Charles Bradley's 'Black Velvet' Is A Final Love Letter To His Fans
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple playlists at the bottom of the page.
If Charles Bradley – the Screaming Eagle of Soul – were still alive, he would have turned 70 years old on Nov. 5. Sadly, the raspily voiced soul singer — born Charles Edward Bradley in Gainesville, Fla. — died from cancer last year. In celebration of his amazing life, Black Velvet collects ten songs recorded during the sessions from each of his previous three albums, heard here together for the very first time.
Bradley was a transcendent singer who overcame adversity to achieve international success and acclaim very late in his life. The story of Bradley's rise from the depths of poverty and violence surfaced in Bradley's autobiographical songs throughout the years ("Why Is It So Hard," and "Heartaches & Pain"). In Poull Brien's 2012 documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America, we got a glimpse into how Bradley turned pain and sadness into joy and love, and music that always touched his fans hearts and souls.
I had the pleasure of experiencing the love and passion of Bradley closely when he appeared several times on World Cafe over the years. He was always grateful and gracious. In July 2017, he performed at WXPN's XPoNential Music Festival, and I had the joy of working with Bradley closely when I was on stage producing the show. During a break in the set, as he walked off stage for a costume change, I could sense he was feeling a little weak. As he was getting ready to go back on stage, I asked him how he was and he turned to me and said, "I'm fine, brother. I got the love. If you don't got love, you don't got nothing. And it starts right here," he said, touching his chest where his heart was with his fist. He then grabbed me and gave me one of the warmest, most heartfelt hugs I've ever received. He proceeded to finish the show in a blaze of glory, jumping into the audience, handing out roses and hugging the fans, as he typically did during his shows. Little did I know then that he would be gone two months later.
"Black Velvet" was the name Bradley used when he was working as a James Brown impersonator. What he learned from the Godfather of Soul was visceral, touching and funky. Bradley had the dance moves, the howls, the yelps, the songs, and the screams, but he turned them into his own with a remarkable, singular voice.
Black Velvet, the album, continues to travel down the same road of soul love that Charles Bradley began on his 2011 debut. Songs like "Can't Fight the Feeling" (originally recorded in 2007), "Fly Little Girl" (featuring Bradley on organ) and the heart-wrenching "I Feel a Change" speak to the essence of his spirit. A duet with LaRose Jackson on "Luv Jones" drops hard like a funk bomb. The powerful electric version of "Victim of Love," featuring The Sha La Das, works as a spiritual cousin to Barbara Mason's 1965 R&B hit "Yes I'm Ready," and when Charles Bradley hits his singular scream at around the 3:40 spot in the song, you'll know why he has earned his title as the Screaming Eagle of Soul.
Another highlight on the album is the tender "(I Hope You Find) The Good Life." On it, Bradley consoles the sadness and pain he has over a lover he needs to let go of, and sings: "When you are near me like this, I find it hard to resist / So go away little girl, before I beg you to stay," he moans. This is a different side of Charles Bradley's soul. He could do it all.
The album is peppered with three covers. Nirvana's "Stay Away" is from a recording he made for Spin's 25th anniversary tribute to Nevermind. He transforms Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" into a stirring horn driven pop-soul nugget. Also included is a cover of "Slip Away" by the singer-songwriter Rodriguez, of whom Charles was a fan.
Charles Bradley had boundless love and talent. Black Velvet is a testimony to his beauty and spirit, a final love letter to his fans. It's a perfect ten-song soul send off from one of the greats.