On Charles Bradley: Sweaty Hugs And Screams 'From The Center Of The Earth'

Dec 19, 2018
Originally published on December 19, 2018 6:14 pm

Charles Bradley was a late bloomer. After years of working odd jobs and performing as a James Brown impersonator, in 2011, at the age of 62, Bradley released his debut album, No Time for Dreaming. The album was a triumph for the soul singer who had endured a lifetime of hardship. From then on, Bradley toured and recorded relentlessly, earning the nickname "Screaming Eagle of Soul." But in the fall of 2016 Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which caused him to cancel tour dates as the power in his voice began to waver. Bradley died in September 2017 at the age of 68.

Tom Brenneck, Bradley's guitar player, co-writer, producer and bandleader, was always by Bradley's side throughout the singer's career. After Bradley died, Brenneck began to go through old tape reels to pull together Black Velvet, one final album of rare and unreleased Bradley plus one instrumental that he never got the chance to sing on.

Brenneck says some of these old songs on the album, like "Can't Fight The Feeling," resurfaced memories of the years he spent with Bradley.

"It was with profound sadness to be having to work on this record and look for these songs. The whole thing was just like ... I was gutted at the time," Brenneck says. "So, when I found that song you know it did lift my spirits to be like, 'Wow, there's a couple of long-lost Charles songs and I get to share with the world.' "

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Brenneck says it took years to shake the James Brown persona that Bradley found so much comfort in, but once he did, it was as though Brenneck met a brand-new man. "The midtempo and the moodiness of that music allowed Charles to put himself in it," he says. "And the first time he did 'The World (Is Going Up In Flames)' — that was Charles, man. That did not sound like James Brown. It didn't sound like anything else before it."

Charles Bradley (left) and Tom Brenneck (right).
Courtesy of Tom Brenneck

Brenneck admits that he had to stop the tapes numerous times throughout the course of putting Black Velvet together because he got emotional over missing his friend. Brenneck still hears the pain in Bradley's voice.

"When lyrics wouldn't do it for Charles, he would scream," he says. "On the last song on the record, 'Victim of Love,' there is a scream that sounds like it comes from the center of the earth."

According to Brenneck, there won't be another record of unreleased Bradley music after Black Velvet, but he hopes listeners feel the love Bradley spread through these songs. "If he could physically do it, he would have gave everybody a sweaty, sweaty hug."

Black Velvet is available now.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In 2011 at the age of 62, soul singer Charles Bradley released his debut album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO TIME FOR DREAMING")

CHARLES BRADLEY: (Singing) No time for dreaming.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Dreaming, dreaming.

KELLY: It was a sleeper hit. Rolling Stone named it one of the top 50 albums of the year.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was also a triumphant moment for someone who had endured a lifetime of hardship - homelessness, run-ins with the law, a brother who was murdered. Over the next five years, Bradley released two more albums and toured relentlessly. His raspy vocals earning him the nickname the Screaming Eagle of Soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO TIME FOR DREAMING")

BRADLEY: (Singing) Try a little harder, stop wasting over yonder.

KELLY: Then in the fall of 2016, Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He cancelled tour dates, and the power in his voice began to waver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAM STREET BAND'S "BLACK VELVET")

KELLY: Always at his side was Tom Brenneck, his guitar player, co-writer, producer, bandleader. As Bradley battled cancer, Brenneck and the band kept writing and recording songs, waiting for his voice to recover enough to sing them.

TOM BRENNECK: I would play demos for Charles. I'd sit next to him with a guitar and a piano, and we'd work on music when he could kind of sing real quietly.

CHANG: But Bradley never got the chance to record those vocals. He passed away last year at the age of 68. So Brenneck began to go through old tape reels to pull together one final album of rare and unreleased Charles Bradley tracks, plus one of those songs he had been waiting for Bradley to sing.

BRENNECK: I really wanted to put one instrumental on the album to showcase, you know, the absence of Charles, and Black Velvet was the name that Charles performed under when we first met him doing the James Brown act around New York City. So we titled that "Black Velvet," you know, just to make it a complete thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAM STREET BAND'S "BLACK VELVET")

KELLY: That album out now is also called "Black Velvet." It's a celebration of a life and a career cut short with long lost music that even Brenneck was surprised to find resurfacing memories of the years he spent with Bradley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T FIGHT THE FEELING")

BRADLEY: (Singing) Can't fight the feeling, babe, can't fight the feeling now.

BRENNECK: This song I completely forgot about, and I don't even remember how I stumbled upon it, like, going through the reel-to-reels. But there it was, and once I heard it, I was like, oh, my God, I remember this song. And it was finished. Soup to nuts, that song was finished. I was pretty excited. And when I say I'm excited, you've got to imagine, like, man, I was, like, so depressed, you know, and just like completely - it was with profound sadness to be having to work on this record and look for these songs. The whole thing was just like - I was gutted at the time. So when I found that song, you know, it did lift my spirits to be like, wow, there's a couple long lost Charles songs that we get to share with the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T FIGHT THE FEELING")

BRADLEY: (Singing) If I want you and you want me, tell me what have we got to lose?

BRENNECK: It was amazing the first time that Charles came to our rehearsal. We were really doing funky funk James Brown-inspired music, and Charles was doing the Black Velvet James Brown act. So whatever tempo that we were playing - like, we'd hit a James Brown tune, he would just go into that tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT ANTS IN MY PANTS")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) I feel it...

BRENNECK: There's a lot of, mama, come here quick, give me that lickin' stick and like, you know, I got ants in my pants and I need to dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT ANTS IN MY PANTS")

BROWN: (Singing) I got ants in my pants, and I need to dance.

BRENNECK: I spent so much time trying to get Charles away from the James Brown identity that he wrapped himself up in. And maybe our second and third rehearsal, we're trying to do some original stuff and get him to not sing the James Brown stuff, and he starts singing this song, I'm real, I'm real, and we all got pretty excited and we recorded it on our cassette Radio Shack, you know, that we would record our rehearsals. And then, like, a week later, our bass players like, yo, man, I think Charles was singing, like, a James Brown song we never heard of. And sure enough, it was. It was a James Brown song called "I'm Real." And he would try to do that a lot till you busted him, and then he'd be like a little kid, just like, oh, you caught me, Tommy.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BROWN SONG, "I GOT ANTS IN MY PANTS")

BRENNECK: So four years or so went by, and music I played him at that time, you know, was more original.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES BRADLEY SONG, "THE WORLD (IS GOING UP IN FLAMES)")

BRENNECK: The midtempo and the moodiness of that music allowed Charles to put himself in it. And the first time he did like the world was going up in flames, that was Charles, man. That did not sound like James Brown. That didn't sound like anything else before it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORLD (IS GOING UP IN FLAMES)")

BRADLEY: (Singing) This world is goin' up in flames, and nobody want to take the blame.

BRENNECK: My argument was, Charles, take off the wig. Charles, don't use the cape in the show. And it sounds like a metaphor, but the wig, man, I'm trying to get him to take this wig off, you know, because he wore it - like, he didn't just wear it when he was doing shows. Man, he wore it - I think he wore it to bed, man. Like, he would wake up, and he'd be cooking breakfast in this wig. And if we were - you know, he was a handyman. He'd be going to Home Depot getting his supplies. He'd be wearing the wig. What's underneath this wig, man? What's - who's underneath that cape? And it turned out to be this incredible artist Charles Bradley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORLD (IS GOING UP IN FLAMES)")

BRADLEY: (Singing) They don't hear me try.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

BRADLEY: (Singing) They don't hear me crying.

BRENNECK: But there was a sadness in him, you know? There's a lot going on inside of that man, stories of his brother being shot and murdered by his own nephew or Charles getting, like, into fights or getting arrested for defending himself, one tragic story after another. So I think the music gave him room to put himself in it. And I never would have asked him to put that in the music unless he wanted to, but it seemed like he wanted - it seemed like he wanted to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICTIM OF LOVE")

BRADLEY: (Singing) Nowhere to hide, victim of love.

BRENNECK: It is definitely with a lot of sadness to be sharing this music with everybody. So was it helpful going through all those old reels and looking for lost songs and going through old memories? It was. It was really hard, and a lot of times, I had to stop the tape in the middle of it because it was too hard to listen to. Like, when lyrics wouldn't do it for Charles, he would scream. And on the last song on the record, "Victim Of Love," there is a scream that sounds like it comes from the center of the Earth. It's coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICTIM OF LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Victim.

BRADLEY: (Screaming).

BRENNECK: There it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICTIM OF LOVE")

BRADLEY: (Screaming).

BRENNECK: And there's not much music after that. I know that there's not. There's no music. There's not going to be another record of unreleased Charles Bradley material. That's a fact. There's no outtakes. There's no - there's nothing. But I'm happy that Charles Bradley fans get a little more Charles in their life. And I hope that people just feel the love he spent the last few years of his life spreading.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICTIM OF LOVE")

BRADLEY: (Vocalizing).

BRENNECK: If he could physically do it, he would have gave everybody a sweaty, sweaty hug.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICTIM OF LOVE")

BRADLEY: (Singing) It's going to take me to my grave, baby.

CHANG: Musician Tom Brenneck reflecting on his time with soul singer Charles Bradley, whose posthumous album "Black Velvet" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.