charles Bradley

Of music and movies

Thursday, August 22, 2013

For many of us, a love of music is not limited simply to going to shows and listening to albums. Instead, it’s an all-encompassing area of interest. We scour the internet for info about bands we both love and hate. We read books about musicians in particular and music in general. We watch biopics and, for the cable-friendly, episodes of shows like Behind the Music and True Hollywood Story. We don’t just want to listen to music, we want to experience it, understand it, immerse ourselves in it. We don’t just want to learn the lyrics to our favorite songs, we also want to know the stories that inspired them.

What I’m trying to say is, when it comes to music, we love the lore.

There’s no doubt that soul singer Charles Bradley has a story more farfetched and amazing than most. Indeed, it’s the kind of tale that should probably be committed to film—and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Along with all of the other things that have happened to him of late, Bradley’s life is the subject of a documentary, Charles Bradley: Soul of America that will be shown at 6:30pm Thurs., Aug. 22 at the Pickford Film Center. Of course, this is just the warm-up for Bradley’s upcoming Bellingham show, which will happen Sun., Sept. 1 at the Wild Buffalo.

Soul of America chronicles the singer’s unlikely rise from the streets of New York City to his work as James Brown impersonator “Black Velvet” to the soul powerhouse he is today. Filmed in the days before the release of the singer’s first full-length album, No Time for Dreaming (called one of the best albums of 2011 by Rolling Stone), the documentary details the highs and considerable lows of the man now called the “Screaming Eagle of Soul.”

What makes Bradley’s story the stuff of great cinema is the fact that, when his big break came, it didn’t happen until he was 61 years old. And before it happened, life wasn’t exactly kind to the soft-spoken, big-voiced soul singer. Abandoned by his mother, Bradley grew up running wild in the streets instead of studying in the classroom. Functionally illiterate, occasionally homeless, Bradley bounced around the country, working a series of menial jobs and dealing with the murder of his brother and the reentry into his life of his mother.

Whatever the trials and heartache he endured, the one thread that wove itself throughout Bradley’s life was music, and for 40 years, he honed his act as a James Brown impersonator and waited for his big break to come. When it did, it would happen via Daptone Records, the label that’s also home to Sharon Jones, and whose Dap-Kings performed on Amy Winehouse’s many-Grammy-winning Back to Black.

If you’re an aspiring soul singer, Daptone is not exactly a bad place to hang your hat—or, in Bradley’s case, your jumpsuit.

There was just one catch: Daptone didn’t want to Bradley to sing James Brown’s songs. They wanted him to make an album of his own original songs.

Despite the fact that Bradley had been performing for four-plus decades, it wasn’t until he was at the age that most people consider retiring that he truly found his voice. Figuring his life was an ample source of material, Bradley began mining it for inspiration, and the result was the kind of absolutely authentic soul music that could only come from someone intimately familiar with hard living.

Determined to take his chance, hold onto it tight with both hands and make the most of it, Bradley’s debut album, No Time for Dreaming hit listeners like a ton of bricks. It was a calling card that announced a major talent, and had nearly everyone asking the question, “Is this guy for real?”

Performance footage in Soul of America provides an unequivocal answer to that question, but to truly understand the raw passion and power of this late-blooming soul singer, one must to experience him live and in person.

That opportunity, as I mentioned, will come Sept. 1, when Bradley will make his way back to Bellingham and the Wild Buffalo. This is not the Screaming Eagle’s first visit here, and thanks to a forgotten pair of pants and a willingness to on the part of the Buffalo’s booking team to drive hundreds of miles at the drop of a hat to return them to him, it (hopefully) won’t be his last. Sure, Bradley’s playing larger venues in bigger towns these days, but given the kind of life he’s led, he’s not one to forget someone who’s done him a good turn—and we get to be the lucky beneficiaries of his good nature.

Having witnessed the magic that is a Charles Bradley concert, I can honestly say that my vocabulary does not contain words that can properly do the experience justice. When all is said and done, and I’m tallying the musical accounts of my life, I’m sure his will be on the short list of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Simply put, Bradley sings like a guy who spent the first six decades of his life waiting to be discovered, and now that he has been, he’s going to make the most of every single second of it. Frankly, the whole thing is a little awe-inspiring, and it’s not uncommon to see audience members with tears in their eyes while he performs.

Given Bradley’s reputation for singularly powerful performances, it goes without saying that a sellout show is inevitable. At the present moment, tickets are still available (for both the documentary and the show itself), but may not be for long. Bradley has spent decades waiting for his chance to perform for us. The least we can do is show up and make it worth his considerable effort.

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