How Southern-Soul Survivor Don Bryant Finally Got His Second Chance

Hi Records veteran and writer of Ann Peebles' classic "Can't Stand the Rain" opens up about his long-overdue new LP 'Don't Give Up on Love'

Veteran songwriter Don Bryant tells Rolling Stone how he found his way back to soul music and finally put out his second LP at age 75. Credit: C. Matt White

In the past decade and a half, reissuers and documentarians have risen to counter the star-focused narrative of pop history, especially when it comes to Sixties and Seventies soul. At the forefront of this movement was the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, about the indispensable musicians who contributed to countless hits at one of R&B's most famous institutions. More recent examples include Muscle Shoals, a film about the studio that helped turn Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin into forces of nature, along with reissues of albums by Ann Peebles, a Hi Records singer whose work was overshadowed by Al Green's crossover success, and a collection from Betty Harris dubbed The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul.

These musical rescue efforts have also led to some lesser-known artists returning to the studio and releasing new material. Bettye LaVette's rediscovery has allowed her to make seven albums since 2003. William Bell, a Stax writer who has hardly recorded since the 1980s, put out a record last year. And now comes Don Bryant, a former Hi Records writer who just released Don't Give Up on Love, only the second album of his career, at age 75.

Bryant originally had solo-artist ambitions of his own. But when Willie Mitchell, the producer and songwriter who shepherded Hi through its most successful period, chose to focus his attention on others, Bryant went with the flow: "At the time, there were so many greater artists coming along – Ann [Peebles], Al [Green] – that had something unique in their voices," Bryant remembers, speaking over the phone from his Memphis home. "I wanted to be a part of it. If it wasn't gonna be the singing, I was content with trying to do the writing."

"Don was great back then," explains Howard Grimes, who drummed on almost everything coming out of Hi Records during the 1970s and fills the same role on Don't Give Up on Love. "Willie Mitchell signed up a bunch of artists, but [that was] before he got Al Green, and that kind of stopped Don. Don took up the writing with Earl Randle, Dan Greer and Darryl Carter – they were the top staff writers there. Everybody always felt that Don didn't get what was due to him."

When Ann Peebles debuted with This Is Ann Peebles in 1969, Bryant was present with a credit on"Solid Foundation," which condensed vicious big-band swing into a miraculous two-minute soul strut. He continued to write for Peebles throughout the Seventies – the two married in 1974 – while also helping other members of Hi's roster: Otis Clay, the girl group Quiet Elegance and the short-lived act Teacher's Edition.

Bryant's calling card is Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain," which became her sole Top 40 hit and has endured through cover versions – from Tina Turner, Cassandra Wilson and Seal – and samples: See tracks from Missy Elliott, Talib Kweli's Reflection Eternal project and Kaytranada. The hit was inspired by a real-life storm that elicited an offhand, snippy comment from Peebles: "I can't stand the rain." "At the time, there were a lot of records about the rain, but everyone was wanting the rain, trying to hide their tears," Bryant explains, pointing to records like the Dramatics' "In the Rain." He moved in the opposite direction, writing from the song from the perspective of someone who just hated the downpour.

Mitchell later added a pinging intro on electric timbales. It made "I Can't Stand the Rain" impossible to forget. "When I heard it, it blew my mind," Bryant says.

Southern soul's crossover moment was brief; Hi Records was sold in 1977. Bryant continued to write with Peebles, who recorded intermittently in the Eighties and Nineties. She suffered a stroke in 2012. "She's not back to her best," Bryant says. "It's not a full progression of recovery. But we're making the best of it."

He was pulled back into the pop world by his old Hi comrades, especially Grimes. The drummer's quest for satisfactory session work eventually led him to connect with Scott Bomar, who led a band called the Bo-Keys that includes multiple former players from Memphis' great studios. After Grimes contributed to several Bo-Keys projects, including an album backing Cyndi Lauper, Bomar eventually asked about the possibility of enlisting Bryant as a singer. "I told him, 'Man, if you get that guy? That's the man you need,'" Grimes remembers. "He's long overdue. God wasn't through with him."

But there was a catch. "I don't know if you can get him to do R&B," Grimes recalls telling Bomar. "[Bryant]'s dedicated to God."

Grimes, also a religious man, proved to be persuasive recruiter. "I had an out-of-body experience, and God told me to give a testimony to Don and let him read it," the drummer explains. "When he read my testimony, he changed. I saw the joy on his face, and he told me he was going to sign the contract."

The fact that Bomar was a fair bandleader also helped Grimes' case. "[Bryant] had a bad deal in the record business," Grimes says. "None of us have ever been compensated properly for all the work we did." In contrast, he explains, "I've made more money with Scott than I've made [the whole rest of] my career."

Bryant admits that he was initially reluctant to return to soul music. But the presence of other players associated with Hi helped make him more comfortable. "It was kind of a like a family reunion situation," he says, "and I think that helped urge it on."

His voice remains marvelous, despite the fact that it's rarely been recorded in the last four decades. "I never did stop singing," Bryant says. "I've been doing some gospel things."

Before his first live gigs with the Bo-Keys, Bryant told Grimes to cover him behind the kit if he made any missteps. "I said, 'I got you,'" Grimes recalls. "'I ain't gonna let you down.'" But Bryant didn't need any camouflage. "He started singing and something hit him up there," Grimes says. "He started to come back to his old self."

After success onstage, Bryant returned to the studio, assembling Don't Give Up on Love from a repertoire of oldies – O.V. Wright's "A Nickel and a Nail," the 5 Royales' "I Got to Know" – and a few new cuts. The band rendered them with a canonical, finely tuned Southern-soul sound. "It's really a joy to have the opportunity to do it again," Bryant says of the recording process. "It feels just as good now as it did then."

Peebles came to the studio to provide feedback as her husband worked on the new album. "That was very uplifting," he says. "Whatever she offers as far as the songs are concerned, as far as how maybe I could try it this way or that way, I listen. She still has it."

Her advice must have been useful on "It Was Jealousy," a glowingly downhearted ballad that Bryant wrote for Peebles' 1975 album Tellin' It. This may be the pinnacle of Don't Give Up on Love: Bryant demonstrates the full extent of his range, stretching from low, scratchy entreaties to wordless falsetto, as the band articulates delicate, languid soul behind him. "That one has always been my favorite," Bryant says. "Otis Clay did it. Ann did it. And now, I have a chance to do it."