Charles Bradley, the “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” has died following a battle with stomach cancer. He was 68. The cancer diagnosis forced him to cancel an appearance at the inaugural Sound on Sound Fest in 2016. After completing treatment, he returned to touring this spring and he was booked onto the SOS Fest lineup again this year, but the triumphant return was never to be. Earlier this month, he canceled all of his tour dates because the cancer had returned, and on Saturday, his management announced his passing.
Bradley’s career took off late in life. He had a hard-scrabble upbringing. He ran away from home as a teenager and spent most of his adult life working odd jobs. In the ’90s, he moved to Brooklyn, where he picked up gigs as a James Brown impersonator. He was in his 50s when he was discovered at one of those gigs, by Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Daptones Records and he began releasing singles on the retro-soul label in the early aughts.
In January of 2011, he released his debut full-length, “No Time For Dreaming.” That year Bradley, backed by the Menahan Street Band, took South by Southwest by storm. By the time he hit the stage at Cedar Street Courtyard on Friday, March 18 he was one of the festival’s must-see acts. A capacity crowd packed into the venue to see him with a long line of hopefuls left in the street.
Everyone who made it into the venue that night was swept away, riding Bradley’s waves of raw passion, our hearts soaring alongside his. His history as a James Brown impersonator was evident. While his music, gritty, plain-spoken and authentic, was clearly his own, he still employed many of the Godfather of Soul’s signature moves.
At one point he did a spin into the splits and back up again. He didn’t miss a beat, but a splinter on the stage went through his suit pants into his knee. A small stain spread across the fabric and a trickle of blood ran down his leg. It dripped onto the stage, making a tiny pool by his foot. Only a handful of people in the front of the could see it happen. He glanced back at one of his backing musicians who looked concerned, but Bradley himself just shrugged slightly and went back to singing like his life depended on it.
By the next year, he was star and a documentary about his life “Soul of America” debuted at SXSW 2012. He recounted the story of the night he bled on stage to reporters with a laugh, saying after that incident, his band mates insisted he wear knee pads when he performed.
But that night, as the curtain was rising on his late stage second act and dreams a lesser man might have discarded were suddenly becoming real, there was no metaphor. Bradley gave us everything he had, literally leaving his blood and sweat on the stage. In return, the audience gave him everything we had, screaming wildly after every song.
The love he put out in the world came back to him 500-fold and the knowledge that he felt it fully is one of the small comforts we can indulge.
“I love all of you out there that made my dreams come true. When I come back, I’ll come back strong, with God’s love. With God’s will, I’ll be back soon,” he said when he canceled his tour dates this year.
Though the comeback was never meant to be, the love will live on in the hearts of every one of us who have been moved to tears by his plaintive songwriting. Doubly so, for those who were blessed to experience the pure, unadulterated joy of watching him perform.
In lieu of flowers Bradley’s representatives have requested donations to the following organizations: