The life of Charles Bradley was always associated with struggle. The soul singer spent the first 62 years of his life trying to make a living for himself despite having the voice of a raspy angel.
After a few false starts in the 1960s and 1970s, he began to earn a living as a James Brown impersonator. In 2002, he began an association with Daptone Records, with whom he released a handful of singles over the next nine years. In 2011, Daptone released his debut album No Time for Dreaming to universal praise. Bradley became the “Screaming Eagle of Soul”, an unlikely but triumphant hero of the genre.
Six years later, he was dead from liver cancer at the age of 68. The man who was finally rewarded for all the suffering he took on in his life, who took his pain and made it echo into a microphone to reach millions, was gone. And now comes that awful part about the music business where a dead singer has one more album released and fans have to listen to the soaring talents of someone they’ll never be able to see again. It’s a struggle to know that someone is gone, especially when that someone dealt in struggle.
Named after his Brown tribute, Black Velvet is not so much a final statement from the singer but an odds and sods collection for the fans who gave Bradley his shot. The 10 tracks are a few new cuts and some covers taken from the sessions for his last three albums. It’s the classic sound that Bradley thrived off of, courtesy of producer/Dap-Kings member Tommy Brenneck. The snare drums bat with precision, the guitars are sharp with every string pluck and the horns are crisp. It sounds like a refreshed R&B album from the prime days of Chess Records and Bradley voice fits right in. He rightly thrives on the slow ballads of “I Feel A Change,” “(I Hope You Find) The Good Life” and “Fly Little Girl” but also shows his talents on some sunnier material. “Luv Jones” sounds like something off the Superfly soundtrack with its funky bass line and bouncy percussion rhythm while “Slip Away” has a late-60s Californian pop rock vibe, as if Bill Withers fronted The Yardbirds. The other two covers on the record are the odder moments, as Bradley’s slower take on Nirvana’s “Stay Away” doesn’t translate into an interesting listen and his cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” is a bit too faithful to the original.
Even on this collection of cutting-room floor tracks, Bradley himself was a consummate showman on the microphone. When he hits the stretched high notes on the chorus of “I Feel a Change” and “Victim of Love,” his aching delivery is one of great release. Bradley never half-asses a delivery of a line and makes sure the listener feels him on a record. The hurt and strife in a line like “I find it hard to resist” on “(I Hope You Find) The Good Life” is a like a brick to the heart. Bradley also knows how to ride different beats, like on the funk groove of “Luv Jones” where he sounds like a slithering street hustler. His voice is also given a brighter backing on “Slip Away” that turns his voice into a gospel hymn as he sings to the heavens. “Fly Little Girl” is also a lovely tribute to the wholesome sound of The Temptations, a band Bradley would’ve surely fit right in with.
It’s a shame that Bradley is no longer with the world, especially long enough to reach just a little bit higher for musical ambition. It’s a bittersweet sign to see Black Velvet’s album cover with Bradley’s back to the camera and face to the sun. He’s truly left us all but perhaps with his eyes now to the horizon, he can finally rest from his life of struggle. And the world is all the more thankful for him turning his struggle into a classic sound.