Charles Bradley, Screamin' Eagle of Soul

By Michael Milano

The sun was setting at the Santa Monica Pier where Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires were just moments away from taking stage at the Twilight Concert Series, 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 the 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  half his age, drank whiskey and mingled with visitors. The Curtis Mayfield Anthology played softly in the background.

“Found it!” Charles said, pulling out out a black one-piece with sparkling silver lining.

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

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

Drinks in hand, they all file out, priming their instruments and shouting with excitement. 

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

Charles sits naked except for a pair of zebra-print briefs, and stares out a window at the ocean. The carnival lights of the ferris wheel sparkling on the nighttime water.

He’s lean and fit, and sits with a buddha-like posture. He has a cute little 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 or just breathe, they look tired.

“He changed my life,” Doug says. “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 Doug has 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 sat together at a picnic table and Charles talked to me about his life.

“Ten years ago I was doing James Brown in Brooklyn," he starts, "And I was doing handyman’s work, any way I can to make a dollar and keep going - picking up a few bottles and cashing them in.”

Charles has performed most of his life, but never made any money until one day, practically homeless and 60-plus years old, he walks into the Daptone Label in New York and asks if they need singers. And then his life changed dramatically.

I asked him if it’s gone fast. He 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." He gathers his breath, "and now I see this racial stuff coming up again, the minorities what they going through. I know they hurt. I was abused too, they took my identity away from me and I had no way to speak out.”

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 says, adding, “take your hurt and give it back to the world.”

Charles’ show, as much or more than any I've seen, feels immense. 

“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 stretches “… 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 run 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. So while you hurt, let it hurt, but love stronger.” He added, “Just hold on.”

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

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