Unsung heroes: Ex-tribute artist Charles Bradley finds his own voice
A soul howler who’d been working construction and doing a James Brown tribute act began collaborating with Thomas Brenneck’s Menahan Street Band. Now comes a gig at the Echo.
Once a touring member of Sharon Jones’ backing band the Dap-Kings, Thomas Brenneck now finds himself in the roles of guitarist, producer and curator. His Dunham Records, which is affiliated with the Dap-Kings’ Daptone Records, last year put out the first proper album from Charles Bradley, a 63-year-old soul howler whom Brenneck rescued from construction work and his role as a James Brown impersonator.
“You could tell he was just in this shell,” said Brenneck, who continues to work with the Dap-Kings in a studio-recording capacity. “He was a James Brown impersonator and he was dressing like him all the time, rocking a James Brown wig, full time. He had not found himself as an artist.”
About four years ago a collaboration between Brenneck’s own Menahan Street Band and Bradley started to take shape. “The music came, and then he slowly crawled out of his shell,” Brenneck said. “I think he’s finally casting off that James Brown mask. Even if he does do a James Brown spin or mannerism, he owns it now.”
And how many more people like Bradley — artists working in construction or cover acts — does Brenneck think are out there? “There’s more than we would think,” he said. “If you go down to Mississippi, probably eight out of every 10 people above 50 years old can out-sing everyone we know.”
Below, Brenneck picks some of his favorite lesser-known artists.
• Rodriguez. Brenneck may be cheating a little with this pick, as there’s a chance he’ll be producing a new Rodriguez album. Yet if he does, it will be only the third effort from Detroit’s Sixto Diaz Rodriguez in about four decades. Both, originally recorded for Sussex, the label that was home to Bill Withers, were recently re-released by Seattle’s Light in the Attic.
"He’s like 70s years old and he’s lived through hell," Brenneck said. "His two records are amazing. It’s almost kitschy because it’s so Dylan-ish, but he’s the American-Mexican version of Dylan coming out of Detroit. And with production from [Motown's Dennis] Coffey? This is gold when you’re talking about unknowns."
• The Fascinations. This little-known ’60s girl group had the support of Curtis Mayfield, who recorded and wrote with the act.
"They’re unbelievable," Brenneck said. "They were a girl group from Detroit, and Curtis Mayfield produced it on a very-short lived record label called Mayfied. They did an album that never came out. Four or five singles were released, and three or four years later, when the girls had broken up, 'Girls Are Out To Get You,' became a hit in England. They reunited, toured and I don’t think they ever did anything again. But those singles are soul music at its best."
• Bobby Bland. No stranger to students of the blues, Bland nevertheless gets overshadowed by the likes of B.B. King and Ray Charles when it comes to bridging soul and blues. Yet Brenneck said Bland is one of the biggest influences on that of Jones and the Dap-Kings, specifically the 2010 album “Learned the Hard Way.”
“If you were digging that record, you have to check out Bobby Bland,” Brenneck said. “Largely because of the arrangements. The arrangements in the band were really distinct for ’60s soul music. They’re open, in terms of how everything sounds. Their horn arrangements are almost big band-ish, and he’s a blues singer."
• Syl Johnson. The Mississippi-born Johnson was recently given a legend-like treatment from Chicago’s Numero Group, which last year issued a four-CD, six-LP boxed set of Johnson’s material, “Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology.” A master of funk and soul, Johnson has shared the stage a few times with Jones and the Dap-Kings, and even came close to recording with Brenneck.
And though Brenneck and Johnson weren’t always on the same page in the studio, Brenneck remains in awe of the soul vet. “He has this unbelievable old-school mentality. I think that’s the coolest thing.”
Charles Bradley and Menaham Street Banda t the Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets in advance are $12.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Charles Bradley / Credit: Kisha Bari