50 years on, soul music legend Don Bryant is getting the success he deserves
As well as his successful world tour, a new documentary is in the works tracing the career of one of soul music’s most underrated talents
Don Bryant’s career resurgence is not so much a case of second chances, but more a victory lap.
The 77-year-old soul music pioneer received one of many rapturous receptions as part of his comeback tour, which stopped over in Morocco for the Jazzablanca Festival on Friday. Bryant was accompanied by his tight backing band, the Bo-Keys, and a camera crew piecing together footage that will eventually become the documentary Your Own Land. “The man is a legend and deserves to be documented,” says director Andrew Fleming, as he prepares to record The National’s exclusive interview with Bryant.
Which brings us to the man himself. How does Bryant feel about all the newfound attention? “Man, I can tell you that it tastes even better the second time around,” he says, with a glint in his eye. “I am enjoying myself a whole lot and going to new and some other interesting places that I have already been. The audiences have been really good. The way I see it is that if you have something to give them, they will always react to it.”
Behind a legendary soul music sound
To say Bryant made a welcome return to the music world with 2017’s superb album Don’t Give Up on Love is an understatement. The release follows his debut album, Precious Soul, released back in 1969, and shows that age hasn’t diminished his rich voice.
Critical acclaim aside, the power of the album lies in its ability to capture a sound described as Hi Rhythm – taken from the legendary in-house band of Memphis soul music label Hi Records – thought to have been permanently retired to the annals of soul music. The band Hi Rhythm’s tight guitar and bass grooves and authoritative drumming, coupled by plaintive horn arrangements (also known as the Memphis Horns) provided a lush and winning sound that artists such as Al Green and Ann Peebles took to the top of the charts. Behind many of these tunes was Bryant, who started at Hi Records as an aspiring singer before settling into the role of songwriter, chiefly for Peebles, who he went on to marry.
While acknowledging that it has been a while, Bryant says the 48-year gap in between his two albums has been creatively fulfilling. “I was still working and writing tunes all the time. That is something you just don’t turn off,” he says. “A lot of it was gospel songs for me and some other singers. I did a couple of gospel albums as well. I still had that energy to create, but I just realised that the road I was on was more as the writer and not the singer.”
It was Scott Bomar from Bryant’s backing band, as well as album producer Bruce Watson, who convinced him to return to secular music. Their aim was to resurrect the Hi Rhythm, but as Bryant tells it, the idea of returning down memory lane wasn’t particularly enticing at first. He was living in semi-retirement in Memphis and content with being one of the many under-appreciated footnotes in popular music history. “But then we discussed getting together and doing some shows with the band and just see what happens,” he says. Those shows were played in 2016.
“And then we started talking about me recording an album and that was a good challenge for me, too,” he says. I work best when there is a deadline.”
It was an approach he refined during his time with Hi Records. Bryant joined the label in the late 1950s as a singer-songwriter for the band The Four Kings, which at the time scored the hits Tell it to Me Baby and Walking at Your Will.
However, with Hi Records eventually welcoming other young and hungry singers such Green and Peebles, the label’s in-house music producer Will Mitchell made them his priority and Bryant settled into the role of songwriter.
While he managed to release his vibrant debut album Precious Soul, Bryant harbours no misgivings regarding the label’s change of focus. “I never felt that way at all, because as far as I was concerned writing the songs was just as important as singing them,” he says. “You had all these artists there relying on me. I was in the thick of it and I was just happy to be part of that studio environment.”
With that era of popular music renowned for its “song-writing factories,” Bryant – who wrote more than 150 songs for various artists such as late soul music legends Etta James and Solomon Burke – doesn’t totally regard that period as a sweatshop.
“It was good and steady work, man,” he says. “Particularly since I was realising that I wasn’t going to be the singer. Instead, you had all these artists coming in and they wanted a few songs to finish their album or whatever and I was happy to do it.”
One of these young artists was the little-known Al Green. While he remains Hi Records’s crowning achievement, Bryant recalls that he wasn’t an immediate success. “He also needed some time to develop,” he says. “But he had a spirit to him and that eventually moved people. But the biggest star at the time was Ann.”
A successful relationship
He’s referring to Peebles, to whom he has been married for 45 years. Bryant agrees that it was their professional and personal chemistry that resulted in him producing some of his best work. In addition to the minor 1971 hit 99 Pounds (lyrics include: “Good things come in small packages / you’ll have to agree to that”), the duo struck gold with 1974’s I Can’t Stand The Rain. As well as cracking the Top 5 in the US charts, the song topped a slew of European charts four years later, thanks to the disco remake by British group Eruption. The song also went on to be re-recorded by the likes of Michael Bolton and Seal, as well as sampled by rappers Missy Elliott and Talib Kweli.
Bryant says Peebles remains his biggest inspiration. He admits to hearing her voice when penning many of the passionate tracks that pepper Don’t Give Up on Love. The message of the album lies in its title, Bryant says. When it comes to all matters of the heart, from love itself to the creative process, he urges people to just keep going. “That is what I learnt. I never thought that I was going to be a big singer, but I always felt that I could have been. But so many great artists came through and they got bigger and bigger,” he says.
“I always felt I did good things in my life and now it is a joy to go out and share it with the people. And it seems to me that it is really catching on.”
Updated: July 7, 2019 07:35 PM