Charles Bradley may be the only 62 year old to release a debut album, but there is some precedent for older performers breaking into the popular music business. The folk boom of the 60’s brought with it a newfound appreciation for the acoustic blues of the twenties and thirties. Howling Wolf got his first record contract with Chess while in his forties; artists such as Skip James, Furry Lewis, and Mississippi John Hurt were invited back into the studio for the first time in three decades.
In the late aughts, the record industry is in a similar situation. Like Delta Blues in the late fifties, gritty soul has largely died out. Once a dominant genre that could challenge rock ‘n roll and crooners; balladeers and protest singers; dance music and glam rock; soul music split apart like a fallen multinational corporation ceding its aggression to hip hop and making only sporadic forays into social consciousness. Its leading lights succumbing to time now decades past their creative prime.
Between 2004 and 2006 James Brown, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett all passed on. All this opened the door a crack for revivalists and second tier performers. Chief amongst this revivalist wave was Sharon Jones whose tireless tour schedule paid off and now can claim record sales in excess of 10 million and a loyal following on both sides of the Atlantic. Now that Jones raised the tentpole, her label, Daptone, can’t be faulted for searching for similar artists. Bradley had been on their radar for years, though demos produced nothing distinctive. As Sharon Jones’s star continued to grow, Daptone returned to Bradley and found a sound that worked for the singer.
“Soul of America” is pretty much a Daptone infomercial on Bradley’s behalf. You can’t blame the label, Bradley looks in good shape but at his age he doesn’t have the luxury of time to build up an audience. If he’s going to get any foothold in the music business there needs something of a full court press on his behalf. This includes packaging Bradley on Sharon Jone’s tour. The camera catches a brief exchange between Jones and Bradley and its one the most fascinating passages in the film. Bradley, effusive and plain, treats Jones as a dear friend, meanwhile the veteran performer is much more guarded, perhaps somewhat nonplussed to share the spotlight and her coattails.
Charles Bradley’s decades long career in music has been spent impersonating James Brown. While the two men are close in tenor, they couldn’t be further apart in personality. James Brown walked with an air of invincibility. His bright white, teflon smile beamed a bulletproof self confidence. This was a man who could inspire large swaths of people, even those with no designs on performance. The James Brown persona seemed like an ideal to a whole generation of black men.
It’s hard to look at Bradley’s Brown impersonations as merely performance. In his wig, his cape, and sequins Bradley could also assume the legend’s swagger, his aloofness. But if you paid attention, the illusion fell through. Bradley’s voice is all pain. It’s if every slight, every bad turn cut a physical track through his throat the same way cigarette smoke roughens the vocal timbre. You can hear his stints of homelessness, his troubled upbringing, his harassment at the hands of law enforcement, his adult life in slums, it’s all there in every note he sings. The film just fills in the explicit episodes that led Bradley to his state.
Is “Soul of America” successful? Ultimately not as a documentary, and unlike Sixto Rodriguez the albums produced by Bradley so far don’t need contextualizing to appreciate their quality. But I’d guarantee that anyone watching it will keep an eye out for Bradley when he comes to perform locally, which should be enough for Daptone until they can secure another performer.