I Hear an Angel Singing: Remembering J. Robert Bradley, Jr
Last year, several nights after visioning Chet Baker, Brad had another dream where he received a song he had never heard before. A voice told him it was a “ticket to the fast lane to heaven.” The next morning Brad Googled the lyrics to the song and up came the video below. The lyrics are to a hymn, “Heavenly Sunshine,” written by Lucie Eddie Campbell (1885-1963), here sung by the late J. Robert Bradley. Neither of us were familiar with this song, Lucie Campbell or this man, who was a well-known gospel singer and good friend of Mahalia Jackson. Like all the songs that come through the visionary rope, it has touched our hearts and those of everyone we have shared it with.
Before we get to the song, here is some more information about J. Robert Bradley. This is from his obituary in 2007 in the New York Times:
“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 Anthony Heilbut (Bradley’s producer and friend), 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, as he recounts 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.”
Heilbut writes of Bradley: “He sang his way into a musical and spiritual love affair with the whole world. He now fully realizes the title of his book and is at rest, at last, in the hands of God.” (Note: We originally quoted this from a website that seems to have been taken down).
Ticket to the Fast Lane to Heaven
Without further ado, it’s time to board the Chrysler Imperial and go straight to the heavenly sunshine: