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Charles Bradley Did Plenty of Living

The Screaming Eagle of Soul died on Saturday at 68, only six years after signing his first record deal. But it was his journey, not his destination, that made him a legend.

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Charles Bradley made soul music sound and look like hard work. When he reached for the higher notes, he would pinch his eyes shut, sweat rolling over his brow and his face contorted in exertion. What he was saying was important.

He died Saturday afternoon, just weeks after the stomach cancer he’d been fighting since October 2016 returned as liver cancer. He was 68.

Bradley sang as if he were running out of time, or oxygen. This is not to say that he sang with desperation, which is loud and not necessarily good, but with genuine, fiery urgency — as if a lover, or love itself, or the world could be gone tomorrow, which is about right for a singer who inked his first label deal at 62.

Six years ago, an All Things Considered segment charted the winding tale of Bradley’s then-flowering career. It all started when he went to see James Brown at the Apollo with his sister in 1962. It wasn’t just James Brown at the Apollo, mind you, but James Brown, Live at the Apollo, of “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” fame. Bradley didn’t know who the Godfather of Soul was when his sister ponied up for the tickets, but afterward, he was sure that he wanted strobe lights and effects and uh-huh girls and the mic-swing move, too. He would one day have all of those things — and his own moniker, “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” — but not for another four taxing, unglamorous decades. He’d work in Maine as a cook; he’d work as a James Brown impersonator under the name “Black Velvet”; he’d move back in with his mother; he’d see loved ones die at the hands of other loved ones.

As the story goes, after all the scraping and scrounging and sleeping on trains for warmth, Bradley met Gabriel Roth, who’d cofounded the independent funk and soul label Daptone Records. Depending on whom you ask, or where you read about it, Roth caught Bradley’s Black Velvet routine at the Tar-Heel Lounge in Bedford-Stuyvesant or Bradley just showed up on Roth’s doorstep one day. In both versions, Roth notices that Bradley can heave his voice like a hammer against a railroad spike, and so he connects him with producer Tom Brenneck, and the two begin rehearsing with the Menahan Street Band and crafting songs.

Charles Bradley Getty Images

Those initial sessions with Brenneck would form the foundation of Bradley’s 2011 debut, No Time for Dreaming, which included the hefty breakthrough hit “The World (Is Going up in Flames).” It’s a chunk of ’70s soul that, with raw vocal emotion and just enough Hammond organ, avoids mimicry of the Motown greats from which it draws inspiration. Bradley sings, or preaches, rather, about how life is mostly about learning how to lose and get on with things. For his voice, “resigned” isn’t quite the word. “Withered,” more like, but still standing, pressing on through the vagaries of an increasingly stupid world. “I’ve never in my life seen presidential [candidates] fussin’ and fightin’ the way they’re going today,” he told The Pitch in April. “It’s just, like, wow. Revelation is very thick in this moment. It’s very serious.” Bradley, whose music has always had something Baptist about it, didn’t mean “revelation” in the sense of simply realizing stuff. He meant hellfire and brimstone, like in the last book of the Bible. With the exception of “Heartaches and Pain,” an agonizing slow burner about the death of his brother Joe at the hands of his own nephew, Bradley’s debut wasn’t explicitly about his hardships, though it was world-weary.

But Bradley sang about love, too. And not just about making it, or losing it, or being beaten down by it, as his sophomore album title, Victim of Love, might suggest. “Strictly Reserved for You,” though, is about finding it, and keeping it, all else be damned. “Love Bug Blues” is about lust, but it’s one of the cooler songs about it, with jazz flutes, a funky, burly, strolling guitar, and Bradley claiming that the love bug done bit him. But Bradley understood love to be an action word, too. Touring on his third and final album, 2016’s Changes, he made a habit, during the refrain of the title track — which, not for nothing, is a Black Sabbath cover — of going out into the crowd and handing out roses. On his road to success, he suffered every setback it was possible to have, and he never seemed less than endlessly grateful to have broken through. Talking to Rolling Stone about Changes, Bradley said, “Doing shows for the public, the love when I go out into the audience and hug ’em and the things that they say to me personally. … It’s not only me onstage doing it. I open their hearts up and they feel the love of my heart and when I go out there and really respond to ’em and talk to ’em, they tell me some things.”

His selflessness and his lust for life made him impossible not to root for. Precious few of us get to be astronauts or firemen or prize-winning anythings, but almost everyone has felt the pang of a carefully laid plan shattered to pieces and then balked at the work it takes to come up with a new one. And so Bradley’s disarming howl works just fine in place of dialogue in all sorts of visual entertainment. This is true of a number of Suits episodes; that one scene in Stand Up Guys where Christopher Walken spares his old friend Al Pacino’s life …

… and the “Daptone Radio” station in Sleeping Dogs, a video game in which you go undercover to bring down a triad organization. The station features Bradley as well as Lee Fields, the Budos Band, the Menahan Street Band, and Bradley’s late label-mate the legendary Sharon Jones — and the Dap-Kings, of course.

As you fake-drive around fake Hong Kong in your fake but sinewy Ridge Sport, you hear that song you’ve heard everywhere before, and eventually you’re on YouTube, watching a magic trick in which an elderly man ages in reverse for four or so minutes onstage in Paris and attempts a split. Or maybe it isn’t a split but rather a half knee-slide, and maybe the robot, sort of — and those white bell bottoms are courageous, and we should all be so proficient at the Funky Chicken.

This sprint through “This Love Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us” is more energetic, more alive than a classic soul performance should have been in 2011. The whole thing feels chronologically off, yet perfectly timeless.

The same goes for “Ain’t It a Sin,” a single from Changes released in April 2016 with a music video that should have crossed a million views already. It’s a liberating mix of disgust and righteous indignation over a snarling bass line; it sounds new, but also like it’s been here forever. He performed it on Conan that May with a captivatingly large stage presence and equally large belt buckle, shimmying and wailing and gyrating and whipping the crowd into a frenzy in a way it’s easy to imagine James Brown being proud of. It took a while, a long while, but he made it, just under the wire. When a great artist passes, it’s tempting to say that they’ll live on forever. But Bradley did plenty of living; more than any one person should be asked to.

He left a piece of himself everywhere he went. He gave it all, always.