Although Bradley was always interested in music—he saw James Brown at the Apollo at an impressionable age—his path to success was a long and complicated one. A native of Florida, Bradley moved to Brooklyn at eight, ran away from home at the age of 14, and lived all over the country working at a variety of odd jobs—the oddest was probably a ten-year stint as a cook at a mental hospital in Maine—before returning to Brooklyn in 1996 to reunite with his estranged mother. In New York, by then already in his late 40s, he began performing as a James Brown impersonator under the name “Black Velvet,” which led to his discovery by Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth. But although he began releasing songs on Daptone in 2002, No Time for Dreaming, his debut LP, didn’t come out until 2011. The album, which felt like a long-lost classic soul record from the 1960s or 1970s right down to the cover art, was a hit, and Bradley’s late-in-life success and retro sound were the subject of a feature-length documentary by Poull Brien, Charles Bradley: Soul of America.
Touring followed—Bradley was as electrifying on stage as he was in the studio—as did two more albums, 2013’s Victim of Love and 2016’s Changes. In the fall of 2016, Bradley cancelled the remaining dates of his tour in support of Changes when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Although the cancer was successfully treated and Bradley returned to touring, it returned in early September, this time metastasized in his liver. He died in Brooklyn surrounded by his family, friends, and members of the various backing bands he performed with over the course of his career. In 2011, he told NPR what No Time for Dreaming meant to him:
I’m gonna say it’s all right to dream, but work at it—make it come to reality. It took 62 years for somebody to find me, but I thank God. Some people never get found.