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Soul Baby

Arts & Culture | March 9, 2012
By Gabe Nicholas

 

This past Saturday night, Charles Bradley, age 63, may have set the record for the oldest person to ever headline at the Brighton Music Hall. Nevertheless, Bradley is young to the music scene; his debut album, “No Time for Dreaming,” came out just last year, under the retro soul label Daptone Records. Bradley had the onstage vibe of someone one-third his age. Occasionally, he would raise both his hands in the air and yell, “I LOVE EVERYBODY!” Other times, he would pick up his mic stand and swing it around elatedly. At the end of the show, he walked through the audience and hugged everyone.

But the physicality of age could not be hidden. His face was marred by intense wrinkles, and his voice had a raspiness that couldn’t come from anything other than years of wear and tear. His style echoed from a generation past, one in which Diana Ross was the Queen of Motown and James Brown was the King of Funk. In fact, Bradley tore a page right out of the Godfather of Soul’s book: he performed James Brown routines under the moniker “Black Velvet” from the ripe old age of 51.

While “No Time for Dreaming” is in Bradley’s own style, hints from his James Brown imitation days revealed themselves during his performance. He exclusively referred to his backing band, the Menahan Street Band, as “the fellas.” Many of his dance moves were lifted straight from his James Brown routines, which looked entertainingly disjointed performed by a 63-year-old man. His lyrical content was also reminiscent of the era when every song rhymed “baby” with “maybe” and “girl” with “world.” In “Lovin’ You Baby,” for example, Bradley croons, “Every night when I look into your face/I know, I know it’s you/That makes my life complete.” Most of his songs aren’t this cheery—usually they are about the pain of the world, as with “How Long,” in which he laments, “How long/Must I keep going on?/To see all the pain in the world.” The hokiness of Bradley’s lyrics is amusingly inconsistent with how seriously he takes himself.

Nonetheless, the pain on his face while singing “Why Is It So Hard (To Make It In America)?” makes it evident that Bradley has gone through some hard times. He grew up in very poor family in Brooklyn, New York. As a young adult, a federal program got him a job as a cook in Bar Harbor, Maine. After nine years of cooking over three thousand meals a day, Bradley left to find a new job, hitchhiking from Bar Harbor to New York, California, and Canada, and then finally up to Alaska, where he started anew. When his new job became too overbearing, Bradley moved back down to California, where he worked as a chef for 17 years.

However, after 20 years on the West Coast, Bradley got fired, so he spent his savings on a car and drove back home to Bushwick, New York. There, he started performing as Black Velvet, but not before tragedy struck; his brother was shot and killed by his nephew. Bradley was crushed, but continued to pursue his dream. Shortly after the incident, a Daptones Record producer saw his James Brown act and signed him a few years later.

Charles Bradley still cries when performing “Heartaches and Pain,” the final song on his album and the swansong of his live show. But after every song, he smiles so broadly that the contours of his face consume all of his features. The old school soul and infectious emotions Bradley brought to his live performance left the audience teary eyed. His first time through Boston was a smash hit, and he is sure to be back.