By Steve Krout
In 2011, at the age of 62, Charles Bradley, a soul and rhythm and blues singer, released his debut album No Time for Dreaming through Daptone Records. Bradley, also known as “The Screaming Eagle of Soul,” would be featured in the documentary Soul of America in the following year. In the film, viewers watch as Charles Bradley, who after years of performing as a relatively unknown James Brown impersonator, begins to find his own voice. Following the success of No Time for Dreaming, he would go on to tour the world and release two more albums–Victim of Love (2013) and Changes (2016)–before his death on September 23, 2017.
I became aware of Charles Bradley in 2015 and instantly took to his music. There was something in him that reminded me of two biblical figures that I’ve long loved: David, the psalmist, and Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Bradley had both the heart and voice of a poet- prophet. One will hear in many of his songs the spirit of a man trying to stay righteous and honest and decent in a world that is going up in flames. “I can’t turn my head away,” Bradley sang on the opening song of his debut album, “Seeing all these things/The world is burning up in flames/And nobody wanna take the blame.” And, after lamenting a few songs later about more prisons being built “to take our kids away”, he calls for listeners to “come back to the golden rule.” He was a man who put his love out into the world hoping to make it a better place and was constantly inviting others to do so as well.
In the early 90s, after nearly dying from an allergic reaction to penicillin, Bradley would endure a great loss when his older brother, Joseph, was robbed and murdered by his nephew. He would recount this tragedy in the song “Heartaches and Pain”: “I woke up this morning/My momma she was crying/So I looked out my window/Police lights was flashing/So I ran down to the street/My friend grabbed my shoulder/And he said these words to me/Life is full of sorrow/So I have to tell you this/Your brother is gone.”
The beauty of an artist like Bradley is that they not only call us to live deeply but to feel deeply. In 2019, after the death of a loved one to suicide, there were nights when I’d sit at my kitchen table and listen to a song like “Heartaches and Pain” on repeat. After a day, a week, a month of trying to hold it together in front of other people, I needed to listen to music that put words to my wounds when I was not able to as I wept before God.
Released posthumously in 2019, “Lonely As You Are” is my favorite song by Charles Bradley. “Lonely” was recorded in 2016 after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The track, which was played at his funeral, bore Bradley’s heart and soul a final time to listeners as he sang: “Lucifer 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/I’m so lonely/Lonely as hell.” Addressing his late mother as “Lonely As You Are” came to a close, Bradley softly prayed, “One day, when God says ‘well done,’ please be at the gate waiting for me.”
Charles Bradley once said in an interview with Observer Music, “By showing your love to humanity God will hear you in heaven.” If there’s one thing we can learn from Bradley, it’s that showing our love to one another often includes having the vulnerability to allow our true selves, even our lamentations, to be seen and heard. And then having faith that God hears them.