Few musicians give as much of themselves on stage as Charles Bradley, a 64-year-old former James Brown impersonator who released his debut album, "No Time for Dreaming," in 2011.
Even fewer give as much off the stage.
That's been the lifelong battle for "the screaming eagle of soul." The 2012 documentary "Charles Bradley: Soul of America" depicts an uneducated man with the heart of a child. A born innocent, he cares for his elderly mother in Brooklyn, N.Y., forgiving the fact that she abandoned him as a baby and was a big reason he wound up sleeping on subways at 14.
"I always been that person," he says. "That's why sometime I'm afraid of peoples -- because I know my infinite heart inside."
He became enthralled by Brown's music after his sister took him to see the legendary singer at the Apollo Theater as a teen. Two years later, he was coaxed into performing by musicians rehearsing in a Job Corps gym. Mr. Bradley was shy, he says, until they "gave me a little gin."
"I took that gin and felt a little pretty, and I grabbed the microphone and started singing," he remembers. "Ever since then, I never put the microphone down."
Music never paid the rent. He has worked various jobs over the years to support himself. When he was discovered by young hipsters from Brooklyn-based soul-revival label Daptone Records, he was performing locally as "James Brown Jr., aka Black Velvet."
In the film, Mr. Bradley cautiously puts down his Godfather of Soul wig and cape and, at age 62, embarks upon a search for his own musical soul. By the end, he headlines a triumphant, sold-out concert of original music from his debut album and leaves for a European tour -- before returning to his low-income apartment.
In the time since "Soul of America" premiered, Mr. Bradley has moved out of the projects. He used money earned in the past year to remodel and add heat to the basement of his mother's modest house, where he now lives.
In April, Daptone released his second album, "Victim of Love." His voice has not gotten softer with success. Roughened by years of hardship, those rich, gravelly vocals wowed audiences nationwide this summer.
It's his pleaser's approach contrasted with the harsh realities of his life that make Mr. Bradley's musical delivery and lyrics so powerful. Lines in songs such as "Why Is It So Hard" are as deep as the ones in his weathered face. This is '60s- and '70s-laced R&B that aches as it grooves.
Giving his all on stage hasn't been easy, he says. "Heartaches and Pain" is a song about his older brother, who was murdered just more than a decade ago, two doors down from their mother's house at the time.
"How do you think it felt to sing that song?" Mr. Bradley asks. "I got on stage, and I said, 'No, I want to go home' and 'I can't do it.' " But over time, "Heartaches" has become a source of inspiration.
"When I walk out on that stage, the way those peoples react to my soul? Oh, man," Mr. Bradley says. "Now I can sing it."
He still hasn't watched "Soul of America" in its entirety, he says. Interviews with family members he hadn't seen in decades were not kind to his mom. And seeing re-enactments of his difficult upbringing?
"It was wild," Mr. Bradley says. "I couldn't take it."
He performs at 10:45 p.m. on the Highmark Stage.