If you can find a reference to Alex Bradford at all in the history books of secular music, it will probably be to the high soprano scream he would swoop up to from his normally gruff baritone--that aquiline screech of a bird of prey, or, in Bradford's case, a bird of "pray" is famously referred to in such texts as a model for Little Richard's well-known whoop.
No doubt it was. It was a trademark for Bradford around Chicago and on the gospel highway in the late 1940s and early 1950s. "...I got up and they'd never heard a man make all those high soprano notes before," Bradford crowed to gospel historical Anthony Heilbut for The Gospel Sound, speaking of his Chicago debut. "Baby, they were carrying folks out bodily."
It's a theatrical gesture--and Bradford as a performer was known for theatricality, bringing synchronized dance steps into gospel, and ending his career not in the church but in the theater, winnng an Obie for his role in Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope and writing and composing Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, a musical retelling of the gospel of Matthew. But that whoop is a small part of the man's legacy (and far from the only falsetto swoop in gospel, though rare as a masculine example). Pianist, choir director, bandleader, and composer, Bradford, who died in 1978, left many a mark on the music.
No doubt his compositions comprise his most lasting legacy. The songs he composed for the Roberta Martin Singers in the early 1950s like the gospel standard "Since I Met Jesus" made Bradford's reputation among gospel performers.
But it was his own recording, in 1954, of his composition "Too Close to Heaven" that made Bradford a star among the gospel record buying public.
The recording, made for Specialty with Bradford's Chicago group, is not only one of the greatest gospel records of all time but also an obvious model for the "death-tempo" gospel/blues waltz's, like "Drown in My Tears" that Ray Charles made his calling card. Bradford squeezes a high whoop into the record at about 2:12 seconds, almost like a painter signing a canvas, but it's a gesture that's gratuitously shoe-horned in to an otherwise low down, slow burn number at a creeping tempo.
The whoops fit better in uptempo, church wrecking numbers of the sort Bradford would perform more commonly in the 1960s, when his star as a recording artist had dimmed and he took over as choir director at Newark, NJ's Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church. Here he made the whoops full fledged part of the choir's vocal arrangements. At Abyssinian Baptist Bradford's second greatest legacy was shaped, because as director a generation of Newark singers passed through his hands from Cissy Houston to Dionne Warwick.
The records he made with the choir in the early 1960s burn with congregational conviction that the studio records of the 1950s, as great as they are, don't quite possess.