By Mike Dunn
Daptone Records/Dunham Records
Just as early hip hop was built off the beats of both classic, and underground soul groups from the mid-60’s into to early 70’s, Charles Bradley’s final album, Black Velvet, is a compiled retrospective of Bradley’s recording career, and his decade-spanning work with producer Tommy ‘TNT’ Brenneck and the players and crew at Daptone Records in Brooklyn, New York.
Bradley’s soul was the real deal, a vocalist who hit certain notes that only a few before him could hit with such conviction. Bradley’s voice was a conduit to his heart, as much as it was a unique instrument. His tone split through the mix over grooves that always had that slow-riding bounce, head bobbing in a long Impala while the additions of percussion, and the horns never sounded digital. Considering the serendipitous nature of living, it’s both to Daptone’s, and Bradley’s good fortune that they found each other. The rotating cast of sidemen whose recording room and techniques have resulted in some of this era’s most classic-sounding wile forward thinking soul music found a vocalist who was as warm as the sound their music created, and Bradley, whose mix of wailing Bobby Bland, elemental James Brown, and sincerity of Sam Cooke needed the best elements of uncluttered mid-60s Memphis soul along with the cinematic quality of funk in the early 70s.
Among Black Velvet’s ten cuts, there isn’t one spot where the horns have a manufactured digital warmth, the kick drum sets the pace while the rest of the kit has an airy, distant feel so common to old records where everyone played in one room, quiet enough to catch the mic bleed of a bit of everything. The bass is punchy, but dialled back in the midrange, creating a melodic thump, with lyrical lines throughout but never upsetting the groove. Some players just have that feel on bass, how long to sustain a note, and when to mute another in passing, to give the beat its lower melodic push. There might not be a better live room anywhere currently than in Brooklyn at Daptone records.
“Can’t Fight The Feeling” brings shots on the downbeats with Bradley hitting those James Brown moans and oh’s each time, while the horns rise and fall in between with a guitar hook that sounds just like jelly moves. The band settles into a vamp with slight organ backing, with Bradley taking the lead, his churchy, uplifting lines over a chord run that gradually leads to the chorus. There’s a rave up break in the middle with Bradley pleading to his baby, “Please take a chance on me,” that has a bit of Archie Bell & The Drells’ “Tighten Up”, though with more accented push, compared to that cut’s lounge-y flow. On “Luv Jones”, the mens choir hangs with the horns though the pre-disco intro, the kind of sound that defined early 70s pop culture. The verse’s repetitive lines would make an excellent sample on a hip hop record, and the groove is a good shaker that blends in without having to jump out and be the most distinctive thing.
It’s on “I Feel A Change” that Bradley gets heavy, on a ballad with dramatic changes in the choruses, the song accents the attention to detail that Brenneck put into arranging these cuts, with instruments maintaining a melodic motif with subtle moves around those parts, each instrument always in its place but never feeling shuttered, and invoking an ever-heightening drama. A lot of records going for a classic-sounding vibe tend to try these moves, but can tend to sound a little forced, where the grooves on Black Velvet leave plenty of room for melodies to swoop in and out.
The title track is an instrumental, and given Bradley’s propensity during live performances to leave the stage and embrace as many people as he could, sharing his heart and love with everyone he could find, a cut like “Black Velvet” might make a great mid-show opportunity for Bradley to commune with the people. Slow and swaying, One could imagine Bradley imploring the crowd to love each other as much as he loved them. “Stay Away” has some cool fuzz guitar, like Eddie Hazel, or from Burnt Offering by labelmates The Budos Band, and Bradley’s cover of Neil Young’s classic country rock standard “Heart Of Gold” is a cool take on the familiar, Bradley off-timing the melody just a little, while the horns lay down Young’s harmonica melody with some jump, giving an old cut a fresh sound.
Charles Bradley’s story is one of adversity, persevering through harder conditions than just about anyone who can afford to go to the record store might have to, finding strength and love in music, and letting those things lead his path. He shared those parts of himself with everyone who listened to his records and saw him play, and cut some of the defining soul music of our era, and Black Velvet being his final, posthumous record makes excellent contribution to that canon. While young cats like Leon Bridges and Curtis Harding deftly take up the sound of classic soul, their time to define will come. With his producer Tommy Brenneck, his contemporaries Sharon Jones and Lee Fields, and the ace crew of musicians rolling tape at Daptone in Brooklyn, Charles Bradley was able to live a dream musically, and make music that helped reinvigorate an essential sound for his time.Black Velvet, Charles Bradley, Daptone Records/Dunham Records