Charles Bradley, Screamin' Eagle of Soul

By Michael Milano

A fan beat shadows in a balmy dressing room above the carousel at the Santa Monica Pier. As the sun set, Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires were moments away from taking the stage at the Twilight Concert Series, the closing act of the L.A. summer. 

Charles Bradley, the screaming eagle of soul, is 65 years old. In 2011, after a lifetime of struggle, he released his first album, No Time For Dreaming. He exploded onto the world stage and has since played 450 shows in 30 countries. His second album, Victim of Love, was received with same major critical acclaim and commercial success as his first.

Charles was in the center of the room digging through two suitcases as the rest of the band, all men half his age, drank whiskey and mingled with a constant flow of visitors. The Curtis Mayfield Anthology played softly in the background.

“Found it!” Charles said as he pulled out a black one-piece outfit with sparkling silver lining.

“What’s it like playing with Charles Bradley?”

“Best seats in the house,” the young trumpet player said smiling.

Doug Rumpf, a tall guy with blonde hair down to his ass and a beard to match, has been Charles’ manager since the beginning.

“Got to get to the stage,” he said to the band, “we’re supposed to be playing music in two minutes.”

“Blow that horn, make that money!” and they all filed out, drinks in hand. Just Charles was left. The band would play for fifteen minutes before he’d take the stage.

“He likes to be alone right before,” Doug said.

Charles sat wearing just zebra print briefs and stared out the window at the nighttime ocean. The carnival lights of the ferris wheel were sparkling on the water.

He’s lean and fit, and sits with a buddha-like posture. He has a small potbelly and the gold around his neck and wrists stands out brightly against his black skin. When he talks to you his eyes are bright and warm, but in the moments he stops to ponder a question or thought, or just breathe, they look tired.

“He changed my life,” Doug said. “You can’t help but be affected by his resolve, you know. To just see the beauty and not let the negativity creep in … Hold on, I got to give him his margarita.”

I tried to count the kisses and hugs Charles gave as he walked from the dressing room to the stage but it was impossible and within moments Alex had to push and pull to get Charles through the crowd.

“I saw you in New Orleans!” “Charles, thank you!" “Charles, we love you!”

“And I love you!” he’d scream back.

Earlier that day we had sat together at a picnic table and Charles talked to me about life.

“Ten years ago I was doing James Brown in Brooklyn, and I was doing handy man’s work, anyway I can to make a dollar and keep me going, picking up a few bottles and cashing them in.”

Charles has been performing most of his life, but never made any sort of a living at it until one day he took a chance and walked into the Daptone Label in New York and asked if they needed singers. And then his life changed dramatically.

“Twenty years ago I was living in the streets and the projects and I was living on subway trains, living in abandoned buildings trying to find a way to keep alive.”

I asked him if it’s gone fast. He stared at me and shook his head.

“No. No. Sometimes I feel like I want god to call me home, to get out of this madness. Sometimes I don’t want to be in this body it hurts so bad. And now I see this racial bounds coming up again. I see the minorities what they going through. I know they hurt. I was abused by police and state troopers, they took my identity away from me and I had no way to speak out.”

Then he paused and said, “I think it’s not about my music, it’s about my soul - take your hurt and give it back to the world.”

The packed crowd was screaming and dancing as a steely trumpet ripped through the sweaty air and Charles lets out a “yeeeeooooooowwww” that leaves no doubt about what Rolling Stone magazine said, Charles Bradley is not a James Brown impersonator, “he’s the heir apparent.”

“James Brown came from the era that I came from – rugged, hard – that era when the soul was so deep,” Charles said, adding, “We all come from the same hurt.”

Charles’ relives those memories with every song, and the audience can feel it.

“This is my favorite song,” he says to the crowd, “and I want to sing my favorite song like I feel it – raw.”

And then the music hits with force. “All I’m asking…” each word stretched out with slow passion “… just give love, love, a chance…” He’s on his knee’s now and holding the mic with two hands and his eyes are closed and he’s pouring every ounce of himself into the words, “I’ve been wanting you for so long, but time just slips away…”

Charles and the band ran off the stage as the crowd continued to scream and dance and chant, “We want Charles! We want Charles!” After a few brief moments they reappeared for an encore.

The last song they played was, Why Is It So Hard To Make It In America.

“Who are we not to see the truth?” He asked me. “How much money must you have before you see that love is the only way?”

The encore was over and the Extraordinaires stood behind the stage drinking and smoking and laughing. Charged with the cool energy of having just played a spectacular show, they had all of Los Angeles at their fingertips.

A few feet away inside a small dusty tent, Charles sat alone, drenched in sweat, on a steel-folding chair.

Earlier in the day, after a parade of interviews and countless selfies with various stage and sound crews and caterers and people he did not know, Charles leaned in and told me what he cherishes most - quiet.

It was silent in the tent when he looked up and said, “I would say, my life right now, talking to you, is bittersweet. And I’ll leave it at that.”

“Can love win?”

“Brother, know that love will always win in the end. So while you hurt, let it hurt, but love stronger.” He added, “Just hold on.”

Then Doug walked in, “Alright boss, what do you want to do? You hungry? Want to go out with the boys?”

Charles responded, “I just want to go get myself in bed and fall asleep.”