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Charles Bradley

When You Feel The Music You'll Know

Jun 28, 2016 Photography by Mark Shaw Issue # 57 - M83
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Charles Bradley tells a story about when he was asked by Daptone Records head honcho Gabe Roth to perform at Sharon Jones’ 50th birthday party in 2006, and he was given a song to memorize. But try as he might, the lyrics wouldn’t stick. He liked the song, but the words just didn’t feel true to him and the experiences he’d had in his life. When he finally took the stage, he ignored the lyrics and just sang from the heart, letting the words come to him in moment. “And the audience loved it!” he recalls. “Gabe said, ‘Charles, you didn’t sing the song you’re supposed to be singing.’ I said, ‘I just couldn’t get into those lyrics.’”

Ten years later, Bradley is still singing from the heart. With Changes, his third full-length release, the 67-year-old soul singer digs even deeper into classic R&B grooves that sound so authentic that you expect to hear vinyl crackle in the background. As before, Bradley is a commanding presence, howling and cooing words that were largely adlibbed over instrumentals that producer/songwriter Tom Brenneck brought into the studio. There are songs of heartbreak (“You Think I Don’t Know (But I Know)”), simmering anthems of defiance (“Ain’t It a Sin”), and testaments to the power of love (“Nobody But You”). There’s even an unexpected rendition of “God Bless America,” complete with a spoken word section where Bradley explains how the trials he has faced only strengthened his love for his country. Most arresting, however, is Bradley’s spirited reinvention of Black Sabbath’s out-of-character 1972 ballad, “Changes.”

“I’d never heard that song,” Bradley admits. “I never knew who the artist was until Tom brought it to me. I just heard about the guy [Geezer Butler] who wrote the song, and he thanked me for it. He said he never thought it would sound that good. I said, ‘Well, I had to hurt to sing that song.’ That’s when I lost my mom, when I was learning those lyrics. When I got those lyrics, I listened to them very carefully, and I thought, ‘Wow. This song fits my life!’ And when it fits my life, I say, ‘Okay, now I can sing this song the way I feel it.’”

Having been estranged from his mother for most of his adult life, Bradley only reunited with her in the last years, becoming her caretaker before she passed away just as his career was taking off. It’s that perspective that he brings to the song, one that transforms it from a guilt-stricken breakup song to a mournful meditation on loss. Though Bradley has been playing the song in his live shows for several years, he says he still finds it difficult to control his emotions when revisiting it.

“Especially when you look at the expressions on the people’s faces, and you can see some of your own life in their faces and the changes that some people are going through,” he says. “That’s why sometimes I like to go into the audience and just hug them, especially when I see someone hurting. People come to the front of the stage, and they whisper in my ear and tell me about their personal lives.”

That is Bradley’s unique gift as a performer. Once he feels the music enough to believe it, he can make you feel it, too. But despite his desire to reach out and hug each and every person in his audience, he knows that’s one promise he can’t make. “Sometimes I get off stage and I get cornered,” he laughs. “I can’t get too far.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s May/June 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]


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