As a genre, and as a concept, “retro soul” can be a loaded term. It looks forward by looking back, as if it is baiting nostalgia, pulling old musical ideas into the present to prove that they’re still good ideas. All too often, artists and practitioners of retro soul — no matter how genuine they may be — get lost in the debate about what it means to be authentic.
Charles Bradley, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year, and died on September 23, 2017, at the age of 68, never had that problem, mostly because his talent was so undeniable that he transcended it. Before he linked up with the Daptone house band, he was working as a James Brown impersonator. He was by no means the only James Brown impersonator, but his charisma, his singing ability, the way he could stretch his voice into a howl that encompassed pain and joy, was so undeniably powerful that it was very clear to Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth that there was more to him than just an ability to ape Brown’s hits. Plenty of James Brown impersonators have good careers, but that’s sort of as far as it goes for most of them.
Bradley’s own recorded works, beginning with 2011’s No Time for Dreaming, are known for their rawness, to the point that the facts of his life story often felt indelibly connected to the music he made. Bradley’s life was marked by heartbreaking moments: he was a homeless teen and almost died due to an allergic reaction to penicillin. Not long after he got out of the hospital, his brother was shot and killed. But to view his recorded output — spread across three albums, each one better than the last — as the product of tragedy is not quite correct. His backstory is important to his music, but it doesn’t define it. Most artists his age are revisiting their earlier works, if they’re still working at all, but Bradley kept pushing forward.
On last year’s Changes, Bradley was able to distill heartbreak, loss, and the joys of life into a raw, often beautiful album. It’s the kind of album that, if you came across it used, in a record-store bin, would feel like an immediate revelation. It’s an impossibly genuine take on a genre that is, nowadays, all too often awarded merit based on how closely it hews to the classics. But Bradley kept finding new ways to channel energy and that voice into new emotional plateaus, to hopefully get closer to music that didn’t sound like anything except life.
Every Charles Bradley show was special. Whether it was his first or his last or just one in the middle, Bradley was committed. He vibrated across the stage, yelping, gasping, and sweating like every show was a farewell. It almost never actually was.