Soul singer Charles Bradley, one of the biggest stars in the Daptone Records galaxy, died Saturday at age 68 after a valiant battle with stomach and liver cancer.
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Charles Bradley,” Daptone Records said in a statement. “Always a fighter, Charles battled cancer with everything he had. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the fall of 2016 and underwent treatment. Bradley headed out on the road earlier this year after receiving a clean bill of health but the cancer recently returned, spreading to his liver.”
A visceral, exuberant performer who dazzled audiences both nationally and internationally, Bradley came to fame late in life. Born in Florida in 1948 and raised in Brooklyn, Bradley left home at 14, slept in subway cars for years before working odd jobs and making his way to San Francisco, which he proudly proclaimed to be his second home. Bradley returned to New York in the mid-’90s and worked as a James Brown impersonator named Black Velvet. (The Godfather of Soul was a lifelong inspiration to Bradley, who emulated much of Brown’s onstage antics and passion in his own shows.)
Throughout his life, Bradley battled homelessness, illiteracy, and depression, much of which was chronicled in the 2012 film Soul of America. Eventually, Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth discovered him, and Bradley and worked with Dap-King Tom Brenneck to release a handful of singles, beginning in 2002. In 2011, at age 63, Bradley would record “No Time For Dreaming” at Daptone Studios, backed by Menahan Street Band — which included several members of The Dap-Kings — a debut album of soaring soul and incredible pain that would question “Why is it so hard to make it in America” and follow with self-determined, James Brown-influenced lines such as “No time for dreaming / Gotta get on up / And do my thing.”
Bradley’s “distinctively rough-hewn timbre [is] … the unmistakable voice of experience — each note and gruff inflection a reflection of his extended, sometimes rocky, personal path,” Daptone writes. Yet for all of his life’s hardship, the singer exuded love, tenderness, and a deep appreciation for his success. Dubbed “The Screaming Eagle of Soul,” Bradley would wail his heart out on stage, occasional tears coming to his eyes, and seemingly without any pretense or fabrication, declare his love for the audience. He would often hop off stage and into the crowd for hugs and handshakes.
“Sometimes when I go into the audience and I hug some peoples out there, Jessica, I feel the hurt, the love. Some peoples out there never got a chance to really express themselves and, boy, sometimes they say things to me,” Bradley told me in 2016. “That’s what gets me to walk a narrow and straight pathway, because of the love that I get from the people, what they say to me. And I have to be careful what I’m doing. I want to be a good singer; I want to help people with their life.”
Indeed, Bradley was able to connect with his audience on a deep level. Seeing him at The Independent or Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was always entertaining and uplifting, but it was never entirely easy. In the half dozen or so times I saw Charles Bradley and his Extraordinares, the backing band which would tour with Bradley for several years, I acutely felt the power of his performance and the sincerity with which he sang. It was as if my heart were being positively ripped out.
Bradley followed No Time For Dreaming with Victim of Love in 2013 and released his third record, Changes, in 2016. Each received acclaim for its heartfelt lyrics, beautiful orchestration, and trademark Daptone production quality. For all the excellence of his recorded work, I believe Charles Bradley was meant to be seen live and would venture to say that his band believed so too. All the musicians seemed to look at their singer in reverence.
“He gave all of us so much love like we were his sons,” The Extraordinaires wrote on Instagram. “We all shared incredible experiences together and backed him up on & offstage for over 6 years. … He will live on in our hearts & through his music forever.”
Bradley and his band canceled multiple shows over the past year as he underwent cancer treatment and recovery. Many of these notices were followed by hopeful words from the Screaming Eagle: “I love all of you out there that made my dreams come true. When I come back, I’ll come back strong, with God’s love. With God’s will, I’ll be back soon.”
“Mr. Bradley was truly grateful for all the love he’s received from his fans and we hope his message of love is remembered and carried on,” Daptone stated.
He joins sister-in-soul, the late great Sharon Jones, who passed away in November 2016.