When Kelsey Bennett was younger, she always picked “dare” over “truth.” Not much has changed. The young photographer chases the rush; that shot of adrenaline that comes along with daring herself to take on challenges both artistic and otherwise. It’s the motivation behind the majority of her work, she says.
When David Turnley, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer known for getting close with his subjects dared Bennett to do the same, she couldn’t resist. She had interned with Annie Leibovitz. She stirred up controversy while shooting for Boston’s Weekly Dig, putting two male baseball fans -- one Yankee, one Red Sox -- kissing in front of Fenway Park on the cover. Putting a camera in someone’s face for a week was another story.
Of course, she had to find someone interesting enough to follow. It didn’t take much searching. Once Black Velvet took the stage at the Tip Top Bar & Grill in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, her subject was cast.
Black Velvet is a living homage to James Brown, the original godfather of soul, performed by soul singer and Brooklynite Charles Bradley. At the age of 13, Bradley witnessed Brown firsthand at the Apollo Theater. It was 1962, Brown was at the top of his game and Bradley was sold in seconds. He rushed home to practice dance moves in his bedroom, tying string to a broomstick and whipping the imaginary microphone stand back and forth.
From age 16 onward, Bradley built his career performing the material of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and the aforementioned Brown. When he performed as the godfather -- eventually adopting the moniker Black Velvet at numerous fans’ request -- it was with such sincerity that it wasn’t an impersonation. It became an ode to his childhood hero -- an ode that eventually helped Bradley find success with his original compositions. In addition to signing with Daptone Records, Bradley recently performed at the Hollywood Bowl with Stevie Wonder and made his late night television premiere.
Bennett knows that if she had waited any longer to shoot her subject, Bradley might not have accepted her probing offer.
“I proposed the idea right after his show” at the Tip Top, says Bennett. “All he wanted to know is if my project would make people happy. I said yes and that was it. The next day, we got started.”
The Final Product
When Bradley steps on stage as Black Velvet, the performance is “dramatic, passionate and soulful.” When Bradley stepped off, he was a simple man, welcoming and eager to please. His family was much the same. During their five days together, Bennett rolled with Bradley through Bed-Stuy as he gigged about. By the second day of shooting, Bradley’s mother treated Bennett like family inviting her to “come by anytime she wanted.” That open, trusting relationship between Bennett and Bradley shows in the final product. Bennett’s photos capture Bradley in a state of perpetual performance, leaving the audience to wonder what was staged and what wasn’t.
“We would sit and talk to each other with the camera sitting in my lap,” says Bennett. “After a while, it didn’t feel invasive. It felt more like I was a friend coming along to capture a sort of essence about him.”
At the opening of “Black Velvet: The Godfather of Soul” at the Christopher Henry Gallery in New York City, Bennett set out to recreate the same vibe she felt in that Bed-Stuy dive bar that introduced her to Bradley. She recreated the stage at the Tip Top and projected a Black Velvet performance over it. Instead of the a la boring cheese and wine, Bennett opted for a full-out buffet of soul food.
“The night went exactly how I wished for it happen,” says Bennett.
At the age of 62, Bradley is gearing up a small world tour. His debut album, “No Time For Dreaming,” dropped last January. It’s a bona fide second wind in his career. It makes sense. He is a relic of a time long gone. He performs like a salesman of soul, dishing out slick samples of his craft until the audience becomes hooked on what he’s selling. People will always crave that level of old school, wholehearted showmanship. Whether it’s Black Velvet or just Bradley, he’s got plenty to go around.
Bennett was given the opportunity to peak inside the beginning of a second wind for Bradley’s career. But just a few weeks back, she photographed a performer who was struggling to catch her breath. As part of an ongoing project to photograph her grandfather Tony Bennett (yes, that Tony Bennett) with performers he worked with on his “Duets II” release due this fall, Bennett traveled the globe shooting the likes Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, Lady GaGa and others.
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