J. Robert Bradley, 87, whose deep, swooping, octave-leaping voice and charismatic presence made him one of the most important figures in gospel music, died Thursday in Nashville.
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., and 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 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."