Inside The Last Charles Bradley Recording Session

A recently unearthed single before his tragic 2017 passing reveals the power of soul pitted against the ravages of cancer

The late Charles Bradley / Photo by Giles Clement

On September 23, 2017, Charles Bradley’s battle with cancer drew to an end as he took his final breaths and left this world for another. The soul singer’s unlikely rise to fame at the age of 62  — following the release of his 2011 debut album, No Time For Dreaming — marked a turning point in a remarkable rags-to-riches story.

After overcoming extreme poverty and a life on the streets, Bradley’s career led him from a moonlighting gig as a James Brown impersonator known as “Black Velvet” before catapulting him onto stages at Coachella, Governors Ball, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and SXSW. He was signed by the legendary Daptone Records and proceeded to release four albums, collaborating with producer Tom Brenneck and the Menahan Street Band. He was featured in Poull Brien’s documentary, Soul of America, chronicling his life, from his childhood in Florida to homelessness, the creation of “Black Velvet”, and, finally, the long-deserved breakthrough he enjoyed before passing away. His songs have been featured in countless television shows, sampled by hip-hop artists, and sung by crowds all over the world. Now, as we near two years since his death, we’re finally hearing the last Charles Bradley had to give.

“Lonely As You Are,” Charles Bradley’s soul-searing farewell to the world, dropped on April 26th, with the sort of fanfare a man with his sensibilities would commend. Once the initial excitement of another Charles Bradley song wears off, however, “Lonely As You Are” hits with the weight of a freight train. It’s a simple song, featuring Charles’ voice over a soundscape of subdued piano, organ, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, but as the “Screaming Eagle of Soul” wails and mourns, it’s obvious: “Lonely As You Are” was always meant to be a bittersweet farewell, even if Bradley didn’t know it.

Gus Cutty’s wall mural in Asheville, NC, painted in honor of Charles Bradley

“[Charles] was pulled off the road on Changes, at the peak of his career,” Morton Lorge, Charles’ former co-manager and executive producer, said. “He loved touring, he loved working and being around people, but because of his illness, he was spending a lot of time with doctors, and being home, so we talked about different ways to try to occupy his time and get the most out of this time that he was at home, trying to recover.”

Tirelessly creative, Charles spent much of his time sharing the ideas he had about making music. “We were working towards an outlet for him to make music,” Lorge continued. “I’d worked with James [Levy] for a long time. He’s very self-contained; he had his own recording studio in Queens, and I thought that these guys would really connect creatively. In the course of the chemotherapy treatments and doctor’s appointments, we went over to James’ house and started working on music together, with the idea that Charles could create and have an outlet for what he wanted to do.

James Levy, currently of Nashville and formerly of New York, had a long-standing knowledge of Bradley, and was a fan of his music, but had never spent much time with the singer.

“My experience with Charles was a very brief thing,” he said. “I wasn’t very close with Charles; I knew his music, but the actual recording process was pretty brief. He came in and kinda directed the whole thing — ‘Make it sounds like this. Add more bass.’ — I was just showing him a lot of ideas, really just laying something down for him to sing over that we could later change.”

What happened next, though, was unexpected. “I think it may have been Morton’s idea,” Levy says when asked what led him to play “Lonely As You Are” for Bradley after writing the chorus and abandoning it. “It was a simple song, and it gave him a lot of room to make it his own thing. It was like, you know, ‘Here’s the chorus. Sing it if you want.’ It was kind of a mind-blowing experience to hear him make this song that I didn’t really think was so good into a real thing. It happened immediately. I pressed record and he sang for ten minutes, and that was it.”

“That was always one of the unrecorded songs of James’ that really resonated with me,” Lorge confirmed. “My wife, Beth, who runs the label with us, she said to me, ‘“Lonely As You Are,” that’s the one for Charles.’”

“The Screaming Eagle of Soul” spreads his wings / Photo by Steve Rose

But for Lorge and his partner–Charles’ former co-manager and current GM at Def Jam, Rich Isaacson–there was no sense of finality or farewell during the recording of “Lonely As You Are,” at least not at first.

“The doctors were optimistic and encouraging,” Lorge explained. “We thought that Charles was going to have surgery and fully recover, and go into the studio with Tom [Brenneck] and make another record. That was what Rich and I were thinking, like, ‘He’s gonna be okay.’ But it really did hit me when Charles was singing and recording the song. I had this optimism about his health, and he had more of a realism. He was actually correct, which is truly heartbreaking.”

Weeks away from the surgery that should have rid his body of cancer and following rounds of chemotherapy that led him through dark valleys of suffering, Charles’ performance of “Lonely As You Are” left Lorge and Levy astounded. For Lorge, however, it was mildly distressing. “I remember hearing him singing and thinking to myself, ‘Charles, it’s not over. It’s going to be okay. You’re going have the surgery, you’re going to survive. You’re gonna move forward.’ But you can hear from the music and from his performance that he was in a different place.”

Bradley may have been less optimistic about his diagnosis, but he took that fear and channeled it into a performance that can only be described as entirely captivating. “The best way I can describe my experience is like…you know, I’m watching this man cry,” Levy said of the recording process. “A man I don’t know. He’s crying while he’s singing. I’m watching a man that — to be honest — I didn’t connect with, but I knew he was a great talent. We made this foundation and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to press record. I’m going to walk out of the room.’

“It was a small apartment, just Morton there, my ex-girlfriend was there,” Levy continued. “We’re just listening to him screaming at the top of his lungs for ten minutes. I just looked around and was like, ‘What do you think of this?’ and everyone in that room was like, ‘It sounds like the best thing I’ve ever heard.’ I had a strong feeling that this was one of the realest things that I was ever gonna hear. There’s something very powerful about it. I had a thought like anybody that was in this room listening to this — whether it was Al Green, Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder — no one could deny this is the real deal. I haven’t really experienced anything like that.”

Charles Bradley up close

Adding to the awe-inspiring experience was Bradley’s deep-rooted spirituality, woven so heavily throughout his catalog and taking focus in “Lonely As You Are.” “Charles was deeply reflective and lonely, but he had such a spirit,” Lorge said. “Even when he was in his darkest hour, he would come through.”

“He talks very much about spiritual things, the Bible,” Levy agreed. “I felt [spiritually] inadequate, to be honest, to be around him.”

“Lucifer been coming to me / Trying to make me turn myself loose / But I tell you, God / You’re my heart and soul / No one can chain me / If it call for me to die,” Bradley sings, his voice heavy with longing as the organ played like it was accompanying the Heavenly Choir. “I’m so lonely / Lonely as hell.”

 

“You think that you’re lonely

But loneliness is mine

As lonely as you are, it ain’t bad as mine

You think you’ve been suffering

But suffering is mine

As lonely as you are, it ain’t bad as mine.”

 

Once his vocals were completed, Levy sent the song down South, to longtime friend and collaborator Paul Defilgia, whose touring career with the Avett Brothers led to another unlikely collaboration with Seth Avett and the band’s drummer, Mike Marsh. “I didn’t really give any notes,” Levy said. “Just like, ‘Make it real. Do what you have to do to make it real.’”

Defilgia, who played keys, organ and bass on the track, did just that, masterfully creating a track that was a textured, subtle and soulful enhancement of Bradley’s vocals and lyrics. As the process went on and reality began to set in, Bradley’s connection to the song seemed to deepen as time went on. “He was very adamant about fans hearing it. He wanted people to hear it,” Levy added.

“After the surgery in February, Charles had that one last go,” Lorge said. “He was going around and playing some awesome festival shows, interacting with the fans, doing what he loved. It was amazing!” But it quickly became clear that Bradley was nearing the end, an unfair fate for a man who had so much left to give. “He was an incredible person. He was an incredible musical artist. He’s leaving a legacy of great recording, he just didn’t make that many records. It was a relatively short period of time that he was working with Tom at Daptone and making music. It’s all just kinda crunched into this window where he made amazing records. I think that Charles is somebody that history is going to look back on as being one of the great American soul singers.”

 

“I love you, and this is from Charles Bradley.

Hope this one day gets out to the world.”

 

“Lonely As You Are” is available for purchase and streaming now. Keep an eye out for the upcoming music video, and carry on the legacy of the Screaming Eagle of Soul on Facebook.

 

Luci Turner

Born on the Okefenokee Swamp and raised on rock 'n roll, Luci Turner is a full-time musician and writer whose passion for music led her to Atlanta. She's most often found packing a suitcase, digging through a pile of records, or looking for a time machine to the 70s. Follow her on Twitter @luciturner95.

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