Memphis veteran Don Bryant returns to soul after decades away | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Memphis veteran Don Bryant returns to soul after decades away

He narrowly missed stardom at Hi Records in the 60s, and now he’s taking another swing.

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Don Bryant - MATT WHITE / COURTESY OF FAT POSSUM RECORDS
  • Matt White / Courtesy of Fat Possum Records
  • Don Bryant

Stardom may well be sweeter the second time around for soul singer Don Bryant. In the early 1960s, the Memphis native was a featured vocalist for bandleader Willie Mitchell, who produced him at Hi Records long before Al Green, Otis Clay, and Syl Johnson found their way to the label.

Then in 1968 soul chanteuse Ann Peebles, one of Mitchell's new signings, entered Bryant's life. For the most part, he placed his singing career on hold during the early 70s to concentrate on songwriting—and on helping the woman who'd soon be his wife achieve stardom (they married in 1974). "When she exploded, that was it," says Bryant. "It seemed like, 'Don, you sit right here, and we'll get back to you in a minute.'"


Don Bryant
Sat 6/8, 6:30, Jay Pritzker Pavilion


Happily, Bryant wasn't through with singing R&B for good—though for nearly half a century he made no secular recordings at all, instead focusing on gospel music. Bryant's widely acclaimed 2017 comeback album, Don't Give Up on Love (Fat Possum), re-created the surging Hi sound with a contemporary sheen, thanks in no small part to skintight backing by Memphis band the Bo-Keys. Bryant was convinced to give it another serious try behind the microphone by two members of the Bo-Keys: bassist Scott Bomar, the album's coproducer, and drummer Howard "Bulldog" Grimes, an anchor of Hi's legendary 60s and 70s rhythm section.

"Scott talked to me about it, but I wasn't really that interested in it," Bryant recalls. "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. 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.

"I thought to myself, possibly there are a lot more people out there like me. They want to hear that real old-school R&B," he says. "That was one of the things that kind of urged me on."

Bryant's rich, melismatic vocals are an outgrowth of his sanctified upbringing. He was born in Memphis in 1942 and began singing in church at age five. He soon joined his father's gospel group, but in high school he was bitten by the doo-wop bug. While still a teenager he joined the Four Canes, who became the Four Kings and began gigging with Mitchell's band. They debuted on wax in 1959 (with Mitchell top billed), then moved with Mitchell to Hi in '63. But Bryant wasn't fated to remain an anonymous group member for long. He went solo at Hi in 1965, cutting a series of splendid Memphis soul singles that should've made him a national star.

"Willie and them was picking a lot of the material for me then," Bryant says. "Things that they thought I'd be good at doing or what have you. And I was leaning to his judgment." A cover-loaded 1969 album, Precious Soul, came and went without doing much for his career.

  • A track from Don Bryant’s 1969 album Precious Soul

After Mitchell signed Peebles to Hi, Bryant's songwriting skills served her well. He wrote one of her early signature songs, 1971's "99 Lbs.," and they collaborated on the 1973 classic "I Can't Stand the Rain," whose genesis was surprisingly literal.

"We were supposed to go to a show that night. I think it was Bobby 'Blue' Bland," Bryant remembers. "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!'"

Bryant traveled with his wife, singing backup, until a 2012 stroke sidelined her. Now it's his turn to command the spotlight again. "It is the first time I've done it without Willie," Bryant says. "Sometimes before you go out on the stage, you have butterflies: 'Am I going to do it right? Am I going to sound right?' But at the last minute, all you can do is do what you do.

"I'm not going to question it," he says of this new round of fame. "I'm going to enjoy it."  v

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