Charles Bradley: Soul of America

When Poull Brien first met Charles Bradley, it was just to direct his first music video. Brien was initially startled by Bradley. Who was this old soul singer trying to make a debut music video anyway? But as the cameras began to roll, Brien quickly realized that he was glimpsing a panoramic story of pain and inspiration, the likes of which it would be sinful to confine to three and a half minutes of film.

Bradley had a veritable odyssey to recount: from growing up Gainesville, Florida, to working as a cook in Maine, to impersonating James Brown as "Black Velvet" in nightclubs across the country, to recording his debut album at the tender age of 62 in Brooklyn, the more Bradley spoke about his journey, the more Brien wanted to listen - and Charles Bradley: Soul of America was born.

Soon after my brother and I sat in the dimmed theater at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for the screening of Soul of America, we saw Bradley himself meander into the room. Exuding humble gratitude and the shyness and deference that comes with it, Bradley made his way to the stage with Brien and the film's producer, two loquacious pillars flanking the quiet soul singer. Brien gave a perfunctory and clumsy introduction, emphasizing time and again how much this night mean to all of them, ever-careful to keep the focus on Bradley and his music. Bradley nodded and smiled and agreement, saying very little. (This would all change after the film's credits.)

And it was indeed the music that brought us there. A few years back, I saw Brien's music video for "The World (Is Going Up In Flames)" and was captivated. That perfectly constructed relic of soul music - the soaring vocals and head-knocking beat drenched in analog - cascaded out of the speakers as out of a time machine from 1973. This all thanks to Brooklyn's Daptone Records, a self-described "little indie label that could" specializing in soul, funk, and gospel music.

The Budos Band, a ten-member instrumental powerhouse at the label, were the masterminds behind this audio nest where "the screaming eagle of soul" would finally make himself heard. Being producers, my brother and I both fell in love with old soul music a long time ago: the inimitable drum loops, the exotic instrumentation, all of it the ideal BPM, just waiting to be mined from a dusty vinyl buried in the corner of some dank basement. (If you've done some digging in your days, you relate to the thrill.) The Budos Band, though, wasn't dead and gone, but here and now, and equally compelling. Jay Z, incidentally, agreed; he raps over a Charles Bradley sample on his latest album.

But even more compelling than the sound was the vocalist at center stage, dressed in a dusty gray jumpsuit and wandering the subways and alleys of New York. The pain in his eyes, the lesson in the lyrics - here was the elderly wisdom of Father Zossima crying "all are responsible to all for all" in the heart of the big apple. Who was this person?

As soon as humanly possible, I picked up Bradley's debut album, No Time For Dreaming, determined to get to know the man a little better during a week-long assignment to DC in the bitter mid-winter. Tracks like "Golden Rule," "How Long," and "Why Is It So Hard" blared in my headphones day in and day out, that gravelly voice communicating a heightened sense of both fortitude and tragedy. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the track "Heartaches And Pain," a song about the murder of Bradley's brother in the streets of Brooklyn. 

Why was this guy still here, and still singing? The more I learned about him, the more I realized that Bradley was an anomaly. Fatherless, homeless, ill to the brink of death, singing without ever landing a deal, working without ever catching a break - and then on top of it all, a senseless act of violence and the sight of his lifeless brother. "I wanted to die," Bradley recalls. "I wanted to leave this world. I could not take the pain."

In the film, we see this tidal wave of experience crash on the present; Bradley suddenly weeps uncontrollably, pent-up decades of suffering spilling out. Why, he wonders out loud, should things go so bad for a man who only wants to work, sing, and help people? Time after time, the cold world kicked Bradley when he was down, and kicked him again the second he managed to get up. Even after finally recording No Time for Dreaming with Daptone, Bradley was still bouncing back and forth between the projects and a mattress in his mother's dingy cellar. "When it gets too crazy at the projects," he says, "I go to my mom's house and sleep in the basement."

But pain didn't have the last word. Soul of America reveals a lifetime of heartache transformed by sacrifice and redemption. Even when Bradley reaches the end of his rope in a lonely diner one day, he's guided forward in a very telling way, his struggle suddenly illuminated with deeper meaning. "When everything is failing, God is still the way," Bradley tells PBS. "That's what kept me going. And if I didn't believe in God and trust in God, I would never be here talking to you now." Bradley's faith, only glanced in his resolute lyrics, shines in the story of his life. The crux of Charles Bradley is the cross. Asked about a stint as a handyman in another interview, Bradley muses: "You know Jesus was a carpenter. And he said to build your cross and follow me. That's why I liked being a carpenter. When things were going wrong, and I was saying that I can't make no money in an honest way, I always remember what Jesus said."

During the Q&A, the filmmakers reported that a result of his newfound success, Bradley was finally able to move out of the projects. (The continued support, they said, was much appreciated; to that end, check out a list of screenings in September and October to see if the film is playing in a city near you. If not, you can rent Soul of America for just $3.99 over at Amazon or pick up Bradley's sophomore album Victim of Love.)

A talkative Bradley, clearly enjoying his small taste of success, remained ever-focused on the object of faith. He spoke to the audience about the need to heed "the depths of the soul," and the truth that the very turning of the world pointed to the "One Master." Even his killer dance moves prompted a confession of faith. "Do you have a special technique when you do that thing where you drop down onto your knees?" my brother asked. "I'm 31 and I think if I did that I probably would never get up." Bradley, with a big grin, responded: "When the Spirit hits you, you don't know what you're gonna do."

Of that, he's living proof.

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