Charles Bradley came by the raw emotion in his voice honestly. He was really only famous for six of his 68 years on this planet; the remaining 62 were filled with struggle and sorrow, from the nights he spent sleeping on New York City subway trains as a teenager to the murder of his brother Joe, who Bradley described as “the backbone of the family” in a 2011 interview, in the late 1990s. He saw James Brown perform in the ’60s, hitchhiked across America in the ’70s, and spent most of the ’80s and ’90s working odd jobs out in California. It wasn’t until he returned home to Brooklyn in 1996 that music started paying his bills. And it wasn’t even his music: Bradley worked for more than 15 years as a James Brown impersonator, chasing a dream that began when he saw The Godfather Of Soul live at the Apollo Theater back in 1962.
Bradley’s stage name for his impersonator act was “Black Velvet”—a moniker that his friend and longtime producer Tommy “TNT” Brenneck borrowed for the title of Bradley’s posthumous final album, released this week on Daptone imprint Dunham Records. Black Velvet is cobbled together from sessions throughout Bradley’s professional career: Lead single “Can’t Fight The Feeling” was recorded in 2007, four years before the release of his debut full-length, No Time For Dreaming, while instrumental “Black Velvet” was recorded by Bradley’s backing group, the Menahan Street Band, shortly before Bradley’s death from cancer in September of 2017. The track was written for Bradley to sing over, but he never regained the strength.
Those sorts of poignant stories are all over Brenneck’s track-by-track notes for the album, which were made available by the label for reviewers in advance of its release. Hopefully, they’re included in the liner notes as well, because—as is true for all celebrations of life—a little bit of storytelling enriches the experience of listening to this album. (The inclusion of an instrumental track on a tribute to a singer makes a lot more sense with Brenneck’s commentary, for example.) That being said, Brenneck’s remembrances and anecdotes are just a bonus. Like all great singers, Bradley had the ability to infuse just about any material with an ineffable, yet unmistakable personal essence, a gift that’s most evident on his covers of Nirvana’s “Stay Away” and Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” midway through the album.
The rest of Black Velvet is composed of originals, covering a range of soul and classic R&B styles. There’s album opener “Can’t Fight The Feeling,” whose exuberance (and horn sound) recalls Stax Records in its ’60s heyday; “Luv Jones,” which boasts psychedelic flourishes worthy of The 5th Dimension; and “Fly Little Girl,” a song that combines gospel organ by Bradley and polished guitar in a style reminiscent of Motown. But the dominant musical mode on Black Velvet, and Bradley’s signature as a singer, are plaintive, soul-searching ballads in the style of Otis Redding. Bradley’s voice was hoarser than Redding’s, and its world-weary quality brings an added layer of down-on-my-knees desperation to the sorrowful spoken-word lament “(I Hope You Find) The Good Life,” as well as the alternate version of his signature number, “Victim Of Love,” that closes out the record.
But it all comes together most powerfully on “I Feel A Change,” a ballad that Brenneck notes was only left off of Bradley’s 2013 Victim Of Love record “because we had too many ballads on that album.” Backed by spare guitar and bass, with a heavy echo on his voice, Bradley tells a lover that they belong together, even as the world is trying to drive them apart. Frustrated and despondent, he screams, his voice breaking: “Babe, I’m tired / I want to be loved!” That raw humanity is why, even as Black Velvet occasionally fails to gel as a cohesive album—it is, after all, essentially a B-sides collection—it succeeds as a tribute to an authentic talent.