CHARLES BRADLEY wholly embodies soul music—the 67-year-old singer, affectionately nicknamed "The Screaming Eagle of Soul," prides himself on his fervent candor. "I want people to look at me and say, 'Hey, here's an honest guy, he's willing to work hard and give the people the love of his soul,'" he says. Hearing the emotion in Bradley's voice and his flawless rendition of '60s soul and funk, you'd think him a seasoned professional. But Bradley has had an unlikely career—one that began in earnest just a few years ago.
Bradley first imagined himself as a performer more than 50 years before his debut release, when his sister took him to see James Brown. Inspired by Brown's legendary showmanship, Bradley would later become his impersonator, but not before experiencing his share of heartache. "I've been held back many times," Bradley says, "but I didn't give up my honesty, my love, and my compassion. I still kept pushing forward."
After leaving home at 14, Bradley went through homelessness, job loss, and the deaths of his brother and mother. Rather than let these hardships make him cynical, he finds an emotional outlet in performing and genuinely radiates love and positivity. It's that attitude that caught the attention of Daptone Records founder Gabriel Roth. "It took one person to find me and say, 'Okay, this guy is for real.' It was a long time coming," says Bradley.
Changes is Bradley's third album, and his first that many critics feel he takes full ownership of. Bradley's delivery recalls vocal icons like Otis Redding, but his mastery of classic soul and R&B has threatened to limit his range. On Changes, however, Bradley distinguishes himself with a contemporary twist on nostalgia.
Choosing the right songs can be tricky for Bradley: "If I don't like the lyrics," he says, "[if they don't speak to] my past experiences and the things that I've seen, I can't sing it." Ozzy Osbourne and Charles Bradley may share little more than their birth year, but Black Sabbath's 1972 ballad "Changes" resonated with Bradley. "When [the lyrics] go that deep within my personal life, then I can get into it. And that's what 'Changes' did for me."
Changes' title track focuses on Bradley's relationship with his mother. "Me and my mom had been apart for a long time," he remembers. "We came together and she was telling me about the things that she went through.... It was like going down these memory lanes." That's why "Changes," an unlikely cover, came together naturally for Bradley. The lyrics "It took so long to realize/That I can still hear her last goodbyes/Now all my days are filled with tears/Wish I could go back and change these years" speak to Bradley's sense of lost time. "They've got a little something about me and my mom," he says. "It hurts when you get deep into it."
Bradley's songs are fueled by his compassion and unwavering optimism. "I want to give you music that you can feel and understand," he says. "Maybe my lyrics can help you with your own thoughts and frame of mind." Making himself vulnerable to crowds of strangers each night on stage can't be easy, but it's Bradley's mission: "If I can make a change in the world with the goodness of my soul, this is what I'm about."