Charles Bradley, new force in old fashioned soul, channels past heartaches for ‘Victim of Love’

June 3, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
Singer Charles Bradley was making a living as a James Brown cover act when he was “discovered” by Daptone, a record label helping bring about a resurgence of soul music. These days, Bradley's songs reflect the story of his own past, drawing a growing number of fans to his gospel of soul and heartbreak. Jeffrey Brown shares the story of the singer’s breakthrough and latest album.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: At the age of 65, he’s an up-and-coming singer and songwriter.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the voice and the energy that grab you first, a new force in old-fashioned soul music that’s garnered a small, but growing following for Charles Bradley.

Supported by a group of funk all-stars called the Menahan Street Band, he’s been on tour for a year to promote his album “Victim of Love,” packing intimate venues across North America, Europe and Down Under, the fans who come to bear witness to Bradley preach the gospel of soul.

CHARLES BRADLEY: When I get on that stage, all I might do is open my heart and let the spirit run free and show you the love that God gave me within.

Sometimes, when you hear me scream, I scream because it’s like 30 words coming to me at one time. I cannot sing those 30 words. I can’t, so I scream it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The intensity comes honestly. After a life of hard knocks, Bradley got his first big break at age 62, when Daptone, a record label helping him bring about a resurgence of soul music, release his first album, “No Time For Dreaming.”

“Rolling Stone” magazine named it one of the best albums of 2011. But for Bradley, his recent success is the accumulation of life marked by adversity.

Bradley grew up in New York City and spent most of his life on the cusp over poverty. As a young adult, he spent time living on the streets. With little education and few opportunities, he struggled to make ends meet.

CHARLES BRADLEY: I left home when I was 14 years old. I had been on my own, hadn’t been home, and I was in the streets. And I done been through so many things in my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was an opportunity with Job Corps, the vocational training program created in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, that led Bradley to his first real gig.

CHARLES BRADLEY: When I turned 16, I went to Job Corps.

And everybody was telling me, you look like that guy James Brown. And I learned two songs of his. And they had a rock ‘n’ roll band at Job Corps. And they asked me to join the band. They said, can you sing?

I was afraid. So, they sneaked and gave me a little bit of gin, and I got a little popped up. I said, give me that mike. And I started singing, and never put the mike down.

MAN: Put your hands together and meet and greet Black Velvet, James Brown Jr.!


JEFFREY BROWN: Bradley’s uncanny resemblance to the godfather of soul wasn’t lost on him.

In fact, when he was finally discovered by Daptone, Bradley was well into his 50s and making a living as a James Brown act known as Black Velvet.

These days, Bradley’s songs reflect the story of his own past. One of the most heartbreaking, “Heartaches and Pain,” tells the story of the death of his brother, who was shot in his home in New York City.

Band leader Tom Brenneck is Bradley’s writing partner.

THOMAS BRENNECK: It’s impossible for Charles to sing something and for it not to be incredibly soulful. And I think that comes from all the pain that he — the place where he sings from is a place of pain and frustration.

He doesn’t really particularly like to sing so much about the good times, as much as he likes to sing about the things that — you know, the trials and tribulations of his life and the struggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Bradley, it’s a struggle worth fighting for many more years to come.

CHARLES BRADLEY: All my life, I have always been looking for a dream, from the age of 14, and I don’t stop. I don’t stop. I keep going.