Stories of soul singers overcoming adversity are a dime a dozen. Many are true. Even so, Charles Bradley’s hard-knock life and the late onset of his acclaim stand out. Given that his relationship with his mother informs his acclaimed, heart-rendering reading of Black Sabbath’s Changes, it is necessary to sketch in some of the details.
Bradley was born on the 5th November, 1948, in Gainesville, Florida, United States. His mother, Inez, abandoned him before he was a year old. Inez returned into his life when he was eight. At the age of 14, Bradley ran away because he feared for his safety. It was only in the mid-1990s that he bonded with Inez. He had his late mother in mind when he sang the stunning version of Changes shown below.
That’s the kind of song that makes you sit and catch your breath. At first Bradley sounds like Otis Redding, but you soon realise that his voice is rougher at the edges, and that his delivery is rawer. Shoo! In the video Bradley mentions that it was Tom Brenneck (misspelled in the subtitles) who recommended Changes. At the turn of the century, when Bradley was a struggling James Brown impersonator, he was noticed by Gabriel Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records (now known for Sharon Jones).
Roth introduced Bradley to Tom Brenneck, the Daptone artist and bandleader who would become Charles Bradley’s producer. Under Brenneck’s tutorage, Bradley released his first single in 2002, but it was only in 2011 that he released his debut LP, No Time for Dreaming (at 63 years old). This album led to a 2012 documentary, directed by Poull Brien, on Bradley’s troubled life and late blooming. The documentary, which debuted at the SXSW Film Festival, can be seen below.
For two years after running away from home, young Charles slept on subway cars. Thereafter he worked for a time as a chef, with occasional gigs doing his James Brown routine. For much of the the time he was homeless. He first found a semblance of stability in his 50s, when his mother begged him to move in with her so that they could finally get to know each other. Even so, during this time Charles Bradley nearly died when he was treated with penicillin, to which he was allergic, while in hospital with a fever. More tragically, his brother was shot and killed by a nephew. Meanwhile his mother, Inez, was aging and starting to ail.
Changes featured on Charles Bradley’s third album, Changes, which was released on 1 April 2016. In August of that year Charles Bradley fell ill. He died of stomach cancer a year later.
Black Sabbath’s Changes was inspired the breakup of drummer Bill Ward’s first marriage. Ozzy Osbourne has called the song “heart-breaking”, while critic Barney Hoskyns described it as “forlornly pretty”. The song has been covered numerous times, but, tellingly, the Charles Bradley version is the only cover given attention in the Wikipedia entry on the song.