Soul stardom is sweeter the second time around.
Just ask Don Bryant. The veteran Memphis singer’s Fat Possum CD Don’t Give Up On Love may well have been 2017’s finest soul-blues release, boasting skin-tight backing by the Bo-Keys that came about as close as humanly possible to recapturing the sound of Hi Rhythm, the nonpareil band that backed Bryant during the ‘60s when Willie Mitchell was his producer and nurturing mentor at Hi Records (Howard “Bulldog” Grimes held down the drum chair in both bands). Bo-Keys bassist Scott Bomar and Bruce Watson produced Bryant’s stellar comeback album with an eye to reconstituting that classic Hi sound (Charles Hodges, another Hi Rhythm mainstay, came in on organ) while retaining a contemporary edge, succeeding marvelously on both fronts. The disc earned Bryant five Blues Music Award nominations, including Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year.
Bomar and Grimes were the catalysts that returned Bryant to the secular arena after the former R&B singer spent many years in the gospel field. “Howard was very instrumental in talking to Scott and getting into, ‘Man, you need to get Don!’” says Bryant. “Scott talked to me about it, but I wasn’t really that interested in it. And he finally asked me if I would do some live shows with him. And then I decided that I was going to do it. So I started doing the live shows with him, and he got more and more into me recording an album. I didn’t know whether or not it was there or not. But I decided I was going to try it and see, if they were that interested in doing it. And I’m glad I did.
“When we got together and started working those songs up, it felt like the good old days. It felt that way. The groove felt good. When I decided to do it, I just told Scott, ‘Hey, man, I don’t know whether it is or not. I don’t know whether I’ve got it or not, whether I had it or I still got it, or what. I don’t know. But I’m willing to come in and try, and whatever y’all think.’”
Bryant and Bomar proved a formidable songwriting team, collaborating on three of the set’s standout tracks. “Once I had made up my mind that I wanted to do it, I think that the writing thing just popped back out on me,” says Bryant. “I’d been writing tunes all the time. I’d write some gospel things. I did a couple of gospel albums, and I was still writing. I still had that feeling to write, because once I switched over from trying to be the artist to being the writer, that’s the road I was traveling. And I was enjoying that. It never went away.
“Just walking down the street looking up and you hear somebody talking, songs would be coming in. A lot of times, I wouldn’t take it no further than what I was doing at that time, and hum something down and keep on going about my business. But it let me know that hey—it’s still there. If I put myself to it, it’s still there. So Scott said, ‘Don, we’re going to have to write some things too, man!’ So I guess that triggered it, man. And once one got started, hey, that just opened up the door. It took me back into that mode of writing again.”
“What Kind Of Love” was conceived by the pair from the ground up. “It definitely was just written as a groove that was going on, that brought it on,” says Bryant. “Once I hit a title, that opens up a whole lot of things. There’s a whole lot of different ways to attack it. And that’s what I have enjoyed so much about writing songs. You can say the same thing in so many different ways. You don’t know who’s going to accept it as a part of their life or their thoughts.” When they collaborated on the BMA-nominated title track, Bryant had his wife, soul legend Ann Peebles, in mind. “Love is a many-splendored thing,” he says. “And I’ve got mine, and I know what it is. I know. We’ve been together 45 years. So I know—the ups and downs, the sideways, and all of that. If you’ve got that love and just hang on to it, it’ll work. And that’s kind of the way I write. I see situations and try to put them to music.”
Along with the fresh material, Don’t Give Up On Love revisits some themes from Bryant’s past, including a rip-roaring “I Got To Know” that he wrote for the “5” Royales back in 1960. “Willie was recording them at Home of the Blues Records when he did that,” says Don. “I was singing with Willie then. And he would let me know if he had different ones that he would have coming in to record. He said, ‘Don, could you come up with something for me? I’ve got the “5” Royales coming in!’
“I was very familiar with them, because I liked the way they sounded. And I had a group of my own, and we did some of their things and harmonized some of their stuff. That groove that was going on then was the same groove my group was singing, so once I got off into it, little things were going on. You might have a new love, a new love affair going on, a breakup or something like that. Everybody had those things. So I put all those things together, and that’s what came out.”
“It Was Jealousy,” another of the new set’s standouts, was movingly delivered by Otis Clay during the Hi days, but that’s not who Bryant brainstormed it for. “I wrote it for Ann. Ann did that first,” says Don. “Over there at Hi, she was always needing material. I don’t know whether it was a section of my life, or something that I’d gone through, or something I saw one of my friends actually experience. But jealousy was a pretty strong thing in those days. Once I got off into writing the song, it could apply to me because I know I was jealous about a lot of things in those days.”
Don first cut the self-penned “Can’t Hide The Hurt” himself for Hi in 1967 and revisited it for the new CD. While he didn’t write the surging “A Nickel And A Nail,” the 1971 O.V. Wright hit was waxed under Mitchell’s supervision at Royal Studios, where Poppa Willie made his magic happen daily, and underwent a faithful revival to lead off Bryant’s CD. “The majority of the time that I got to see (O.V.) or meet him was around the studio,” Don says. “In between recordings, he would come out and be around and talking. But I didn’t get to know him real well. But I enjoyed the way he approached music, that voice he had and that attitude he had when he sang.”
The strong acclaim for Don’t Give Up On Love sent Bryant back out on tour, this time with the Bo-Keys. “It is the first time I’ve done it without Willie,” says Bryant. “Sometimes before you go out on the stage, you have butterflies: ‘Am I gonna do it right? Am I gonna sound right?’ But at the last minute, all you can do is do what you do. And that’s what I would wind up doing. And the people, they made me do it a little harder when they accepted it.”
Born in Memphis, Bryant hails from a staunch gospel background—his father, Eddie Bryant, led a sanctified vocal group, the Four Stars of Harmony. “They used to rehearse at the house. We used to go with Dad sometimes when he’d rehearse at their house,” says Bryant. “I guess that’s when the bug bit me, at a very young age—10, 11, 12 years old, I started singing songs in church. That was my beginning.” The next generation followed in their footsteps, forming the Five Bryant Brothers. Before long, Don was doowopping while attending Booker T. Washington High School. His first secular group was the Quails before he joined the Four Canes, managed by WLOK deejay Dick “Cane” Cole.
“Once we got with him and started singing with him, he had a radio show that came on every morning,” says Don. “We would go in the night before and put down four or five songs, three or four songs. And on your way to school in the morning, on the radio, before you went to school, he would play those songs every morning. So that had a big bearing on getting the people in the city to know about us, especially the kids.” The Canes eventually broke with Cole and renamed themselves the Four Kings. Their big break came when they crossed paths with Mitchell, then blowing his trumpet as he led his own sizzling R&B combo at a club in West Memphis, complete with a vocal group, the Four Dukes.
“The group that Willie had, something happened to them and they broke up and they went different ways,” says Bryant. “Willie had this job at the club, and he needed a group to sing with him. Some friends of his heard about us, and they introduced us to him to try us out and see what he thought about us. We went and auditioned for him, and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll let y’all give it a try.’ And that’s how it began.” Bryant wrote and fronted both sides of the Four Kings’ 1959 debut single for the local Stomper Time logo, pairing “Tell It To Me Baby” and “Walking At Your Will” (bandleader Mitchell was top-billed). The Four Kings performed nightly with Poppa Willie’s combo around town, and when Mitchell moved over to Hi Records they came along too, waxing a pair of 1963-64 45s for Hi’s M.O.C. subsidiary. But Bryant wasn’t fated to stay with the group much longer. With Mitchell his mentor, he went out on his own.
“My group, eventually they all went different ways,” says Bryant. “Something happened at the club that we were working, and some of the fellows couldn’t get along with each other. So I asked him, would he allow me to try to do this on my own, solo. And he accepted it. He allowed me to do it, and that was the beginning of my solo career.” Bryant was featured vocalist with Mitchell’s combo and signed as a solo with Hi, debuting in 1965 with a revival of Chris Kenner’s New Orleans classic “I Like It Like That.”
Although Bryant recorded his share of fine originals for Hi (“Don’t Turn Your Back On Me,” “I’ll Do The Rest,” the dance workout “Doing The Mustang,” and “It’s So Lonely Being Me,” all self-penned, were terrific Southern soul), he also cut an uncommonly high percentage of remakes for Mitchell as well as a pair of Jr. Walker-styled originals, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “That Driving Beat,” that came out under Mitchell’s name in 1965. Precious Soul, his only album for the label in 1969, consisted entirely of covers, Bryant tackling well-known hits from the catalogs of Tyrone Davis, Sam & Dave, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, and Marvin Gaye.
“Willie, he thought maybe some of these covers would be the thing for me to catch on and boost the popularity of me. Because all of these things were good records, and they were songs that we would be doing in the clubs. So when he suggested it, yeah, I jumped at it, because they were songs that I enjoyed doing in the nightclubs when I first started. Hey, maybe they could catch on for me,” he says. “I used to sing all the different artists. I tried to imitate them—Johnny Mathis. I just enjoyed different artists and the different styles they had, and I would always try to imitate the different styles. I made my voice try to sound kind of like they sound. That was a challenge, but I didn’t give up on it until I was at least able to sing at least one of their songs.”
Bryant wound down his recording career at the end of the ‘60s to concentrate on songwriting. Mitchell had set his sights on making one of his new signings a star: Don’s future wife, Ann Peebles. “She was presented to Willie by one of the top bandleaders at the time, Gene ‘Bowlegs’ Miller,” remembers Bryant. “She came down from St. Louis with her brother. He came down to visit a friend. And the night she was here, they went out to one of the clubs that ‘Bowlegs’ Miller was playing, his band was playing. Her brother went up and asked him if his sister could come up and do a song with him. And strangely enough, he accepted it. And she got up there and tore the house down.
“I wasn’t there at the time, but I was told she wore the house out. The very next day, ‘Bowlegs’ Miller had her at the studio for Willie Mitchell to listen to, and that’s how all of that got started. Once that got started, it just exploded. And at the time, I think I was the only vocalist there when she came in. When she exploded, that was it. It seemed like, ‘Don, you sit right here and we’ll get back to you in a minute.’ One of those kind of things. But at the time, it kind of got me a little upset about it, because I was trying to get me a hit record. But once it got started, it made me realize that they knew what they were doing. That’s when I started leaning towards writing songs. I didn’t stop singing, but I was getting a little more involved into writing songs then.” Was it love at first sight? “Not really, because I was upset about her taking my spot!” he laughs. “It was just one of those things that we were around each other so much and we were doing the same things. Everybody was admiring her, including me. Hey, things just happened!”
Bryant wrote “99 Lbs.” for Peebles in 1971. “That’s what everybody was calling her—99 pounds of soul!” he says. “I said, ‘She needs a signature song of her own about her!’ The pair conceived her biggest seller, the spine-chilling 1973 smash “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” along with disc jockey Bernard Miller. “Just a title popped out there: ‘I can’t stand that rain!’ Somebody in the house said, ‘Hey, that’s a good title for a song!’” he says. “We were supposed to go to a show that night. I think it was Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. And they were all gathered at the house and we were going to the show. When it started raining, we knew we were not going to be able to make it to that show. And that’s how the comment came of, ‘Oh, I can’t stand this rain!’ Everybody was peeping out the window, and it was pouring down. Instead of being sad about it, somebody said, ‘Hey, that sounds like a title for a song!’
“I believe we finished that song that night, or the next day. And we took it to Willie, and he accepted it right away. And he had such an imagination too–little things that happened with that song, the timbales and all those things, his imagination went wild, and that’s how it was created.”
With Al Green, Otis Clay, and Syl Johnson joining Peebles at the top of Hi’s talent roster during the ‘70s, Bryant concentrated on songwriting with his wife. “We would just hum things down and put it down on tape. Once we’d get it down on tape the way we wanted to sing it, then we introduced it to maybe a keyboard player. I was playing chords. I had the melody and everything together when we presented it. Willie took it from there,” says Bryant. “That was the happy time of the writing career, when you had all these different artists coming in needing material. And you studied their sound and the way they phrased, and you tried to do the phrases like they do, and come up with ideas for songs that they could really understand and really get off into.”
When Hi folded, Bryant moved over to gospel. “I don’t really remember how that happened or when it happened, but I didn’t have an outlet for songs, and things were kind of falling away. I don’t know how it happened or why it happened, but I needed to get some spiritual knowledge,” he says. “I started writing songs about how I felt and what I could see and what I could feel and hear. That’s the only way I could do them. And I thought they sounded pretty good, and I just started putting them down and writing them. As they came, I would go and put them down in the hopes somebody might want it, but I didn’t know any of the gospel artists out there that was doing the type of things that I was doing, so a lot of times they would just sit. So I just started putting them down myself, and doing an album on my own.’
Bryant wasn’t entirely removed from secular pursuits. He turned up as his wife’s duet partner on her 1981 Hi farewell, “Mon Belle – Amour,” and was involved in Ann’s pair of ‘90s albums for Bullseye Blues, Full Time Love and Fill This World With Love, producing the latter as well as singing on one track. A 2012 stroke ended Peebles’ singing career, but Bryant is carrying on the soul tradition for both of them. “I still love her as much or even more,” he says.
And as far as the future? “I want to take it—I don’t have no point of where or how long,” he says. “As long as I’m allowed to do it and be successful with it, I guess when the time comes that I’m not, I’ll know it.”
Check out Don’s Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/DonBryantMusic
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.