Bradley, J. Robert
J. Robert Bradley
J. Robert Bradley, sometimes called "Mister Baptist," was one of the most influential vocalists in the history of gospel music. The power of his deep, resonant baritone was enough to lift him from squalid boyhood poverty to worldwide renown. He performed throughout the world in concerts that combined a classical repertoire with African-American spirituals.
Bradley was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 5, 1919. His father left the household early. His mother struggled to support him and his younger brother by working in a laundry. Bradley told interviewer T'Ebony Torain, "I know what it is to be hungry. I know what it is to need shoes. I know what it is to not have a house to live in, because they had set our little furniture out on the street because my mother couldn't pay the rent." He also suffered the trauma of losing his right eye to a severe infection during his early years. He went to school only occasionally after the third grade, without learning to read and write properly. He spent many hours by himself on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Sang Like an "Angel"
On Christmas Eve of 1931, the twelve-year-old Bradley stood outside the Front Street auditorium in Memphis, listening to children inside singing "Silent Night" at a Baptist holiday event. Unable to afford a ticket, he began to sing along with the carol. A policeman took notice of the boy, then entered the hall. He returned with Lucie Campbell, the program's music director. As Bradley recalled, the policeman asked Campbell what she heard, and she replied, "I hear an angel singing." This was his first encounter with the woman who would become his mentor and chief supporter.
Campbell was no ordinary church lady. A gifted songwriter and educator, she was the music director of the National Baptist Convention and was largely responsible for introducing artists such as Marian Anderson and Thomas A. Dorsey to nationwide exposure through the black church. Some refer to her as the "mother of gospel music."
Campbell and Bradley's second meeting, two years later, was as memorable as their first. Bradley had been fishing in the Mississippi when, once again, he was attracted by music emanating from the Front Street auditorium. This time he found his way on to the stage, holding his bucket of crawfish. Some audience members cried to remove the urchin, but Campbell remembered him. As Bradley recounts in his foreword to Charles Walker's biography Miss Lucie, she wiped his muddy face with a handkerchief and stood him on a chair to sing. After he wowed the audience, National Baptist Convention president L. K. Williams asked Campbell where the boy had come from, and Campbell said, "Out of the river."
From then on, Campbell made Bradley her protégé. She took him in to the Baptist convention and its Sunday School Congress, and chose him to introduce her songs, some of which became standards of the gospel repertoire. She helped launch him into a professional career as a singer. Later in the 1930s, Camp- bell organized a male gospel quartet called the Good Will Singers. With Bradley as the lead singer, the group toured the country and became highly popular. He also toured with the Hall Johnson Singers, and as a soloist at Baptist revivals.
Trained for Concert Stage
In 1938 Charles Faulkner Bryan, a music professor at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute, took the young baritone under his wing. Bryan attended a revival and was thunderstruck by Bradley's voice, but feared that without training he would overtax his larynx and injure himself. He gave Bradley a few lessons, and later the singer went to Cookeville, Tennessee, to study for a year with Bryan. Bryan's wife, Edith, instructed him in reading and writing as well. Because the campus was segregated at that time, Bryan was putting his own career and reputation at risk to work with an African-American student by night. The campus president gave his approval, however, after hearing Bradley sing.
In the early 1940s Bradley left Tennessee to study music more intensively in New York under Madame Edyth Walker, the famous Wagnerian soprano. He then spent six years in London. He sang for BBC radio and studied at Trinity College of Music. With classical training to support his natural gifts, Bradley's career reached new heights. In 1955 he gave a debut recital at the Royal Albert Hall in London, with the British royal family in attendance. The program featured classical pieces by Wolfgang Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, and other composers, as well as African-American spirituals and gospel songs. It was the first performance of gospel music on the concert stage in Great Britain.
That same year, the Baptist World Alliance met in London, with Lucie Campbell in attendance. She introduced Bradley to the large international congregation of Baptists, and he sang a program that included her version of "The Lord Is My Shepherd." This success led to classical and sacred performances in Europe and Scandinavia, and many repeat performances at meetings of the World Alliance, where he became known as "Mister Baptist," the most visible public face of his denomination.
Performed on Five Continents
Besides his performances, Bradley also took on administrative tasks for the National Baptist Convention, first as Campbell's assistant, then as director of music promotion for the Baptist Sunday School Publishing Board, based in Nashville. He was responsible for selling millions of copies of the Baptist Standard Hymnal. After Campbell's death in 1963, he succeeded her as the convention's music director.
Bradley's recording career spanned five decades, from his first single on the Apollo label in 1950 to tracks on several compilations released by Shanachie in the 1990s. His concert career took him to the great concert halls of the world, spanning five continents. He always made sure to include gospel material and spirituals, such as "Amazing Grace" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," in his concert repertoire. He sang in Brazil, Mexico, Israel, and Africa. In 1975 he was knighted by William Tolbert, the president of Liberia.
Gospel great Mahalia Jackson declared that Bradley's was the greatest voice she ever heard. His performance at her funeral in 1972 was so stirring that newspapers carried photographs of people swooning in the aisles of Chicago's Aerie Crown Theater. With enunciation reminiscent of Paul Robeson, he combined the intensity of operatic singing with the emotional accessibility of blues artists such as Bessie Smith. Martin Luther King Jr. named Bradley as his favorite singer, according to Bradley's obituary in the New York Times.
Bradley published a memoir, I Have Always Been in the Hands of God, with Rev. Amos Jones Jr. in 1993. He performed until 2005, despite failing health brought on by the complications of diabetes. His last years were spent confined in his small apartment in Nashville, and he died there on May 3, 2007. In Memphis the street where Bradley grew up was renamed in his honor.
At a Glance …
Born on October 5, 1919, in Memphis, TN; died on May 3, 2007, in Nashville, TN. Education: Trinity College (London), 1955.
Career: Singer; National Baptist Convention Sunday School Publishing Board, director of music promotion, 1957-63; National Baptist Convention, music director, 1963-2000.
Memberships: National Baptist Convention; World Baptist Alliance.
Awards: Knighted by President William Tolbert of Liberia, 1975.
(With Rev. Amos Jones Jr.) I Have Always Been in the Hands of God, Townsend Press, 1993.
Foreword to Miss Lucie by Charles Walker, Townsend Press, 1993.
God's Amazing Grace, 1960.
(With Rev. C. L. Franklin) I Heard the Voice, 1962.
I'll Fly Away, 1973.
(Contributor) "Amazing Grace," live performance included on When Gospel Was Gospel, 2005.
"Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," 1950.
"Hear My Prayer," 1950.
"If Jesus Had to Pray," 1950.
"Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow," 1950.
"The Day Is Past and Gone," 1992.
"Something Within Me," 1992.
Boyer, Horace Clarence, How Sweet the Sound, Elliott and Clark, 1995.
Cosby, Camille O., and Renee Poussaint, eds., A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak, Atria Books, 2004.
McNeil, W. K., ed., Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music, Routledge, 2005.
Walker, Charles, Miss Lucie, Townsend Press, 1993.
Who's Who Among African Americans, 20th ed., Gale, 2007.
New York Times, May 4, 2007.
Tennessee Tech Visions, Fall 2003.
Sir J. Robert Bradley,http://jrobertbradley.com/ (accessed December 27, 2007).
Personal correspondence with Anthony Heilbut, November 5, 2007.
—Roger K. Smith
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