Charles Bradley, late-blooming US soul voice, dead at 68

Charles Bradley of Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires performing onstage during the 2017 Governors Ball Music Festival. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Charles Bradley, the soul singer whose robust voice and defiantly upbeat outlook won him stardom in his final years after a life of poverty, died Saturday from cancer. He was 68.

Bradley, who for years had scraped by as a James Brown impersonator, had pulled off another battle against the odds earlier this year when he triumphantly returned from cancer treatment.

But the disease had spread to his liver and he recently canceled months of shows. He died at his Brooklyn home surrounded by family, friends and bandmates, his publicist said.

"Mr Bradley was truly grateful for all the love he's received from his fans and we hope his message of love is remembered and carried on," his Facebook page said, asking for donations to art charities that support young people in lieu of flowers.

After years of taking odd jobs across the United States and drifting into homelessness, Bradley was discovered by the co-founder of Brooklyn-based Daptone Records, which put out his debut album in 2011 when he was 62.

With a rich, brassy voice that evoked Otis Redding coupled with the body-shaking screams of Brown and a relentless positivity, Bradley at last found commercial success.

"I always wanted this in my 30s and 40s, but I got it at the age of 62. It's bittersweet," he told Esquire magazine.

Voice of tolerance

His latest album, Changes, figured on several music magazines' lists of 2016's top albums.

Bradley found an enthusiastic, and much younger, audience as he was booked for leading festivals such as Coachella and Glastonbury.

A devout Christian who frequently invoked God, Bradley would descend from stage to hug fans and toss out roses from heaping bouquets as he urged listeners to devote their lives to love and racial tolerance.

Changes opens with Bradley's take on the patriotic hymn God Bless America. In a spoken intro, Bradley acknowledged he has endured "hard licks of life" but voiced conviction that "America represents love for all humanity and the world." Abandoned at birth by his New York-based mother, Bradley spent his early years in Gainesville, Florida with his grandmother before an itinerant life that took him to Alaska, California, Maine and upstate New York, where he was a cook at a mental hospital and recalled harassment by police.

Facing homelessness, Bradley returned in the mid-1990s to New York to reconcile and care for his aging mother.

He lived with his brother Joseph, a tax broker. But the stability was short-lived when Joseph was shot and killed by their nephew - a trauma Bradley turned into the song Heartache and Pain. "I went crazy; I just couldn't take it. I tried to run in front of cars - I ran in front of everything that was moving, but nothing would hit me," Bradley later told National Public Radio.

Early love of James Brown

Bradley was 14 when he witnessed Brown's swaggering energy at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.

"I saw him and was like, 'whoa,'" he later said, explaining that he learned to throw all of his energy into shows.

Playing Brown under the stage name "Black Velvet," Bradley had his break when he was spotted by Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth whose label specializes in reviving retro soul and funk.

On Changes, the title track was a cover of the song by metal legends Black Sabbath that Bradley heard as a eulogy for his mother, to whom he became close before she died in 2014.

Returning to Gainesville to perform last year, Bradley said in a local interview that he saw in his music a way to "help humanity." "I want to leave a legacy of myself that the world can say, 'Charles Bradley was a real person. He loved what he did, and he loved to entertain people, and he liked to give the best.'"

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