There comes a time of day during festival coverage when you just want to find something to eat, drink a cold beer, and not worry about having to rush to a pit for an hour or so – especially when it’s hot and humid and you would love to get two heavy cameras off from around your neck. That time for me was around 5:oo Friday afternoon. Other photographers were discussing what stage to go to next and the consensus was that Charles Bradley couldn’t be missed. When I told the person next to me in the air-conditioned trailer that I was just going to sit this round out, she looked at me and said “You’ll be sorry if you do.” And that is how I discovered Charles Bradley and his Band of Extraordinaires.
Bradley’s life story is amazing. Born in 1948, he was abandoned by his mother and raised by his grandmother in Gainesville, Florida. His mother eventually returned and they moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was eight years old. He first saw James Brown perform at the legendary Apollo Theater in 1962. Bradley was so impressed by what he saw that he began impersonating Brown. But life was tough and Bradley ran away from home at the age of 14. For the next several years he was homeless until he joined Job Corps and trained as a chef. When people began noticing his resemblance to James Brown, they encouraged him to sing and it wasn’t long until he was performing. He worked as a chef in Bar Harbor, Maine, for ten years. He then traveled and lived in many different parts of the country before settling down in California in 1977. Bradley supported himself over the next twenty years by working odd jobs and by performing. He eventually reunited with his mother and returned to Brooklyn. One of the things he did to support himself was to impersonate James Brown under the stage name of Black Velvet.
It was while performing as Black Velvet that Bradley caught the attention of Daptone Records. He met and began working with producer Tom Brenneck and released his first album, Time for Dreaming, in 2011. Bradley’s life story became the subject of Soul of America, a documentary by Poul Brien which debuted at the SXSW Film Festival in 2012. His second album, Victim of Love, dropped in 2013. Bradley’s most recent album, Changes, dropped in 2016. In case you didn’t notice, the title song is a cover of the Black Sabbath song of the same name. He is currently wrapping up his most current tour backed by his Band of Extraordinaires.
To see Bradley perform is to see a part of musical history that is slowly being lost to us. He still channels James Brown, but he incorporates his own signature moves as well. On stage he is modest and unassuming one minute, hands clasped to his chest while nodding in thanks to the audience. The next minute he is doing The Robot, twirling the mic stand like an extension of his body and then dropping to his knees and bouncing right back up again. Let me remind you while you picture this in your mind that this man is 68 years old. He tells the audience that it’s time to go to church and learn about love and understanding. Each song he performs is wrought with emotion and expression and spills over with truths that he has lived and believed and to watch his face while he performs is mesmerizing.
When I shoot a concert, I only have the first three songs in the pit to take my pictures. As you can imagine, that doesn’t give you enough time to stop and listen. At a festival like Bunbury, you don’t get to join the crowd after you’re done because you have to be escorted back to the media trailer through the backstage area. While you could go back and watch from the crowd once you’re back at the trailer, you don’t have too long to rest before you’re off to the next act. When we were returning from Haim, Bradley was sitting on a chair outside of his tour bus. It probably wasn’t the proper thing to do but sometimes you just have to seize the moment so I stopped and told him that his performance was astounding and thanked him. He placed his hands arms on his chest in thanks, gave a modest smile and nod, then took my hand and kissed it several times. Wow. They don’t make artists like this anymore.+
Later in the following week, a friend of mine told me that Charles Bradley and His Band of Extraordinaires were scheduled to perform at the Vogue Theatre in Indianapolis. So I went and this time I didn’t take my cameras. I sat and watched his act and was astounded all over again. When the show was over, they got back on the bus and drove to Tennessee for their show at 2:30 in the afternoon in the heat and humidity of Bonnaroo. Ladies and Gentlemen, he’s 68 and he still performs a full set, dance moves and all. May we live to be his age.
For more information and remaining tour dates: http://www.thecharlesbradley.com/
Ain’t it a Sin – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UD1eaRDY-q4
The World (Is Going Up in Flames) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTy7ugrSFz4
All pictures copyright Tara Pitts