As his soul turns 70, the late Charles Bradley’s final LP soars through the sorrow over his absence with uplifting funk majesty
Four days after what would have been the 70th birthday of Charles Bradley — the “screaming eagle of soul” — Dunham/Daptone Records released the legend’s final record, the fiery, funky ten-song LP, Black Velvet.
Comprised of ten unreleased tracks recorded through the sessions from each of his three albums, Black Velvet — named after the pseudonym Bradley used while moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator in Brooklyn in the 90s — opens with the scorcher “Can’t Fight the Feeling,” featuring Bradley’s soaring vocals above a soulful groove, before launching into “Luv Jones,” the “funk-bomb” duet with LaRose Jackson.
Each song is a celebration of Charles Bradley, assembled by his friends and family at Dunham/Daptone Records. Rather than a greatest hits record, or another release of the well-loved and critically-acclaimed songs that are already known around the world, Black Velvet explores sides of the soulful singer and the universe he and his longtime producer, co-writer and friend Thomas “TNT” Brenneck crafted in the studio together over their decade-long partnership.
The third track on the record, “I Feel a Change,” is reminiscent of Bradley’s iconic reinvention of Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” but rather than saying goodbye — as he did to his mother with “Changes,” — “I Feel a Change” is a bold refusal to move, daring the eyes staring into his to blink first: I hold the key / Between right and wrong / If you want me / You gotta be right / Or leave me alone.
Bradley’s story has the remarkable rise of a Hollywood script: After growing up in poverty and neglect, enduring his brother’s murder, and finally, in 2011, at the age of 62, releasing his first record with Dunham/Daptone Records, No Time for Dreaming, produced by Brenneck and featuring the Menahan Street Band, to rapturous reviews. Reminiscent of soul artists of the 60s — most notably Otis Redding — Bradley’s signature moaning, screaming, passionate delivery broke through the airwaves, the sweaty grit of hard living dripping over the timeless funk of the Menahan Street Band. By the time he arrived to play South by Southwest a few months later, fans were lining up to see him, and Rolling Stone named his debut one of the Top Fifty Albums of 2011.
The effortless cool of the Menaham Street Band is displayed no more profoundly than on “Black Velvet,” the title and sole instrumental track on the record. “This song started as a guitar riff, much live “Lovin’ You Baby,” that I had been saving for Charles, hoping he would one day regain his strength to sing after going through chemotherapy,” says Brenneck. “We would get together during that time (2017) to work on music, but the strength never returned to his voice, and I refused to push him in the studio in his weak state, so we would just talk and listen to music, like we always did.” Brenneck adds, “He did get to hear the unmixed version, which he really connected with, but unfortunately was never able to sing, scream, and pour his heart on it. This instrumental belongs to Charles. It’s the Menahan Street Band in their finest form.”
Following “Black Velvet” are two covers that may initially throw fans…until they hear them, that is. Nirvana’s “Stay Away” and Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” are reimagined as effortlessly as “Changes”; with Bradley’s rich vocals and impassioned performance. There’s no pop sheen, no autotune; this record is imperfect from top to bottom, but Bradley’s soul has been suspended between heaven and earth and hidden in this ten-track celebration of his life.
“The best,” Brenneck says of the eighth track on the record, the mellow slow burner “I Hope You Find (The Good Life)”. “[It was] Charles being Charles. We stayed out of the way on the one. The fun level was on high when we cut this. The mix was actually the rough mix that was run very late after the Sha La Das sang the background vocals. It had a charm that was hard to recreate during the proper mix down session.”
“Fly Little Girl” opens with a dramatic guitar, drum, and piano intro before Bradley’s vocals soar above a gospel-inspired organ track. “This track was written and recorded in one spring afternoon,” Brenneck said. “Charles arrived pretty upset that day, having had an argument with his niece, Kiki, whom he had been providing for for many years. [He] took no time venting his frustrations over the gospel rhythm track I had been working on.” But for listeners, there’s no frustration in the song; only love, enough of it to flood the speakers and fill the room.
The final track — the last recording fans will ever hear from Bradley — “Victim of Love,” carries the weight of the extraordinary legacy Charles Bradley left behind. “I have the fondest memories of writing, developing, and playing this song on tour with Charles and His Extraordinaires, circa 2011. It became our dressing room warmup song that would get everybody singing and set the mood before the show. [We] would sing chorus after chorus, letting Charles improvise over us until we were all tired or in stitches at the outrageous things he would sing, like “walking like a zombie.”
“By the time we got home from that tour and began working on the next album, I was so in love with the acoustic version that I wanted the recording to capture that essence, so I did two versions, putting the acoustic version on the record and stashing away the full band version,” Brenneck says. “The band version is fire. For the good of your soul, please check out Charles’ piercing scream at the 3:40 mark. It makes me laugh and cry simultaneously.”
Brenneck’s final statement — “It makes me laugh and cry simultaneously” — could sum up Black Velvet in seven words, and do it absolute justice. Bradley’s life and passions are captured succinctly, his skill displayed in every measure of every song, and his incomparable vocal at the forefront of every track, in true celebration of a man well-loved and a life well-lived.