Rest your wings, “Screaming Eagle of Soul.” One of the most profoundly moving documentaries I have ever seen, “Charles Bradley: Soul of America,” had everything to do with the kind of man and artist Mr. Bradley was, and the kind of life he lived. He met every hardship with grace, every obstacle with optimism, and everyone who crossed his path with kindness.
He never gave up on anybody or anything — least of all his dream to preach love and reach people through his music. A gifted singer and entertainer since his teenage years, Charles’s life was changed when he saw James Brown perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1962. In the ensuing years marked by struggle and adversity, Charles made ends meet as a Brown impersonator, often stitching, sewing, and decorating his own stage costumes from attire he found in thrift shops.
After decades marked by bouts of debilitating homelessness, life-threatening illness, and harrowing family tragedy, Bradley was finally “discovered” by the retro-soul focused Daptone label (actually, in an uncharacteristically bold step, it was he who knocked on their door, answering a call for singers).
The label had nearly single-handedly sparked a renaissance and revival of the aesthetics, feel, and approach to the bygone era of soul titans like Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Mavis Staples. Previously, they had signed old-school soul belter Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, whose music was taking hold for a new generation of listeners in a big way (the Dap-King crew would go on to work with, and help define the sound of, British neo-soul sensation Amy Winehouse).
Daptone was at first struck by Bradley’s chutzpah — here, after all, was a 60- something year-old dude who had walked into a hip Brooklyn record label run by 20-and-30-somethings, and boldly offered his services as a singer.
Intrigued, they put Bradley with a band to see (or, more accurately, hear) just what he had to offer. The result was as immediate and bracing as the heart and soul that poured from his voice. Daptone released Bradley’s debut album, “No Time For Dreaming,” in 2011, and it received raves as one of the best pieces of music that year. Charles was 62 years old.
In recent weeks, Bradley had been forced to cancel a new slew of tour dates, upon learning that the stomach cancer he had beaten last autumn had returned and spread to his liver. Messages and notes from his fans all over the world, and heartfelt prayers for recovery, flew like butterflies.
In one of his last messages posted to social media, Charles told his heartbroken fans that he loved them all dearly, and said he hoped to return to the stage, stronger than ever, to perform again after he overcame this obstacle, too.
“I love all of you out there that made my dreams come true,” Bradley wrote. “When I come back, I’ll come back strong, with God’s love. With God’s will, I’ll be back soon.”
Sadly, that hopeful future was not to be, as the cancer claimed him this past Saturday, at age 68. Even eagles die. But music and dreams don’t. Ultimately, Charles Bradley lived his, flying stronger and soaring higher than the steep odds stacked against him. In his final triumph, he leaves us both.