Charles Bradley, his voice dripping with raw emotion, sings as though his life depends on it.
It's a voice that, in essence, gave Bradley a new start in life at 61, when his debut album, No Time for Dreaming, at long last found its way into the world, via Daptone Records.
As the howling outsider finally found his audience and saw his long-held dream fulfilled, Bradley also found his voice as an artist. Pouring his life experience into another batch of songs, Bradley turned out his follow-up record barely two years later, gathering even more praise for Victim of Love, which peaked at number two on Billboard's Heatseekers albums chart.
"It's something that I've wanted to do for the longest time, and I finally had the opportunity. There's so much I want to say and put into music, and I just want to keep going," Bradley says. "I want to forget about a lot of things that are behind me and focus on my music now, and get out there in these days that I have left and let the world know who I am. This is what I love to do and what I love to give to the world."
Bradley's long road to becoming a recording artist — from his job as a James Brown impersonator to the years between first hooking up with Daptone for a pair of singles and the 2011 release of his debut — is showcased in the 2012 documentary Soul of America, directed by Poull Brien.
"I came in the door strong because I want the opportunity," Bradley says. "They didn't believe that I was going to grow and keep my honesty and integrity to go forward. I kept showing them and showing them."
Victim of Love is a wider-ranging album, both musically and emotionally. The arrangements from Tom Brenneck, Bradley's co-writer, bandleader and producer, are expansive and shifting, with more horns and more guitar, and swing from soul ballads to a hybrid of funk and psychedelic rock. As for Bradley's lyrics, now amid the heartache are feelings of hope and gratitude, representing a fuller vision of life.
"The first record is me, finally getting a chance to go into my dark world and bring it to the light, show the world who I am and the depression I was under. I got the chance to put that into music," Bradley says. "The second album is coming out of the dark into the light."
And while Bradley says the title is self-referential, it comes more from a place of sharing and finding love than a dwelling on the past.
"I am a victim of love, from childhood to manhood, going through the things I've been through. But you give your love and make sure the light shines," he says. "Everybody is looking for love, but we don't know how to go about getting it. We don't know how to give it. But I believe when you find something inside yourself, you see it everywhere you go. I try to find the kindness in my soul to give people. Maybe they don't have to go through the depths I did if I can give them some encouragement to go find their dreams."
It's that sort of attitude that Bradley describes bringing to the stage, especially in one story he tells about performing last year in Texas: In a raging thunderstorm, after a brief power outage, Bradley jumped from the stage, hugging fans and turning the appreciation back on them.
"I go out there because I feel the genuine quality of human beings who love what I'm doing. I connect with an audience. They have dreams and things they want to be," Bradley says. "When I go on stage, I just open my heart. When I open my heart to them, my love is raw. I give them the truth of my soul. That's why I like being an entertainer."