The week Paul McCartney released his new album Egypt Station, his single “Come On to Me” reached roughly 1.5 million radio listeners thanks to the combined support of two formats, Adult Contemporary and Adult Album Alternative, plus major promotional endorsements from iHeartRadio, YouTube, Spotify and Amazon Music.
These were impressive numbers, but surprisingly, they were dwarfed by those of another veteran, the R&B singer Peabo Bryson. Without the benefit of any corporate-tech-behemoth support, the 67-year-old Bryson was quietly reaching more than 9 million listeners with his single “Love Like Yours and Mine.”
This scenario mirrors a decades-old dynamic. Bryson was hugely successful in the late Seventies and Eighties, with 17 Top 20 R&B hits, but in America’s mostly segregated pop marketplace, he rarely crossed over to the pop charts — i.e., white listeners — except when he was tapped to cut the theme songs for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Bryson’s connection to R&B listeners remains so strong, however, that he can handily out-perform a former Beatle.
“If I were to tell you the emotions I feel most every day: gratitude for one, humility for another, and validation,” Bryson says. “Not how you think, but validation in the faith that I’ve kept in myself and those around me, and the person that I’ve managed to maintain myself to be. I’m really happy about that. I like me. And I like that I don’t feel the need to chronicle my accolades to anyone, shout them out to anybody. But, if someone were to stop and do the research, there’s nobody like me.”
Bryson made his reputation with a pristine tenor, working on a continuum of R&B singers that stretches from Sam Cooke to Brian McKnight. His voice is finely buffed; he has overwhelming reserves of technical ability. He specializes in towering ballads — “I’m So Into You,” “Let the Feeling Flow,” “If It’s Really Love,” “Feel the Fire” and “Through the Fire” — where he can work towards modulations and make remarkable series of ad-libs seem casual.
Like many R&B acts who started during the Seventies, Bryson’s pace of work slowed during the Nineties. He dabbled in modernizing his sound — using programmed drums on his cover of “Show and Tell,” made famous by Al Wilson — and showed he was listening to the kids by recording “Can You Stop the Rain,” which is surely a savvy tribute to New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain.” But his heart wasn’t in hip-hop soul, and a younger generation of balladeers — including McKnight, Boyz II Men and Toni Braxton — took command of R&B’s more romantic wing. Bryson recorded just two albums during the 2000s; Stand for Love, which came out in May, is his first new full-length since 2007.
He attributes his return in part to creative restlessness. “I look back at my career and I go, ‘Well, I survived it long enough to achieve some lifetime-achievement awards, but what’s the point in all of that?'” Bryson says. “That kind of indicates that you reached some kind of pinnacle, or that you’re done, and I’m far from any off that.”
In addition, “you wait until the timing’s right,” the singer adds. “We didn’t do it [release the album] until we found the right people who were all in sync and [had] the same kind of commitment and dedication to who I am, what this is, and what this can be.”
Before Stand for Love, Bryson had never previously worked with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the legendary production duo who got their start playing with Prince before producing an absurd number of hits for Janet Jackson, New Edition, Usher and more. Bryson and Jam & Lewis at first seem like an odd couple: a singer who excelled at old-fashioned balladry and producers who, especially when working with Jackson, made frequently daring musical choices. (Listen to “Empty,” a weird amalgam of New Age and techno on Jackson’s The Velvet Rope.) But this time, that’s exactly what Bryson wanted. “[Jam & Lewis] were kind of the voice of evolving society from era to era,” he explains. “There was a point where we would never say, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ to anybody,” he adds, referring to Jackson’s 1986 hit. “You think about it, it’s kind of rude. But I like their openness, that they’re willing to play any part that’s necessary to get the point across.”
The collaborators came to an agreement on the rules of engagement. “My challenge to them was actually, ‘Can you make me relevant in any musical conversation today without destroying what has taken me a lifetime to achieve?'” Bryson recalls. Their response: “Will you embrace it if we do? Will you embrace all of it, not just the stuff that you like or the stuff that you’re comfortable with?”
There were battles. On the new album’s title track, Bryson sang one phrase as, “freak wanna come out, so go on and get it.” Lewis “got on the talkback” during the recording session and instructed Bryson to enunciate the line more conversationally: “go’n an’ git it.” “I can tell you that I never sang ‘go’n an’ git it’ in my life — in any lyric, in any song, ever,” Bryson says. “But because it’s Terry and Jimmy, you do it.”
Like much of Stand for Love, “Love Like Yours and Mine” looks to subtly advance the Bryson sound. This mostly shows in the rhythm section: The hi-hat is sharper, the bass is fatter, and there are pushy-but-brief percussive breakdowns. Elsewhere on the album, Jam & Lewis also persuade Bryson to make several more uptempo records, not traditionally his favored mode.
Despite the combined résumés of Bryson and Jam & Lewis and those contemporary tweaks, it took a long time to find a label willing to put out Stand for Love. “As has happened to us a lot during our careers, there are always people that are naysayers,” Jimmy Jam explains, a statement that’s surprising considering how many hits Jam & Lewis have produced. “It took us a long time to find a home for the Peabo record with people that actually believed in it — people who would actually give it a shot. There was surprise: ‘Why a Peabo record?’ Well, why not?”
Eventually, the singer signed a contract with Perspective Records, which is distributed by Caroline, the indie services wing of Capitol; Bill Evans, a senior vice president in Capitol’s urban promotions department, was tasked with working “Love Like Yours and Mine” to the radio format known as “Urban Adult Contemporary” or “Adult R&B.” “What you run into at the format in this day and age is they’re like, ‘We’re trying to go younger,'” Evans says. “They wanna stay relevant. They wanna stay as close as possible to what mainstream radio is doing. So, initially when you go out to radio, there’s a lot of pushback when you say, ‘I got a Peabo Bryson record.'”
But Evans — who worked 20 years in promotions at Def Jam — and his team pushed back against the pushback. “We went at it very aggressively, and it was not a bunch of back and forth bringing in Peabo’s age or whatever,” he says. “The conversation is like, ‘We got a hit record by a legend at the format: Let’s go.'” Once the song started to move, it climbed quickly, peaking at Number Three. It was kept away from Number One primarily by Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” a surprising success story in its own right, but also a song that reverse-migrated from mainstream radio to Urban AC.
Bryson believes “Love Like Yours and Mine” is a balm for bruised hearts in the dating-app era. “Everybody’s not looking for a relationship on Tinder,” he explains. “Remember when relationships weren’t relationships anymore and they became hookups? Now it’s morphed into something even worse: We’re getting to the point where our phones are having more of a relationship than we are. In an era where hookups and Tinder are about as good as it’s gonna get, ‘Love Like Yours and Mine’ is gonna stand out like a beacon of hope, isn’t it?”
This track likely serves the same function for other R&B stars of the Seventies and Eighties who can still sing even though they’ve been abandoned by mainstream music institutions. If Bryson can come back and enjoy commercial success, why can’t they? It’s probably not a coincidence that Jeffrey Osborne (of L.T.D. and solo fame), Lenny Williams (Tower of Power and solo), L.J. Reynolds (the Dramatics), Ready for the World and Gerald Alston of the Manhattans are all promoting new singles to radio at the moment.
Bryson has now moved on to his second single, a cheeky dance-floor number titled “All She Wants to Do Is Me.” “Hopefully, it’s gonna be easier from this point,” he says. “I’m not trying to be the King of New York or the King of Los Angeles, even. King of the Secondary Markets, absolutely I want to be that. All those guys that don’t get the respect that they’ve earned, and they deserve, I wanna talk to them.”