For the longest time, I’ve never understood why people get upset when musicians or notable figures die. Many of these people have never once met the celebrity they claim had such a huge impact on their lives. This feeling evaded me for most of my life, until I learned about the passing of Charles Bradley the other day, which made me cry.
Allow me to give you a brief backstory about Charles Bradley. He was born on November 5, 1948 in Gainesville, Florida. When he was 8 months old, his mother moved to New York City. He spent much of his childhood in an unstable home, so at 14 he decided to take to the streets. He spent much of his youth on the streets and sleeping in subway cars around the city. As an adolescent, he was able to get his sister to forge his signature to join the Job Corps, because his mother refused to do so since she still held a grudge against him for running away from home.
In the Job Corps. he learned to cook, which gave him gainful employment for many years and was his main source of income. When he was in the kitchen, he would sing, and a coworker said he sounded like James Brown. From there, he went on stage for the first time ever, mortally terrified of singing in front of a crowd, and impersonated James Brown. They loved it.
For many years, Charles performed under the stage name of Black Velvet as a James Brown impersonator. He went through many bouts of homelessness and barely scraped by for a large percentage of his life. He would work at small nightclubs and bars and live paycheck to paycheck, until his entire life turned upside down. In 2010, he was discovered by Daptone records, and was given a record deal. This might not sound that spectacular or earth-shattering, but he got his first record deal at 62. From his first album release, he would go on to release two more albums, tour the world with his band, and play in many major music festivals such as Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. Through his music, he was able to do incredible things and tour the world for the last 6 years of his life.
As someone who experienced hardships for nearly all of his life, at age 62 he finally got a break. He was (and still is) an inspiration for those who don’t get their break until later in life, and especially an inspiration to encourage people to persevere through their personal hardships. This is only a part of the persona that was Charles Bradley, though. Even though he was unable to live out his dream until he was an old man, he used the time that he had efficiently. It always brought him joy to share the love that he had in his heart with others and bring the world together. This was evident when he would often hug nearly every audience member at his shows and hand out roses. To those close to him, they noted that “If he could have hugged everyone in the world, he would have”.
In 2014 when I was commuting to Framingham State every morning, I discovered his music. I would listen to it on my commute to and from school and his sincere messages really resonated with me. You could feel his emotions coming through in his music, and you knew that they were all genuine, and I loved that. I would tell myself that if people like Charles Bradley exist, true love must also exist, and that there were in fact, still good people left in the world. Whenever a song would come on in which he talked about someone breaking his heart, I’d get upset. I felt as if someone had personally slighted him, and by extension, slighted me. His work always encouraged me to believe in the power of love and to seek the good things in the world, something which I’m still not that good at. His song ‘Good to be back home’ embodies this perfectly. Although America (the home he’s referring to) was cruel and often unfair to him, he loved it regardless. Surely there’s something he could teach all of us about unwavering love and the ability to see the good in things.
Part of the reason why I’m so emotional about his passing, is largely because Charles Bradley made the world a better place simply by existing as himself in it. There were times when he was struggling and on the street and contemplated suicide, but he didn’t. He persevered. Had he not stayed alive, many people would not have had the experience of having their day improved by listening to his performances. For that, the world became a much better place. The world is a dark and depressing place, and he was a bastion of genuine kindness and love in an otherwise bleak world. As someone who understood the ugly sorrows of life, Charles knew and truly empathized with those who had struggles and hardships, regardless of whether he knew them or not. What makes me sad is that the world lost a beautiful person who did nothing but bring people together. I feel an immense sadness that he is no longer with us, but I’m also so happy that I lived at the same time that he did.
I find it somewhat strange that he had such a profound effect on my life, even though I never once met him or attended one of his live performances. I had the opportunity to go to one of his concerts in August of 2016, but he had to cancel due to complications of stomach cancer. I kept the tickets on the off-chance that he would return to Massachusetts (or New England, for that matter), because I wanted to see him perform at least once. I never did get to see him perform. This in itself was a very bitter life lesson; knowing that I would never be able to see him perform and that my time for that had come and gone. On a deeper level, it expounded the transitory nature of life to me. If we only have one chance to squeeze the juice out of life, we should take every opportunity that we get. Some people might have more opportunities than others, but it is important to realize that everyone’s journey is authentic to themselves. You should focus on seizing your own day and opportunities, as opposed to allowing yourself to rot away in jealousy over the things you haven’t done.
Through his music, Charles Bradley was able to affect my life in a positive way. There were days when I was sad and hopeless, and his music made me know that there were still kind-hearted people in the world. His music also introduced me to the world of soul music, which I feel is often absent from the playlist of the modern jukebox. Soul music conveys so much emotion and can move you to feel emotions and new highs, and perhaps, new lows. If not for him, I never would have discovered Sharon Jones. In my personal opinion, music is best when conveying emotion, or allowing you to express emotion that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
There’s an old cliche saying that says “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”. Because of the temporal nature of human existence, there was no way that he would stay on earth forever. Having said that, it seems unfortunate that he had to go when the world desperately needed a unifying figure. I suppose it has always been up to you and I, but now more so than ever, it is up to you and I to make this world a better place and to love and respect one another.
He certainly had a positive impact on my life, and for that I am thankful. Thank you, Charles. Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity. Thank you for bringing this world closer together. Thank you for creating beautiful music that people will enjoy for many years to come. Thank you for being an inspiration to everyone enduring trials. Thank you for spreading love and kindness in a dark and depressing world. Most of all, thank you for who you were as a person. Rest in peace, my friend.
Those are my thoughts, what are yours?
If you’re interested (which I hope you are), here are some resources to explore more of Charles Bradley’s work.
Listen to his albums on Play Music:
Watch his documentary which premiered in 2012 at SXSW: