When 64-year-old soul singer Charles Bradley feels moved, his ecstatic state can last well beyond the performance. Bradley spent years as a James Brown impersonator called Black Velvet, but recently ventured out on his own. His most recent album, Victim of Love (Dunham/Daptone), came out April 2, and the new film Charles Bradley: Soul of America documents his rocky life, including homelessness and family troubles. Impassioned, rapturous, and emotional, Bradley's a 110 percent type of performer, best seen live.
I've seen you perform before, and you put on a pretty intense show. How do you keep up the energy for a show like that?
When you love what you're doing, it shows on stage. I try to be open about it. I try to give people what they want, but I have to give myself what I need too. I gotta open my soul up and open my spirit up. I try to get myself to the proper state. Find something to move you.
You performed for years as a James Brown impersonator called Black Velvet before hooking up with the Daptone folks and launching your solo career. You met James Brown once. What was that like?
I met him - my mother used to hang out with him. I never knew that until later in life. It was a very important moment for me, meeting him. It wasn't long, but it was important. There's nobody like him in my life.
You were at his memorial at the Apollo.
I got a phone call, and they said "Charles, I don't care what you're doing, get up, get dressed. I don't care what you're feeling, you've gotta show up to pay respects for James." So I got up, got dressed, and got to the Apollo and was waiting on line there. But I got taken off the line by some people in his family who knew who I was. So as they pulled the carriage up with James, they pulled me inside the Apollo.
So I came inside, and I went up and they told me I could sit up with the family, and his wife came up to me and grabbed me and started crying, saying I looked like James. They asked me to sit up with the family. I didn't want to intrude, but they brought me into that funeral. So I just kind of kept quiet to myself. I would never forget that moment, forever.
There's a documentary film about your life that's just come out. Have you seen the final product?
I have. I have seen part of it. I looked at it and I walked away from it. I have to learn to walk away. You know when you're living through something, you can deal with it on a day-to-day way? But to see it from the outside, to look back like that ... I felt invisible at the time. And now I am just not ready to see it. There are things that go back quite a way and bring up hard things and people from long ago. There were things in the movie with my uncle and my mother, the only two left in my family. And my uncle said some things about my mom in the film that I know are true, but it hurts. It makes it harder to forget hard times.
Who gave you the nickname the Screaming Eagle of Soul?
One of the guys in my band. I was on stage and into the spirit, and I was in my groove. He watched me and after, in the dressing room, he said, "Man, that there is the Screaming Eagle of Soul." And when he said that, everyone in the room just said, "Yes!" 'Cause man, sometimes when I'm performing - the spirit - I'm feeling it. So deeply. Like the heart is the center of soul, and sometimes so many things are in my heart at one time, and sometimes I can't find the lyrics or the words to express what my heart feels. My heart is overpowered. I just have to scream it out to get all that beauty in my heart out at one time. It's too powerful. It can't manifest it in one single word. That's why I scream. I get emotional.
How do you come down from that sort of ecstatic experience?
I just have to go someplace where it's quiet and watch my spirit come down. One time I did a show and it took till the next day before my spirit came down. I tried to sleep, my spirit wouldn't come down. I tried to go for a walk, my spirit wouldn't come down. I had to wait. It can be days before my soul comes down again. There's a condition around me when I'm coming down, and I have to go to my thoughts alone, let it come down. Then I can sleep.
When you were young, did you see any performers who really made an impact?
The only person who left a mark on me was James Brown. There's a lot of music I love - I love Diana Ross, I love Barbra Streisand, I love Otis Redding, I love Cat Stevens - those are the ones that give me the soulful feeling. But James Brown's music is what it is, and it's the sort of thing that brings everyone's life stories together. Everyone in the world, James Brown tells their story. And everything is woven together in James Brown. When I'm under a lot of stress, I close up. I go into my spirit, and go into my own solitude. I can't come back out. That's my hideaway, and James Brown's music can pull me out, but sometimes my spirit needs me to be in solitude.
Is it a tough thing to put on a show when you're like that?
How can I answer that? When I'm in front of people I open my heart. I won't even know what's going to come out. It's just when the heart is open and the mind is open and the spirit is open, there are things inside of me that come out. One time I had to do a show in Louisiana, and my pastor asked me to come to a church for a fundraiser. I was singing and I went somewhere else ... and the band was playing for me. And then ... I never in my life ... I went in a dimension. I do not know where I was at. All I know is I was singing. When I came back to myself, the band had stopped. 'cause they didn't know what had happened to me. But I came back screaming, and had no words, just screaming. There were no words for how I felt, not even to me. I can't even explain it to you. There are no words. It's a calling. That's why I always try to do my best. Hurt no one, always keep it clean, and carry a clean spirit onto the stage with me. That's why I'm very sensitive about talking to people about it and sensitive about telling people how I'm feeling. When the spirit is truly open, that's when it's right.
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