Charles Bradley's moving performance at Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop in Austin, Texas, backed by the outstanding Menahan Street Band, was a highlight of many memorable shows at SXSW this year. I got a chance to talk with Bradley before this set for KEXP and — despite a life filled with hardship, poverty, pain and loss — he was generous, kind, humble and bursting with a joy for life. He accepts the bad and the good with humility and grace, and I felt so happy that he's finally able to share his talent with a larger audience and devote so much of his time to performing.
If you thought they don't make soul singers like they used to, you likely haven't seen or heard Charles Bradley. Having traveled an unconventional road to success, the 62-year-old soul singer was born in Florida and worked as a chef everywhere from a mental hospital in Maine to Alaska and California. He eventually settled into working as a handyman in Brooklyn, where he now lives. He was only recently discovered singing in a local club by a member of the Menahan Street Band, who helped him along the way to releasing his debut album, No Time for Dreaming, earlier this year on Daptone imprint Dunham Records. As a result, this incredible performer is finally getting the attention he deserves.
It was an honor to spend time with Bradley in Austin during SXSW 2011, and to witness him doing what he was meant to do. The entire audience seemed enthralled by Bradley's set: Reaching heavenward one moment, then down on one knee with his arm outstretched the next, he belted out one heartfelt song after another, in the tradition of classic '60s soul singers like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and his original inspiration, James Brown. As you can hear from this riveting performance, Bradley is possessed by Brown's spirit as he lays himself bare in this hip-jerking, heartrending set. It doesn't get any more soulful than this.