Charles Bradley (November 5, 1948 – September 23, 2017) was an American funk/soul/R&B singer.
Born in Gainesville, Florida, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Bradley spent the better part of his childhood living on the streets. One of the more optimistic moments of his childhood came in 1962, when his sister took him to see James Brown at The Apollo. Brown’s energy formed a lasting impression on Bradley. He went home and immediately began practicing microphone tricks with a broom attached to a string, imitating the Godfather’s every move. With his newfound inspiration came an urgent desire to get off the streets and make something of himself.
Bradley made his way out of Brooklyn via Job Corps, a federal program for helping underprivileged families. His job placement took him to Bar Harbor, Maine where he learned to cook. While in Maine, he put together a band and began to pursue his passion for performing. He had his first taste of the stage when he was asked to perform for some female employees of Job Corps in Poland Springs. The ladies went wild and Bradley knew that he was destined to be an entertainer. Unfortunately, his fate was put on hold when his band mates were drafted in the Vietnam War, and he was forced to find work as a chef in Wassaic, New York at a hospital for the mentally ill.
After nine years cooking for 3500 people a day, being harassed by local police officers, and having no musical outlet, Bradley decided to leave Wassaic and head west in search of a dream. He had saved up enough money to buy a new Ford but soon realized that he couldn't keep up with the payments; he promptly returned it to a dealer and began hitchhiking. He caught rides all the way from New York to California and up through Canada. He persevered through the dangers of the road (including one driver who confided in him that he had just killed his wife and children) and eventually landed in Alaska where he once again found work as a chef. Though the job paid well, he was not well liked by his fellow chefs, and soon made his way back to California via airplane.
Bradley spent over 20 years in California, making his living as a chef, all the while playing music on the side. He had no regular band, but he played pick-up gigs when they came along and sat in on recording sessions to feed his musical cravings. Things seemed to be looking up for Bradley, but just as he was about to put a down payment on his first house, he was laid-off from his job of 17 years. Being fired forced him to re-evaluate his life out west. Ultimately, he decided to come home to Bushwick, Brooklyn to be with his family again. Bradley took every penny he had saved, loaded up a truck with the musical equipment he collected over the years, and drove back to New York. At this point, he was fed up with the tribulations of being a chef and took up work as a handyman to allow himself the flexibility to pursue his musical career.
Bradley finally found an audience when he began making appearances in local Brooklyn clubs performing his James Brown routines under the alter ego “Black Velvet.” At 51, he was finally making a life for himself back home. His musical career was moving forward, but he was to be tested once again.
Bradley awoke in his mother’s house one morning to the sounds of police sirens. He was devastated to find that his brother had been shot and killed by his nephew. Life did not seem worth living anymore.
Bradley was down and out when Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records happened upon him performing his Black Velvet act at the Tarheel Lounge in Bedstuy. Roth recognized his raw talent and directly brought him into the Daptone “House of Soul” studios for a session with the Sugarman 3. "Take It as It Comes" was Bradley's first single on Daptone and it proved him as a worthy vocalist. Roth eventually brought Bradley out to Staten Island to see Dirt Rifle and the Bullets, a young funk band playing James Brown and Meters influenced songs. Thomas Brenneck, songwriter and guitarist for the Bullets, hit it off with Bradley and they began working together. They released two singles on Daptone under the name “Charles Bradley and the Bullets,” but the Bullets soon dismantled in order to form the afrobeat influenced Budos Band.
However, Brenneck knew that Bradley had something more to give and after moving to Bushwick himself, he and Bradley reunited. In time, they became close friends and Bradley confided his life story in Brenneck. The young producer was moved when he heard Bradley tell the painful story of his brother’s death. Brenneck said, "Charles, we gotta put that story to music." Brenneck had put together a small bedroom studio and was working on instrumentals with a new group soon to be named Menahan Street Band. His new sound was the perfect compliment for the heartfelt and troubled lyrics that sprang from Bradley’s story. Brenneck had just launched Dunham Records, a division of Daptone, and would release Bradley’s "The World (Is Going Up in Flames)" and "Heartaches and Pain" as it’s second single. A departure from his Black Velvet act, the songs showed a new side of Bradley as a compelling artist in his own right and proved to be a great success. Many late night writing and recording sessions later, he and Brenneck completed their first full-length record, "No Time for Dreaming". Bradley always knew he was born to entertain, but in the making of this record he discovered a proclivity for songwriting as well.
The record was a labor of love for both Bradley and Brenneck. After years of working together, "No Time for Dreaming" was released on Dunham Records. After that, Bradley toured with the Menahan Street Band and honed his passion as a singer and an entertainer.
Bradley died on the 23rd of September, 2017, due to the consequences of cancer.