From head to toe: Charles Bradley

A former tailor and chef who was plucked from his James Brown tribute act and came to occupy his very own legitimate place in soul history: Charles Bradley in life and limb. 

Squeezed lemon head
Just like the late BB King, Charles Bradley’s head looks like a squeezed lemon. Watch the clip that precedes his new album Changes. In the music video to the title track, a tormented Black Sabbath cover, you see the singer in close-up listening to and reacting to his song. He looks like a vat of raw emotion overflowing because the text reminds him of the death of his mother and how it affected him. For once, he is speechless.

It was Sharon Jones who tipped us off about Bradley’s debut brimming with vintage soul, funk, and R&B. “You should definitely check out the documentary Soul of America,” she told us, “about a life of falling down and getting back up, in which the sacred fire burned enduringly, even though sometimes it was only a little flame”. On his debut album, No Time for Dreaming (2011), with which he debuted when he was 62, he could finally unleash all his misery.

When Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records discovered the singer and convinced him that he was much more than an imitator, he left behind a colourful and eventful life. After a difficult youth on the streets of Brooklyn, he cut across the belly of America and ended up in Maine, Alaska, and California, where he worked as a tailor – Bradley still makes all his own podium outfits – and a chef. So his first single, “Take It As It Comes”, couldn’t have been more appropriate. 

His life was given a higher purpose when in 1962, his sister cajoled him into going to a James Brown concert at the Apollo Theater: “He was lit up by stroboscopes and lighting effects; oh my God, I wanted to be like that.” Impressed by so much energy and talent, he started practicing Brown’s moves with a broom. But the tribute act that he later started fell apart when the Vietnam War broke out. Under his later alias Black Velvet, he remained mostly an imitator, until he found his own voice and purpose as “The Screaming Eagle of Soul”. 

Back in New York, Daptone has linked him to songwriter Thomas Brenneck, who recommended that he share his personal experiences with his audiences, for example like the time he woke up to discover that his cousin had shot his brother dead. Songs like “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” and “Heartaches & Pain”, but also the emotion on his second album, Victim of Love (2013), which sounded more psychedelic than his soul debut, and on the new Changes (2016), come straight from his tormented, but grateful heart.

7/4, 20.00, Koninklijk Circus/Cirque Royal,

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