Charles Bradley’s world-bearing and room-filling voice felt larger than life, and his incredible story is even more awe-inspiring. The late soul singer, who would have turned 70 on November 5, has a biography filled with struggle but ultimately resilience and relentless positivity. After decades that included homelessness, tragic loss and despair, Bradley, who performed as James Brown impersonator Black Velvet, got his chance to become his own artist through Daptone Records and released his first album at 62 called No Time For Dreaming in 2011. His undeniable talent and his unlikely story, which is told in depth in the 2012 documentary Soul of America, led to welcome success. Before his death from stomach cancer in 2017, he released two more LPs: 2013’s Victim of Love and 2016’s Changes, toured the world and his ebullient, infectious personality brought joy to the thousands who saw him perform.
Integral to Bradley’s musical story is Tom Brenneck. Guitarist for Menahan Street Band, the Budos Band, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Bradley’s producer, Brenneck guided and collaborated with Bradley every step of his career. The pair were close friends, occasional tourmates and songwriting partners throughout his entire musical output. To commemorate Bradley’s life and his posthumous album Black Velvet, which is out November 9 via Brenneck’s Daptone imprint Dunham Records, Brenneck gave Vinyl Me, Please the stories behind four Charles Bradley songs.
“The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” off No Time For Dreaming (2011)
VMP: Talk to me about the first time you met Charles Bradley and your first impressions of him.
Tom Brenneck: I think the first time I met him was with Gabe Roth from Daptone, who brought him out to Staten Island where I was living and had a band together at the time. It was the predecessor to the Budos band. It was called Dirt Rifle and the Funky Bullets and we were going to shows of bands like the Mighty Imperials, the Soul Providers, Lee Fields, Sharon Jones and Antibalas. We were huge fans of the label and Desco, the label that was the predecessor to Daptone, and we’d see Gabe or Neal [Sugarman] and try to give them our demos. Eventually, Gabe had the mind to tell us that, with the Mighty Imperials record coming out, they weren’t looking for another instrumental band.
Around the same time, so the story goes, Charles had showed up to Gabe’s house and asked if he was looking for a singer. Gabe then just introduced us and that must have been 2001. He brings Charles out to our rehearsal room, which is a super small 15-foot by 15-foot room in a terrible part of Staten Island on a dead-end street in an abandoned church. Charles was kind of a crazy character. He was driving a really beat-up giant white van that he kind of may have been living out of also because at the time he was living on the 16th floor of a project in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which caused him a lot of grief in his life.
And I know some nights [he] didn’t want to go home there. I definitely think he was living out of the back of this van occasionally. He also had a really beat-up upright piano in the van that I remember for some reason. At the same time, Charles was such a funny guy. He was proud to show us his van, like, “Oh, come on out, come on guys, let me show you my van. Check out this piano!” He walked in and he had almost got bitten by a dog that day, and he was telling us how this bull dog almost bit him. And to be honest, it was really hard to understand a lot of what he was saying because he spoke in a very broken English kind of way. He made up his own words, he couldn’t read very well, so he couldn’t really pronounce words the right way. It was as if he had learned the English language orally and only from the community he was around. So yeah, the first impression of meeting that man was pretty wild.
How did that first collaboration go?
But that same night, in that small rehearsal room we played him some of our original songs and he got into it. He grabbed the mic, he started singing, he started dancing and he was comfortable with us. We didn’t realize it at the time, and it’s actually really funny because it would be something that he would go on to do the rest of his creative life, but when he was singing we thought he was 100 percent improvising. But we listened to the tape a week later and our bass player is like, “Wait. This is a James Brown song from 1982 and he’s just singing that on top of our music.” This was before Google was everywhere so we’d go find that James Brown record, and it was called “I’m Real,” and sure enough, Charles had just sang that song we had never heard over our music. That was our introduction to how it’d be to work with Charles. He wasn’t always going to tell you if he was singing a different song as would go on to happen a few times in my relationship with him.
Once we found out he was doing that with the lyrics, me and our the drummer started writing songs. I had written songs for many, many years since I was a high school kid and our drummer was also a really good poet and songwriter. He would go on to write a couple of great songs for Charles. We wrote about four or five songs that we recorded for Daptone as Charles Bradley and the Bullets around 2002 called “Now That I’m Gone b/w Can’t Stop Thinking About You” and “This Love Ain’t Big Enough b/w Twilight Eyes.”
How did “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” come about?
Fast forward about five years, my life had changed dramatically. I had joined Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings full-time, started touring around the world, dropped out of college, moved to Brooklyn, started recording, started the El Michels Affair with Leon Michels, started making records with Lee Fields, made a record with Amy Winehouse. All this shit happened by the time I was about 23 years old in between meeting Charles when I was about 20. So then around 2005-2006, I had started my own kind of side project, my own personal outlet for the music that didn’t fit the mold of Sharon Jones, didn’t fit the mold of the Budos Band because those were very specific groups that if you want to write for Sharon, you had to write from a perspective of an empowered woman. If you wanted to write for the Budos Band, you needed it be influenced by Fela Kuti kind of vibes. I was looking for something my own speed and that became Menahan Street Band.
In May 2006, Sharon Jones turned 50, and Daptone threw a giant concert at Irving Plaza in Manhattan, and they had asked the entire roster of their artists to perform. Sugarman 3, The Mighty Imperial, even Budos Band, Antibalas and Sharon Jones. Menahan Street Band wasn’t a band yet, but I had that music kicking around. Budos Band backed up Charles Bradley, because that’s what Dirt Rifle had evolved into. So we backup Charles and the shit is amazing at Irving Plaza. And me and Charles, our friendship has completely rekindled. We played the gig, we got some excitement, I told him I moved to Brooklyn, I end up living walking distance from his housing project. So I invite him over to come listen to the music I was working on just on some friend shit.
When I played him the instrumental track that [would] become “The World (Is Going Up In Flames),” we were sitting in my small bedroom next to the tape machine. He’s sitting a foot away from me and says, “Give me a microphone.” He immediately starts singing that song over the music. I rolled the tape and I think we recorded that in 20 minutes.
Yeah, that was something extra crazy. With the stuff we recorded with him as Dirt Rifle and the Bullets, that seemed to lack substance compared to what was happening when he was singing over sad, moody Menahan Street Band music. It brought something out from him that made him tap into something that he hadn’t yet for songwriting. He came out with those lyrics and I just kind of coached them through the song because he was never good with song form, you know, he would just improvise infinitely. So I always had to contain Charles’ wildfire creativity and try to get it to fit inside of a song that had a verse, chorus format. He wrote that song on the spot the first time he had heard it.
That must’ve been such an incredible thing to witness.
I immediately was kind of infatuated with him, different than it was the first time we worked together. Then, it was like, “Oh my God, listen to this guy sing. He sounds like James Brown. He’s an older black dude and he’s the genuine article of the music we’re trying to make.” That was like the early version of our relationship. By the time we worked on No Time For Dreaming, we were really tackling the troubles that were inside of Charles and the music was the key that unlocked that. After “The World” came out, we got into this habit where he would come over to my apartment and we’d talk and he’d tell stories and we’d write songs.
Remember, he’s hanging out with me, somebody 35 years younger, of a different class and different ethnicity. But at the same time, we’re really connecting on music and he started opening up and telling me crazy stories. He needed to tell me, he needed to tell somebody, that his brother had been murdered. He needed to tell somebody that he ran away from home at 14. He had got arrested for no reason. Those were stories that I don’t think he was sharing with a lot of people when he shared them with me. Every song on that record was a painful experience in his life, either directly or abstractly.
“Victim of Love,” off Victim of Love (2013)
This LP is full of psychedelic soul flourishes but the title track is more stripped down.
That song [was] fun to write. That whole record was incredible for me because I wanted to push Charles. I wanted to expand his sound more from the gut-bucket soul that we did on No Time for Dreaming. I wanted it to be psychedelic soul music. With songs like “Confusion” and “Where Do We Go From Here” to me was injecting Curtis Mayfield, and a little bit of “Little Miss Lover” by Jimi Hendrix. We were flexing all of the music I loved and trying to get that fit in the soul palate of Charles as a singer. With “Victim of Love,” I wrote that song in a bar in Spain.
We were touring around Europe and at this point Charles was settled in and we weren’t having these crazy arguments anymore about lyrics. We were just having a grand old time. And I had brought in a background singer named Paul Schalda to join the group to play some second guitar and mostly to sing backgrounds. This was around the time we started making up all these crazy nicknames for Charles. The Budos Band drummer called him “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” and then Mikey D, our keyboard player, started calling him “The Beacon of Love.” And then one night I misheard it and thought he said “victim of love.” I just started writing a song about somebody being on trial for being another victim of love. First I just had that hook with all those background melodies. The band before shows would sing those melodies with an acoustic guitar and Charles would improvise over it. When we got home and started working on the album, I wanted to add it on to counter all the psychedelic and lush arrangements.
Where Paul comes in, I had previously done a record with him where he brought in his brother and his dad to sing backgrounds, and I knew then they had to do the harmonies on “Victim of Love.” We recorded everything live in the same room. On a side note, I got so inspired by the Schaldas I made a whole record with them, which just came out on Daptone as the Sha La Das. With this song though, I really wanted to make a statement that Charles Bradley was a bigger artist than just kick-you-in-the-stomach soul. It was important to get him on a track that showcased him in a different light, and I thought it was really powerful just having his voice on top of those Beach Boy harmonies. There’s another full-band version of it that closes out Charles’ posthumous album Black Velvet.
We touched on Charles breaking away from his James Brown comfort zone earlier. How hard was it for him to branch out?
That was a huge part of our relationship, especially early on. The same way that we would get into arguments about him learning lyrics and performing songs that he wrote. It wasn’t like I was getting on his case about learning lyrics. I was getting on his case about learning the incredible lyrics that came out of him when we recorded songs. Same goes for the performance element. When we first started, he wore the wig, he danced like James Brown, and when he forgot the lyrics, he would revert right to singing James Brown lyrics. He wore that wig every day of his life and not just at shows. Everybody called him James Brown Jr. or Black Velvet and there was a certain condescension to it. Even though he’d smile and wave, there was sadness in there. That motivated me to get him to drop the costume. Getting to take that wig off was monumental for the artist that eventually came out of him.
“Changes,” off Changes (2016)
Charles always had a way of performing songs and turning them into his own meaning. Through his delivery, he would finding a meaning that meant something to him, which was really incredible. I remember I wrote a song on the first record called “Why is it So Hard?” which was a joke-y folk song I wrote on tour with Sharon Jones about not being as successful in the States as in Europe. But when Charles sang that song back to me, singing, “Why is it so hard to make it in America?” the song flipped on its head and became a real serious lament rather than a joke. Hearing him sing those words it was like, “Oh my God. We wrote an anthem for fucking despair in America.”
“Changes” sounds so different with Bradley singing instead of Ozzy Osbourne.
He didn’t even flip the meaning of that song until after we recorded it. It’s so funny, man, how a lot of these songs start. I was struggling with the summer that I left Sharon Jones and Dap-Kings because it was a difficult life decision to make to quit the band that had been my bread and butter for eight years. We were touring around Europe and our bus broke down and we’re flying around. It was just fucking hell on earth, and I’m listening to a bunch of records and one afternoon in the airplane I heard that Black Sabbath song. I’m not a huge Sabbath fan the way I am with soul or other classic rock. But I heard “Changes” and thought, “Wow. What a beautiful song.” It was so different than what I was used to with Sabbath, and I couldn’t stop imagining what would happen if Otis Redding had been alive and covered that song. That idea sat in my head for a couple months and then I brought it up to the Budos band and they were super into the idea of recording a version of that song for Charles, just going full soul on it. We did it for Record Store Day in 2013 as just a one-off. When we recorded it, I did not play Charles the original version of “Changes.” I, I didn’t want to turn him off to the song by hearing Ozzy and a synthesizer, because that’s just not his bag.
We cut the track in our own rendition, and then I just got him in front of the mic. First, I read him the lyrics, and he loved the lyrics. “Changes” was one of those words that he loved to use. He would say things like, “Wow, you’re going through your changes” if you were in a bad mood or something like that. I fed it to him line by line, which is a combination of because he’s illiterate and also because he didn’t know the song. So you have me in his headphones singing to Charles and he just rips it. We knew it was amazing but Charles wasn’t vibing with it as much. It didn’t get into the live repertoire.
What changed and how did it get on the LP years later?
Little by little, it started getting picked up on heavy metal blogs and weird blogs that had nothing to do with soul music telling their readers to check out this cover. As time went on, the label wants us to use that song on the next LP and name the record after it. Then, Charles’ mom passes away. That night we were supposed to play a show, and I really wanted to cancel it. Charles was devastated, of course, but he convinced me to not let that happen. It was his decision. We were his band and we were there to support whatever he wanted to do so that night, we perform “Changes.” Just for him, without changing a lyric, the meaning of that song for him changed into being about his mother passing. It didn’t matter that the lyrics were originally about divorce, Charles Bradley made that song about death and losing a woman in your life. He broadened it out. It’s incredible how he could do that.
“I Hope You Find (The Good Life),” off Black Velvet (2018)
With Charles Bradley, there’s the performer and the voice, which are undeniable. But one of the biggest things that drew people to him was Charles Bradley, the person. I think the sentiment of this song really captures him.
Absolutely. “Changes” was originally another Record Store Day release. I view Record Store Day as this opportunity to make a wild record that might not go on an album. It’s for experiments and one-offs. What am I going to do with this near minute-long “I Hope You Find (The Good Life)?” That track is beautiful. It also ties into what we were talking about on the very first question because that song was a live improvisation. On top of a drum machine, I was playing bass, Mike from the Budos is playing organ and Charles was singing. It’s unedited, and it’s just like you’re listening to seven minutes of Charles doing his thing. Before he gets to his own lyrics, he sings two songs (and he butchers them but that isn’t the point). First he’s singing “The Way We Were,” the Barbra Streisand song, because that’s one of his favorite artists of all time.
When he sings it, it’s so dope and it’s so psychedelic and the imagery is perfect. And then he goes onto a song called “Go Away Little Girl,” which I had no idea was a hit from the 1960s. His version is completely different from the original so there’s Charles, once again, like he did that very first time I worked with him singing that ’80s James Brown song I didn't know. But it didn't matter. He was just killing it.
The whole inspiration for all the background vocals throughout the [song] was his own lyric when he goes, which to me is the best part of the song: “I hope you find a good life. I hope you find a good love. I’m not the one for you.” All those lyrics: That was Charles. It was a seven-and-a-half minute improvisational journey. That’s the beauty of his creative process. In a normal context, we would have taken out the other two songs and just worked on his lyrics. But to me that song is beautiful because if you listen to it from top to bottom, you can hear Charles work through his creative process. Then seeing his own lyrics — which are improvised and beautiful — they really sum up his message to everybody.
It’s an amazing message if you consider the life that he led and how abused he was both physically and mentally throughout his life. He took all that negativity and he turned it positive. He only showed [an] outpouring of love to people. I think what was so amazing about it the most [was] that his message was that, “I’ve lived this tough life, so even if you live that life, you don’t have to show negativity or respond to that tough life by being negative and being violent.” Instead of responding with violence to violence, he truly responded with love. He would tell his audience, “I’m here for you. I’ve been through hell. You can still be a positive person and spread love.”