A near-perfect closing statement.
When Charles Bradley died in September of 2017 following a battle with stomach cancer, he left a massive void in both the Daptone universe and that of modern soul music. Like label mate Sharon Jones, Bradley was a late-bloomer, having put in his time toiling away anonymously in clubs for decades before becoming a critical darling. Unlike Jones, however, Bradley initially made a name for himself as a James Brown tribute act. Working under a handful of monikers – including Black Velvet – Bradley showed himself to be the spitting image of the Godfather of Soul.
But when he approached the folks at Daptone more than a decade ago, what they saw in him was not the possibility of rehashing Brown’s own routine, but rather an untapped creative potential. In other words, they saw the artist behind the artistry and sought to bring the former to the fore. And thank god they did. Over the course of three studio albums – 2011’s No Time for Dreaming, 2013’s Victim of Love and 2016’s Changes – he managed a trio of modern soul masterpieces, ingratiating himself to thousands of fans all over the world with his unbridled joy at being able to do what he loved most for a living.
Anyone who saw the 2012 documentary on Bradley, Soul of America, couldn’t help but fall in love with the guy, his childlike energy and enthusiasm for music almost too precious to be subjected to the slings and arrows of modern society. But it came through in the music in a way not often heard since the heyday of soul music, Bradley’s charm and raw emotional honesty engendering each and every performance. By the time he released the monumental Changes, it felt like he had truly hit his stride and was running on all cylinders. Sadly, he would be dead within a year, Changes serving as a sort of preemptive farewell.
His first posthumous release, Black Velvet arrives just days after what would have been Bradley’s 70th birthday and, as such, is more a collection of reminders as to why he was so beloved rather than an album designed to further bolster his legacy. It consists of B-sides, alternate recordings and a handful of esoteric covers: Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” originally released as a single in 2011 and Nirvana’s “Stay Away” from 2012 join Bradley’s stellar read of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” from his album of the same name. But nothing on Black Velvet really does much to recast or reshape Bradley’s career, instead it functions more as a supplemental release to his three proper studio albums, much in the same way as the late Sharon Jones’ Soul of a Woman rounded up assorted odds and sods.
This isn’t to say that Black Velvet is without merit – quite the contrary, actually. It’s just unfortunate that Bradley wasn’t able to build on the momentum of the five years’ worth of albums he’d released in the final years of his life. The moments collected here fill in the gaps between his three studio albums: “Luv Jones,” a single with LaRose Jackson, is a fine example of the throwback sound and feel of Bradley’s best work; “Stay Away” shows his ability to get to the essence of a song, looking entirely past sound, style and genre. In his world, any great song could be a soul song. But they are essentially just that: previously-released recordings here collected in one posthumous place.
The title track is the only one on which Bradley’s voice is absent and one of the few “new” moments Black Velvet has to offer. Having been too sick to record vocals for the track, it instead stands as an instrumental elegy for the man who for so long was known and loved as Black Velvet before reverting to his given name and making his way into the hearts of thousands more all over the world. It’s a fitting, loving tribute to a beautiful soul who, in his final years, managed to bring so much joy to so many. The lyrical alteration to “Victim of Love” (“I woke up this morning/ Felt your love laying beside my soul/ Baby, I feel like I’m in heaven”) serves as a near-perfect closing statement for a man who, if there is such thing, definitely deserves a place in heaven.