Don Bryant started out singing with his brothers under the street lights of 1950s Memphis, TN. Before long, he found himself fronting for bandleader Willie Mitchell– a relationship that would eventually lead both men to great success with the legendary Hi Records label. It was at Hi that Bryant would become a prolific songwriter penning over 150 tunes for artists like Al Green, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright, and especially the woman that would become his most enduring inspiration, Ann Peebles. Ann and Don would write and enter into the ranks of soul royalty with a string of hits including Peebles’ 1973 recording of “I Can’t Stand the Rain”. They married in 1974– and 46 years later, they’re still together. Bryant himself released numerous singles throughout the 1960s but would have one lone album credit (in the secular variety) with 1969’s Precious Soul, a statistic that would stand until 2017 and the release of the brilliant Don’t Give Up On Love. In 2020, Don Bryant is back and better than ever with You Make Me Feel, a collection of original classics and new songs written with Memphis producer, bandleader, and composer Scott Bomar. Also featuring original Hi Rhythm Section members Howard Grimes, Charles Hodges, and Archie Turner, the album simply vibrates with a sound that defies era and is guaranteed to… Well, make you feel! For Bryant, who turned 78 this past April, it’s a continuing tribute to the woman he loves as well as his life’s greatest passion.
AI- I want to talk about the brand new album, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to speak to you. So I kind of wanted to go back just a little bit and talk about Don’t Give Up On Love. You had been out of the realm of secular music, out of the realm of playing music– even gospel– for a while. What made you decide to get back in the studio and start recording soul music again?
DB- It was a situation that my band leader, Scott Bomar, he was doing shows around the city and a friend of mine [Percy Wiggins] was working with him. He got sick and couldn’t sing with the band. I had done some commercials for Scott before, and he came to me and asked me if I would be interested in doin’ some shows with him. I decided to go on and try it. I knew I hadn’t done it in a while, but I decided to try it. And it came out pretty good! That was the beginning of it. Scott eventually asked me if I would be interested in recording, makin’ an album, and I told him, “Yes, I would be interested in trying.” That’s how we got together. We went in and did what we do in there! Hey, I’m thankful I made that decision.
I am too, ’cause you really knocked it out of the park! Were there any reservations that you weren’t gonna be able to perform at the level that you had?
Not really, because, like I said, I did some shows with [Scott] and I really felt good about it. I thought my voice was still pretty strong. That’s why I made the decision to go to the studio and find out. Scott had been around a long time, and he knew what he was listenin’ to. I made a decision, “Hey, I want to go and try it out.” And like I say, I’m really glad I did!
Like Don’t Give Up On Love, the new album, You Make Me Feel brings back some classic Don Bryant tunes. “Don’t Turn Your Back On Me”… The first time you recorded that one was back in 1965. And if I’m not mistaken, that was always one of your favorite songs, one that you thought should have done better or been bigger than it was. I was listening to the original getting ready for this interview. That was 55 years ago– and you still sound like a 23-year-old powerhouse! What’s the secret to sounding as good as you do?
Well! Thank you, man! Thank you. I’ve never stopped hummin’ around the house and singing. That’s just a part of my life for so long from when I was very young, a kid, and this is just a part of me. Sometimes I just can’t help it! Just walkin’ around singin’ songs! I loved it so much. When I was given the opportunity, I felt like, “Hey, at least I oughta try and find out.” I had been writing some things, some gospel things and what have you, and I never did stop singing. Although most of the time, it was around the house– but it made me feel good! Some of those things that I did write long ago, I can still sing them! That makes me feel good and I just enjoy doin’ it.
Talkin’ about the writing. You had written so many great songs, and you had gone into to writing mostly gospel and spiritual songs. Was it a shift going back and writing music for these new albums?
It was a situation where I enjoyed it all, man. When I realized that I had to have some new songs, I picked some of the old songs, and once I got off into it, it just inspired me to really dig deeper. I’m thankful it came out the way it did.
Writing and working with Scott Bomar… I love Memphis and I love all of the sounds that come out of Memphis. He seems to be somebody who really understands Memphis music. What has it been like workin’ with him, not only as a musician in the studio but as a songwriting partner?
To tell you the truth, it’s been good! We knew we had to have some new material. We’d sit down together, he’d have an idea and once we got started workin’ together, it began to open up. The ideas kept coming to me. They came out pretty good! I enjoyed it, man– just writin’ ’em! That was my thing, just writin’ songs. I enjoy doing it and figuring out which direction I’d go with this and go with that and making everything fall in place. When it happened, yeah, it was good!
In that respect, I want to jog your memory a little bit. When you would write for other artists that were comin’ through Hi Records years ago, you’ve said you would try to write specifically for them. What would you do in order to customize or tailor a song towards a certain singer?
Most of the singers that were coming through Hi Records were artists that I knew of. I didn’t know a lot of them personally, but I knew of them and their music. When I found out that one of them was coming in, I would always go and listen more to their music and try to get off into the groove that they were working in. ‘Cause when I was young and workin’ with Willie Mitchell, I didn’t have a lot of songs to sing, so I had to do other artists. Once I got off into it, I tried to listen and hear their style and try to work up something off into the style of whoever it was. To try to do that, several different things would come to me, and I’d write ’em down for maybe later on for somebody else or something else. It was just a joy to me, to be able to write songs.
And that’s how you fell in love with your wife too, right?
Yes! HAHA! Yes, indeed! I was the vocalist with Willie’s band when she came in and started recording. When she got off into it, I could see that I wanted to try to write something for her too! I got started on it, trying to present something as often as I could, because the way she handled her music, her songs at that time, it inspired me. I said, “If I’m not going to be recording. Here’s another thing. I can do– the writing.” And that’s what really got me off into doin’ a lot of writing.
She was your muse for Don’t Give Up On Love and you’ve continued that sentiment with You Make Me Feel. What was Ann’s initial reaction when you said, “Hey, I think I’m gonna go back in the studio and record and go do some shows?”
Oh, she was very supportive about it! At that time, like I said, I was doing some shows with Scott and was enjoying that. She came out to the club a couple of times and she thought that everything would work out pretty good. That kind of urged me on a little bit more, and once I got off into it and it started feeling good to me again, it made me a little stronger. I’m glad I made the choice because I didn’t have any idea until Scott asked me if I would sit in– and that was the beginning of it.
The last few months have been some of the most difficult that I’ve ever witnessed or experienced in my life. I’ve had the privilege to interview many artists so far during the pandemic that’s happenin’ and gettin’ their takes on that. Of course, you’ve also got the rallies and marches for racial justice that have renewed the cause for Black Lives Matter and so many other things. How are you seeing the world right now as it’s unfolding as an artist?
The way I see it now and the direction it’s going in, it makes me wonder, “Where are we gonna end up at?” Right now, it don’t seem like it’s gonna be a good place. I think about it. There’s not a whole lot I can do about it, so I got to live with it and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to live with it and be strong and continue family-wise and doing what I can to ensure that they are not in any danger of catching this virus. It’s a hard thing to imagine, really. But I see it goin’ on and I know it’s there and I got to deal with it one step at a time, one day at a time.
Do you mind me askin’, did it feel like this back in the 1950s and ’60s? During the Civil Rights Movement? During the draft? I mean, those were tumultuous times as well. Today, does it feel even worse?
To me, from all the news and all the things that I’ve seen? Yes, to me, it feels worse because that was a situation… Just the treatment and what we were going through… At this point, to me, this is a whole lot different than that was… Just to get through it! Sometimes just thinking about it makes me feel a certain way that I don’t like to feel! So even if it comes up, man, I try to not concentrate on all of that ’cause I feel that there’s some other things that I’ve got to do.
What is the next step? Obviously people are not gettin’ out and touring. They are not being able to do shows. Have you renewed your writing? Are you back in the studio takin’ advantage of this time right now?
I am doin’ some writing but not, per se, in the studio. If I keep my mind on that everything feels good. Writing has always been my greatest dream and it’s always come out pretty good. Once I started concentrating back on my writing and a lot of the things that I have been through and a lot of things that I’ve heard, I tried to put ’em to a melody. Once I get started, if I get two or three lines together then I just concentrate on that until I can tell the story. And that’s what I like to do is to concentrate on my music.