By JON PARELES
Published: May 4, 2007 in the New York Times
J. Robert Bradley, whose deep, swooping, octave-leaping voice and charismatic presence made him one of the most important figures in gospel music, died yesterday in Nashville. He was 87.
The cause was complications of diabetes, said Anthony Heilbut, the author of “The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times” and the producer of Mr. Bradley’s most recent recordings.
Mr. Bradley was the favorite singer of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mahalia Jackson once said he had the greatest voice she had ever heard.
Mr. Bradley’s bass-baritone voice could be richly operatic or earthy, raspy and improvisational. He received classical voice training and had an extensive concert career, but he never left gospel music behind.
According to Mr. Heilbut, Mr. Bradley’s gospel performances could create an uproar. “Women would throw their pocketbooks, hats and wigs,” he said. “Men would run in circles or even hurl themselves out of balconies.”
John Robert Lee Bradley was born in Memphis and spent much of his career there. He was raised by his mother and grew up poor. When he was 12, he recounted in the book “A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak,” he found himself outside the city auditorium in Memphis, at a National Baptist Convention Christmas Eve program at which poor children singing in a church choir would be given clothes and Christmas stockings.
“I sang my way in there,” he said. He started singing outside the door, and a policeman brought out the convention’s music director, Lucie Campbell, a pioneering gospel songwriter who would become Mr. Bradley’s mentor. He recalled that the policeman asked her, “What do you hear?” and she replied, “I hear an angel singing.”
Ms. Campbell organized the Good Will Singers, an important gospel quartet of the 1930s that toured nationally, with Mr. Bradley as the main lead singer.
In the early 1940s he decided to study classical music. He moved first to New York and then to London, where he stayed for six years. His concert career carried him across Europe and the Americas, where he sang concerts that included arias, lieder and spirituals.
But he also performed steadily in churches and gospel concerts, and he was widely known as Mr. Baptist. He recorded his first gospel single for the Apollo label in 1950 and went on to record for Decca. In later years he recorded for Nashboro and Spirit Feel/Shanachie.
When Ms. Campbell died in 1963, Mr. Bradley succeeded her as director of music for the National Baptist Convention. He eventually moved to Nashville to work at the convention’s headquarters.
In 1975, he was knighted in Liberia.
Mr. Bradley wrote a memoir, “In the Hands of God,” that was published in 1993. He continued to perform until 2005, appearing that year at the National Baptist Convention’s annual convocation.
He left no immediate survivors.
Mr. Bradley favored the older, slower gospel styles, rooted in spirituals and quartet singing, but left audiences galvanized. Mahalia Jackson once said about him, “Nobody need mess with ‘Amazing Grace’ after Bradley gets through with it.”
Photo source: Tennessee Tech University - Volpe Library Archives