It’s a heartfelt move on the part of Daptone Records to make the title track of this record an absence. ‘Black Velvet’ is a Menahan Street Band instrumental that Charles Bradley never got the chance to provide the vocals for. The singer was touring the UK in 2016 when cancer intervened and he was to die of the illness the following year. ‘Black Velvet’ might have formed the basis of some torrid, sultry ballad, but it’s hard to imagine it now as anything other than something valedictory. It’s also fitting that this stately, but slightly raffish funeral march returns us to the beginning of Bradley’s passionate, besotted affair with music. As an impressionable fourteen-year-old, his life changed when he encountered the incandescence that was James Brown in concert in 1962, and by ’67 he was performing his own James Brown tribute act under the stage name of Black Velvet. This conflation of endings and beginnings is exactly the kind of thing Bradley did in his writing. Heartaches and pain were always opportunities to love, changes were always chances to do better, and in his work with Daptone over the last decade or so he was able to hone his talent, and to take the often awful events of his life and make them the basis for some transcendently beautiful soul music.
Released on the occasion of what would have been Bradley’s 70th birthday, Black Velvet is billed as a trip to the vaults, as a collection of rare and unreleased tracks spanning his years with Daptone, and it stands up extraordinarily well as something that has to be more than just a compilation. There are some absolute humdingers here. “I hold a key / Between right and wrong”, he sings on ‘I Feel A Change’, and his voice sounds like a battlefield where angels might go to war to find out which one of them is the devil. The horn section seethes around him like one of our freakish summer nights and he plays the part of a man torn between needing his lover to stay and recognising that maybe the best thing is for her to go. It offers no easy resolution to the dilemma. This is life in action, someone caught judging the value of their own heart, and there’s a weight of experience behind it.
Another clear highlight is his cover of Sixto Rodriquez’s love-letter to personal integrity, ‘Slip Away‘. Charles Bradley owns this song with a gravitas you couldn’t imagine in a younger artist. His mastery of phrasing approaches Nina Simone’s best covers. The weary disenchantment in his delivery of the lines “I’m tired of lying and I’m sick of trying / because I’m losing who I really am,” makes Sugar Man himself sound like a petulant youth in comparison. The interplay between Bradley and the band here is quintessential Daptone. They make it uplifting, even jaunty. We may be disillusioned and feeling it, but if we only knew it’s with a spring in our step that we slip away to a better gig just around the corner.
Throughout the LP there’s a sense of things being tried out. ‘Luv Jones‘, an early collaboration with LaRose Jackson, finds him in ripping it up in ‘Jungle Boogie‘ territory, ‘(I Hope You Find) The Good Life‘ sees him bidding a conflicted farewell to a lover, and the mighty alternate take of ‘Victim of Love (Electric Version)‘ is somehow not quite as big as it becomes once the accompaniment is stripped back to a single acoustic guitar and some backing singers. It’s all good, and if you’re already a fan you’ll find plenty to interest and delight you. If there’s sometimes a sense that there’s only half a great album here, it’s only because he set such a high standard elsewhere.
And for all that I still prefer the original, the vocal performance on ‘Victim of Love‘ that closes the album is Charles Bradley at his finest: a man battered and unbowed, who knew poverty, homelessness and bitter tragedy, and an artist capable of combining a vivid, first-hand, street-level account of injustice with a universal moral imperative – that if only we could love enough, then that love could somehow save humanity. I can only raise a glass to the guy on his birthday, and say well played Daptone Records for providing this amazing talent with a home.