Last night, Charles Bradley — the self-proclaimed “Screaming Eagle of Soul” — landed at the Great American Music Hall for the first show of his two-day stint in San Francisco. Backed by a seven-man band including horns and keyboards, Bradley shredded his raspy, soulful voice for over an hour, pulling cuts from his latest LP, Victim of Love and his much-acclaimed debut No Time For Dreaming.
Any performance by Mr. Bradley stands up wholly on its own, but it’s almost impossible not to mention his fascinating backstory. Gabriel Roth, the co-founder of soul-revivalist label Daptone Records, discovered Bradley in a NYC bar when the singer was moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator by the name of “Black Velvet.” Roth put Bradley in touch with the Menahan Street Band, who soon invited him to sit-in for a rehearsal. This is the best part though: Bradley simply asked the band to play while he improvised lyrics over the top. And the Screaming Eagle was born.
But that fortuitous event was only the latest strange turn in a life filled with hardship. Abandoned by his mother in 1948 when he was only eight months old (she later returned when he was eight), Bradley would bounce around the country for the rest of his life fighting homelessness, heartache, and the eventual murder of his brother in NYC.
About halfway through the show last night, Bradley stopped to tell the audience about his experience moving to San Francisco in 1977 and his struggle to find work. He stayed for 17 years — which says something not only about his ability to persevere, but also his connection to this city — and you could tell the crowd had been pulled in by his infectious enthusiasm for life, despite living it somewhere on the periphery. With sweat pouring down his deeply-wrinkled face like tears, he concluded, “But you put me on this stage, and for that, I love you,” and let free another screaming soul scorcher. Bradley sounds great onstage, and his pained, raspy voice is perfectly suited to the plaintive love songs that he enjoys singing so much. In one of his life’s many plot twists, it’s amazing that no one questions Bradley’s authenticity, despite his beginnings as a James Brown impersonator. But that’s the power of his voice and the deep experience he carries in his eyes.
After three outfit changes (each with a different pattern of glittering sequins) and an encore, Bradley finally left the stage for good. But instead of returning to the dressing room, he marched into the crowd and began hugging audience members. It was a humble gesture of appreciation for his new-found success, and with each grasp the crowd began to smile more and more, as though by touching the man we might gain the same rich appreciation for life and music he brings to the stage. It’s certainly hard to believe that last night’s affluent, mostly-white crowd (myself included) could truly identify with Mr. Bradley’s hardships, but the man’s voice and passion is infectious, the show-closing hugs a final gesture of gratitude anyone could appreciate.