Charles Bradley was 63 years old when his first full-length album, No Time For Dreaming, was released via DapTone Records in 2011. Despite its title, the old school soul and R&B vocalist had spent much of his life chasing dreams, including his dream of putting out a record and performing for packed audiences night after night. These aspirations were what kept Bradley going during what was often a very difficult journey to stardom.

At the age of 14, Bradley witnessed a James Brown concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater that inspired his love for music and convinced him to develop a stage presence based on the Godfather of Soul’s performance style. That same year, he ran away from his impoverished Brooklyn home and began a 40-year struggle with hard work, heartbreak, and occasional homelessness. Yet through it all, he had love in his soul and music on his mind.

Beginning in 1967, Bradley began working side gigs as a James Brown impersonator. It’s a role he would take up—off and on—for the next 45 years, whether he was living in Maine, California or New York. It’s also what he was doing, under the stage named Black Velvet, when he was discovered by Daptone Records co-founder Bosco Mann in 2002. After impersonating James Brown for decades, this chance encounter finally gave Bradley the opportunity to develop his own sound in earnest.

Charles Bradley as Black Velvet

The next few years were a whirlwind for Bradley, who put out a variety of singles while backed by Daptone-affiliated acts like Sugarman & Co., The Bullets, and Menahan Street Band. The record label’s dedication to preserving the funk, soul, and R&B styles of the ’60 and ’70 made it the perfect home for Bradley, and these early efforts brought some newfound attention to the late-blooming singer. However, it was 2011’s No Time For Dreaming—with its breakthrough single “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)”— and the acclaimed 2012 documentary Soul of America that piqued America’s interest in Bradley and quickly turned him into an in-demand act. 

Charles Bradley – “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)”

Unsurprisingly, audiences loved Bradley’s old school sound and his powerful stage presence. While his three albums are a delight, live performances were where the magic really happened, and Bradley made sure to perform as much as possible during the last few years of his life. Whether he was backed by the Menahan Street Band or, later, His Extraordinaires, the singer always managed to wring every ounce of feeling from every note and every movement. With each breath and each step, Bradley displayed a lifetime’s worth of agony—and a lifetime’s worth of love—all at once. For older fans, he offered a throwback to a bygone musical era. For younger fans, he offered a fresh take on an old-school sound and a respite from the trappings of modern music. For everyone, he offered his heart and his soul.

Charles Bradley – “Changes” (Black Sabbath cover)

[Video: KEXP]

Sadly, Bradley was forced to call off his tour after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the fall of 2016. He was briefly able to return the stage for a number of shows but, a little over a year after his diagnosis—on September 23, 2017—Bradley passed away at the age of 68, having relished every moment in the limelight that eluded him for most of his life. While we won’t get to see his infectious smile on stage anymore, his music will always bee here for all of us. Perhaps more importantly, his story of struggle and eventual success will inspire countless others to keep their eyes on the prize and love in their hearts no matter what obstacles come their way.

[Originally published 4/11/18]