There is a lack of soul music and blues in the modern realm of music. Since the 60’s, we have moved farther and farther away from the roots of American music. It’s always a pleasant and welcomed surprise whenever an artist is able to capture the sound of America’s pioneering age of music without it coming off as gimmicky or insincere.
That is exactly what the late Charles Bradley was able to achieve back in 2016. Bradley, who passed away after his battle with cancer in September of 2017, released his third studio album Changes a couple years ago. He began his career as a James Brown impersonator while hitchhiking throughout the country from the mid-70s to about 1994. He continued moonlighting as the impersonator as he settled in Brooklyn, earning stage names such as the Screaming Eagle of Soul and Black Velvet as he dazzled fans with his soul performances.
With Changes, Charles Bradley unleashed a soulful masterpiece that had been unheard of since the 70s. Armed with an armada of horns, an organ, a piano, and blues guitar riffs that reach into the core of the listener and grab their soul, Bradley delivered a soulful masterpiece followed by soulful masterpiece. It’s almost as if he is a one man chorus of angels, delivering heavenly melodies over traditional soul and blues rhythms. His style is actually reminiscent of Otis Redding’s sound, which is one of the highest complement’s that I can give.
Changes was Bradley’s final album before his passing.
On the album’s opening track, “God Bless America,” Bradley delivers a sermon comparable to a great southern Baptist preacher on top of quiet but noticeable organ. He then belts out an abridged version of the classic patriotic anthem, perfected a soulful wailing that had been lost for decades. His voice has a definitive rasp that is soothing to the soul. It’s the type of voice that plays in the background of a love montage during a romantic comedy.
The album plays out like love song with a classic feel. Charles Bradley mastered the art of invoking a sense of nostalgia and longing for a past love that you don’t even have. The way that he wails over the blues rhythm is almost heartbreaking, but then you realize that he is celebrating love in a way that is unlike any modern singer. The majority of the album is about the cherishing the love of another for everything that it provides. Bradley put the love of another on a certain pedestal in a way that had been lost for years.
One of the best songs was “Nobody But You,” a sermon of devotion and adoration to a loved one. Sitting upon a ballad of horns and strings, Bradley flies above the track with his signature wails and screams. What is great about his songs is that they are simplistic, but not dumb. They are straightforward, concise, and clear. He is able to bore straight into the listener’s soul with simple, meaningful lyrics and common blues chords. On “Changes,” Bradley captures what it feels like to lose someone in a breakup in a relatable, simple way. There are no signals crossed when it comes to the meanings behind his songs. He opens himself up to the world, baring his soul with sincere vulnerability.
Charles Bradley was an unsung treasure. He only released three albums, never quite reaching great levels of commercial success. Critically, he never fully received the praise that he truly deserved. His ability to carry soul in his heart and through his music should be celebrated for years to come. Bradley did his best to continue to keep the legacy of soul music alive. His powerful voice resonated with every listener, and should be carried forward for decades after.