Sunday, August 10, 2014

Charles Bradley & the Extraordinaires at Damrosch Park

Charles Bradley's mother abandoned him when he was eight months old, so he was raised initially by his maternal grandmother in Gainesville, Florida. When he was eight years old, his mother took him to live with her in Brooklyn, New York. He was 14 years old when his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown perform. Bradley was so inspired by the performance that he began to practice Brown's style of singing and stage mannerisms at home. Bradley ran away from home and slept nights in subway cars for two years. Later, Bradley worked odd jobs in Maine, New York, California, and Alaska, and sang  whenever he could get a gig. In 1996, Bradley moved in with his mother in Brooklyn and began singing as a James Brown impersonator in local clubs under the name Black Velvet. Despite more hard times, he finally lived his dream. In 2011, at 62 years old, Bradley released his debut album, No Time for Dreaming. Bradley's second album, Victim of Love, was released in 2013. Bradley's life journey is the subject of a documentary, Soul of America.

Headlining the final night of this year's Lincoln Center Out of Doors and also the week of AmericanaFest free concert series, Charles Bradley & the Extraordinaires was nostalgia for the seniors and an education for the juniors in the audience. Do not call Bradley retro soul, because he is not a novelty artist mining an old sound. On the contrary, he has simply never changed his style over the course of 50 years. As the band played an overture of funky rhythm and blues instrumentals, "the Screamin' Eagle of Soul" was introduced to applause and came on stage wearing a vintage suit that looked like it was purchased at Times Square's former Superfly Boutique. He bowed from the waist, blew kisses and waved his arms like he was trying to fly, then sang pleadingly and sorrowfully a hypnotic burner. The bulk of the set was comprised of heart-wrenching love songs and funky groove shakers from his two albums, but it never mattered what he sang; it mattered more how he sang. He may have learned much by imitating many soul singers over the years, but tonight his passionate singing originated from his own heart. As the 66-year-old showman sang, shouted and danced, he inspired more and more of the audience to leave their chairs to sing and dance with him at the lip of the stage to his sweet soul music. He expressed gratitude to the audience for giving him in his senior years the career he always wanted, and at the end of his sizzling performance, instead of walking backstage, he walked into the audience to meet and hug his fans.

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