Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Charles Bradley’s final album, Black Velvet.
Charles Bradley’s story was one of hope. He spent his life working a series of odd jobs, trying to get a band together, and literally hitchhiking around the U.S. for a period, before he was “discovered” in the early ’00s working as a James Brown impersonator by Daptone founder Bosco Mann. Bosco Mann and Bradley recorded many singles and three LPs from 2002 until 2017, when Bradley died from stomach cancer at the age of 68. He was proof that it was never too late to live the best version of your life, that the breakthrough you need could be around the corner. Anything was possible for anyone, if you got the right last chance. Bradley was a can’t-miss festival act for the last years of his life, which he never could have imagined when he was sleeping in train cars as a teenager.
Bradley died before he could record vocals for “Black Velvet,” the emotional centerpiece and title track for his sensational and transcendent final album. Named after his James Brown impersonator stage name, “Black Velvet” is emotional for the hole at its center; the plaintive sax and uplifting horns feel like a funeral march for the singer whose vocals should be there, but are not (Bradley was apparently set to record over it before he fell ill). It’s not the most emotional moment on Black Velvet — hearing Bradley’s voice on the rest of the album is like a gut punch — but it’s the one that reminds you most of the central sadness of the album: Bradley couldn’t see it to fruition.
Black Velvet’s nine other tracks are a mix of alternate takes, covers and unreleased songs recorded during the sessions for Bradley’s other three albums (2011’s No Time For Dreaming, 2013’s Victim of Love and 2016’s Changes). Some of Bradley’s finest moments were on covers (his take on Black Sabbath’s “Changes” remains a masterwork), and here Nirvana’s “Stay Away” gets turned into a gnarly funk tune, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” becomes a soulful stomper and Rodriguez’s “Slip Away” sounds like a lost Motown single. The originals soar here, too; “I Can’t Fight the Feeling” opens the album on a soaring note — they didn’t call him the Screaming Eagle of Soul for nothing — while the electric version of “Victim of Love” closes the album in a perfect fashion as Bradley’s voice is a controlled demolition of emotion. It’s an album, along with Bradley’s other three, that has to be heard to be experienced; it’s hard to put proper words to the way Bradley can hit you in your heart, your head and your stomach with a single vocal run.
Along with Sharon Jones — another late-in-life star who was “discovered” by Daptone — Charles Bradley was like the soul music version of one of those mosquitos from Jurassic Park: frozen in amber, their blood providing modern society with a connection to the past. Like when the world lost soul and R&B musicians from the genre’s original era, it’s not clear who will pick up the mantle of the Screaming Eagle of Soul. Black Velvet proves, for the fourth time, that Charles Bradley was an enduring, amazing artist, whose own shoes will be as hard to fill as the artists he started his career imitating.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.