Charles Bradley is happy. The world may have been going up in flames on the raw, weary No Time For Dreaming – the then 62 year old’s debut record that brought him to the music world’s attention – but now on Victim Of Love, Charles is swooning.
Coming out in front of an eager early afternoon crowd on the main stage of Latitude Festival, dressed in bright yellow trousers and shirt, a purple jacket and black waistcoat, Charles sweated, wailed, busted and moved through 50 minutes of the best, most authentic soul music I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing in the flesh (I hadn’t heard Bobby Womack by this point, but across the weekend they were on par) – songs you were sure weren’t being written anymore, songs so good that they wouldn’t feel out of place on a classic James Brown or Al Green record, songs you feel in your gut.
Standing backstage waiting for my interview Charles couldn’t have been further from the flamboyant, energetic on stage presence I’d seen hours before. The shimmering velvet had been replaced by blue jeans and a black and red striped polo shirt, he lounged comfortably, a beaming smile across his face. The first song I ever heard him sing was called “Why Is It So Hard?” – I asked him why there’d been such a shift in tone across the two records:
“The first record I was truly in the darkness in my own spirit looking out at the world, and it was very dark, and it was very painful – with this new album, I’m in the tunnel, coming out into the light.”
So, what brought him out into the light?
“The love all around us – the love of the people. I go out into the audience and people would tell me ‘Charles, your music saved me’ – I say you gotta let your little light shine! Because one day, somebody’s gonna see your little light, don’t keep it in the darkness!”
Charles’ religion informs his music as much as it does his performance on stage. As the Suffolk skies began to ease aside during his set he was quick to tell us we were being baptised by the Lord, the sincerity and joy with which he said that would be enough to test the mettle of even the hardest atheist – and in his defence, you’d be the first through the Church doors if the music was this good. Maybe that’s what Scientology needs, better songs. Unsurprisingly, Charles considers Church his school not just for the way he lives his life, but also for his raw, intensely powerful singing voice:
“That’s where it started... When you couldn’t say what’s on your mind, you’d go into Church and you’d moan and you’d groan and you’d let it all out!”
The most refreshing thing about Charles is how unpretentious he is, both as a person and a musician. He and his exemplary band The Extraordinaries are in such a groove on stage you’d happily watch them for hours. On his band, Charles said:
“We have a friendship, we known each other 3 years, they can be free spirits when they play for me. If they were just like robots I’d feel like a robot myself – when they go into their own spirits and find out who they are as instrumentalists or guitar players or whatever, then it tunes with me, and when it tunes with me, then it’s a wrap.
Sometimes when the guys are tired and got a lot of stress on them, they play the music and I just follow, but when they feel like they really wanna get into the spirit, then I take charge – today was good, they just opened up and got into it.”
As a performer, Charles throws out all the moves you’d expect, pirouetting with the mic stand, flinging it every which way but loose, at one point combining a fairly impressive robot with some hardcore Theremin action. There was one thing on my mind watching him command the stage as he powered through Crying In The Chapel, Strictly Reserved For You and Put The Flame On It from the new record – what’s Charles like on a first date?
“Well, if I were going on a first date I’d want it to be Diana Ross or Barbra Streisand! I’d be truly a gentleman, I’d get to know her spirit and see if she fits my spirit, see if it’s just the music I relate to or something deeper.”
Not wanting to pass up this opportunity I asked Charles how to avoid the friend-zone, his words of advice were simple: “Look into their eyes – the eyes don’t lie. If you don’t see beauty in their eyes for your soul it’s not right for you.”
As we got up to say our goodbyes we kept talking. Charles asked about my tattoo, he told me about his birthmark, I told him about a friend who has a heart birthmark on her arm, he said “that means she got love in her soul.” He kindly accepted my mother’s offer of dinner at the house in Wales, gave me the best guy-hug I’ve had in my life and I went on my way. Yep, Charles Bradley is happy, and now, I’m happy too.