Rising through the R&B ranks as the singer in Willie Mitchell’s band, Memphis’s multi-faceted Don Bryant has long been a favorite to soul insiders, and his coveted classics “Doing The Mustang” and “That Driving Beat” have filled dance floors and thrilled listeners for decades. A noted Hi Records songwriter, Bryant penned “Can’t Stand The Rain” for his wife Ann Peebles; John Lennon claimed it as his favorite record. Bryant’s brand new album with Memphis soul brothers and Stomp favorites the Bo-Keys is blowing minds coast-to-coast and worldwide.
Long before Willie Mitchell produced a veritable avalanche of ‘70s smashes on Al Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and Ann Peebles as he completely transformed Hi Records from a hotbed of catchy instrumentals to ground zero for sweet, steady-surging Southern soul, Don Bryant was the Memphis-based label’s top male R&B singer and the vocalist with Mitchell’s touring combo. As those other star-crossed vocalists grabbed the golden ring one by one and tenaciously refused to let go, Bryant wound his performing career down, assuming a behind-the-scenes role at Hi as a staff songwriter.
Now Don is back in harness singing Memphis soul, and from all outward indications, he’s better than ever. Bryant hits the Ponderosa Stomp stage on Saturday evening along with the Bo-Keys on the heels of a wildly acclaimed European tour, and his brand-new Fat Possum album Don’t Give Up On Love, co-produced by Bo-Keys bassist Scott Bomar and Bruce Watson, has been racking up global raves. All this heartwarming success proves it’s never too late for true talent to shine bright, a talent that held a great deal of promise for much of the 1960s with Mitchell at the production helm. .
“I was in the ballgame,” says Bryant.
DON’T GIVE UP ON LOVE
Those years away from secular performing seem to have actually ratcheted up the intensity of Bryant’s vocals on the new CD. Backed by a coterie of Memphis’ finest sessioneers—longtime Hi Rhythm fixture and current Bo-Keys rhythmic anchor Howard “Bulldog” Grimes keeping a heavy beat on his drums, fellow Hi house stalwarts Charles Hodges and Archie “Hubbie” Turner on organ and keys respectively, guitarist Joe Restivo, Bomar on bass, and Percy Wiggins as one of the background vocalists–Bryant’s gospel background permeates every selection, his melimatic pipes as riveting as ever.
The wonderful album, a lovingly accurate evocation of the classic Hi sound, features Bryant’s spine-chilling reading of “It Was Jealousy,” the ballad he penned for Otis Clay during his Hi stint, as well as a redo of O.V. Wright’s classic “A Nickel And A Nail,” the original of which was waxed at Hi’s studio. Bryant reaches all the way back to 1960 to revive the piledriving blues rocker “I Got To Know,” a song he wrote for the “5” Royales.
The fresh material stands proud and tall right beside the proven classics, much of it supplied by Bryant himself and/or Bomar. “One Ain’t Enough,” “What Kind Of Love,” “Can’t Hide The Hurt,” and “Something About You” are irresistible Memphis-style groovers, pushed along by punchy horns and Bulldog’s rock-solid traps, while the impassioned ballads “First You Cry,” a spiritually enriched “How Do I Get There,” and the violin-decorated title track underscore just how special of a singer Bryant is. Poppa Willie himself would have been proud of this one—and you can’t lavish any greater praise than that.
MEMPHIS GOSPEL ROOTS
It’s been a long and circular route back to secular stardom for Bryant. Born in Memphis, he hails from a staunchly gospel background. “My father, he had the first black gospel group to broadcast here in Memphis on radio–Eddie Bryant and the Four Stars of Harmony,” says Don. “I believe it was WMPS.” The next generation naturally decided to follow in Dad’s footsteps, forming their own sacred quartet. “It was four of my brothers,” remembers Don. “We were just the Bryant Brothers. It didn’t last long, because I don’t think their interest was really into music. But since Mom and Daddy were singing, we had to try.”
Singing came naturally for the lad, having learned “basically singing in church and what have you. But we had our own little thing, you know. You try to get together and do a little thing,” he says. “I did different songs in school, grammar school. By the time we got to high school, we had little groups and stuff together. We were doo-wopping then.”
THE FOUR CANES/THE FOUR KINGS
Don’s first R&B vocal group was called the Quails, in the great tradition of so many doo-wopping bird groups. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, Bryant joined another group, the Four Canes, managed by WLOK deejay Dick “Cane” Cole. “It started with Lee Jones, my brother Jamie Bryant, and William Walker,” he says. Lionel Byrd eventually replaced Jamie. Jones would later join the Ovations.
The quartet taped harmonically inclined promos for Cole that aired on the station—no small consideration how many local acts were fighting for limited airplay. But the Canes eventually broke with Cole and renamed themselves the Four Kings, which sounded quite a bit like their old handle. Their big break came when they crossed paths with the suave Mitchell, then blowing his trumpet and leading his own sizzling R&B combo, which included pianist Joe Hall, saxist J.P. Luper, and sometimes Al Jackson, Jr. on drums.
“Willie was playing at a club in West Memphis. He had a group with him called the Four Dukes, I believe it was. And they didn’t show up for the gig that night. We had a man that was managing us at the time, and he was trying to get things going, happening for us. He knew Willie, and he found out that the group didn’t show up. I think Willie contacted him to see if we would come over and do a show that night in the other group’s place. And that’s how we got hooked up with Willie. We went and did a show with him, and he said, ‘Well, you know, they’re real in-the-raw, but I think I’ll stay with ‘em and work with ‘em!’ And that was the beginning of it.”
Despite being in the neighborhood of 30 years old, Mitchell brought a wealth of musical experience to the table. The Ashland, Miss. native had arrived in Memphis with his family at age two and began blowing his horn at eight. Willie wasn’t the only musically inclined member of his immediate household, his younger brother soon following suit. “James started playing sax probably when he was 13 or 14 years old,” said the late Mitchell, who fronted his own 10-piece band on the road when he was all of 18. After playing his trumpet in Army bands, Poppa Willie got home and spent time in the bands of bassist Tuff Green and Al Jackson, Sr. before going his own way.
“I formed my band in 1954, started playing clubs around Memphis. Became the most fantastic band. I was like the number one band within a radius of 5-600 miles. We had everybody–Charles Lloyd, George Coleman, Joe Dukes. Oh, we had everybody you could name,” said Mitchell, who held court at legendary local haunts such as Danny’s Club in West Memphis, the Plantation Inn, and the Manhattan Club.
Mitchell signed a contract in 1958 with rockabilly performer Eddie Bond’s new Stomper Time label, named after Bond’s band, the Stompers. “Eddie was a disc jockey here,” said Mitchell. “He was a country disc jockey. At Danny’s Club, I’d play five nights a week, and the country thing would come over there after that. So that’s how we got together.”
Willie’s band backed the Bryant-fronted Four Kings on their pair of Stomper Time singles, the first pairing a jaunty jump, “Tell It To Me Baby,” with the Stroll-worthy ballad “Walking At Your Will.” Their encore platter coupled another polished ballad, “Walkin’ Alone,” and a tastily harmonized update on the daffy “Rag Mop.”
The “5” Royales’ rip-roaring 1960 rendition of “I Got To Know” came out on Memphis-based Home of the Blues Records, its headquarters a record shop on Beale Street. Mitchell was with the imprint at the same time and led the band on the record. “I wrote one song for them,” says Bryant. “I only got a chance to do that one song.”
“They had Roy Brown, they had the ‘5’ Royales,” said Mitchell of the label. “I was producing these guys.” Mitchell took a personal interest in the Four Kings. “He started doing a lot of traveling back and forth, and we were all underage,” says Don. “We needed somebody legally responsible for us that was traveling with us, because the parents weren’t traveling with us and what have you. So we had to get him as legal guardian over the whole group.
“Willie was the spotlight then. We were doing like just background, just the group with Willie Mitchell,” says Bryant. “A lot of times we went out there, people would think that I was Willie Mitchell because I was out front. A lot of people thought I was Willie Mitchell.”
Nothing more was heard on wax from the Four Kings until 1963. Mitchell had moved over to Hi, and the group turned up on Hi’s M.O.C. subsidiary with a revival of Don & Dewey’s rocker “Farmer John,” Mitchell and Bryant teaming to pen the B-side, “Round And Round.” The Four Kings stuck with the cover strategy on their farewell M.O.C. offering the next year, a revival of Bobby Darin’s gospel knockoff “Early In The Morning.” “I was the lead singer,” says Bryant. “I think that was more of Willie’s decision. He was kind of picking material for us, and some of the people that was at the studio then.” On the other side, “I Want To Be There” was another raveup conceived by three members of Hi’s first house band: drummer Jerry “Satch” Arnold, organist Bobby Emmons, and guitarist Reggie Young.
Issuing a solid stream of grooving instrumentals from 1962 on at Hi, Mitchell fit in perfectly on the label, which specialized in highly danceable wordless fare. Bill Black’s Combo (“Smokie – Part 2,” “White Silver Sands”) and Ace Cannon (“Tuff”) were cranking out instrumental hits by the bucketload for the logo, formed in 1957 by Joe Cuoghi (the operator of Poplar Tunes, a top local record shop and distributor) and several partners including ex-Sun rockabilly Ray Harris, country musician Bill Cantrell, and future Goldwax label owner Quinton Claunch.
“We were all together, because Hi had the first big record on Bill Black called ‘Smokie – Part 2.’ That was half my band doing that. And that’s how I got over there. I became an arranger over there for Bill Black, Ace Cannon, Gene Simmons, Charlie Rich, and everybody,” said Mitchell. “Joe was a great man. He died in 1970. He was the guy who had the vision. He was like my father. He was a great guy.”
Rockabilly and pop were initially the order of the day at Hi. Nothing clicked until ex-Elvis Presley bassist Bill Black came along in 1959 and sent the label’s ledgers into positive territory. The label maintained its own spacious Royal Recording Studio at 1320 S. Lauderdale.
“That studio was an old movie theater. The board had a lot to do with it, because the man that built that board, all them hits that you hear, they were on an eight-track machine,” says Grimes. “There was a gentleman named Mr. Cantrell, and he was the one that built that board. That building is a very special building. Bill Black worked in that place. Ace Cannon worked there. A lot of great people–Gene Simmons. Most of these people were before I came, but I knew about them working because I had did a few things for Ray Harris at the time, which was the engineer then. I had did some work for him, cutting tracks.”
The Four Kings went their separate ways soon after their pair of M.O.C. singles came and went. “It was some misunderstandings or what have you that couldn’t be reconciled,” says Bryant. “See, what was happening around in the city was, there were several different groups working in the clubs, and some not in the clubs. When you might lose a member out of your group, you can always go to another group that wasn’t really doing any shows or anything to borrow a singer to come and work with you and do some shows. Because we had like a steady thing going on with Willie, and we were working in the club four, five nights a week, doing the thing in West Memphis. So we had a steady thing going on, like four nights, five nights a week. So it wasn’t no problem to like get another voice if one of the voices would happen to go, or what have you. But it was just some things that just kept flaring up.”
GOING SOLO WITH POPPA WILLIE
So Bryant went solo, debuting on Hi in early 1965 with a pounding Memphis-ized remake of Chris Kenner’s New Orleans-cut ‘61 smash “I Like It Like That.” Bryant, Mitchell, and Harris collaborated on the pumping, organ-driven flip, “My Baby.” That summer, Don came back with one of his own compositions, the spine-chilling ballad “Don’t Turn Your Back On Me.” “That was my first thing that I wrote, and it did real good here in the city,” notes Don. It came paired with a Ray Harris-penned ballad, “Star Of Love.”
When Mitchell decided to pay double-barreled tribute in the autumn to Motown sax blaster Jr. Walker with a pair of relentless vocal workouts, “That Driving Beat” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” that he wrote himself, Bryant got the call to provide the vocals even though his name was nowhere to be found on the label. “A lot of people thought Willie Mitchell was singing,” says Bryant. “But at the time, it was Willie Mitchell, which was the band. And we were just a part of the band.
“I was trying to keep up with everything that was going on, because you know, like you’re doing a show in the clubs, you’ve got to really perform for them. In those days, there were a lot of great performers around then, and a lot of times we had battles with the bands here in the city. We had about four different clubs with four different bands, and with groups going along with them. And we would have battles once in a while–two or three of the bands would get together on one place and have a big hoo-de-doo. It was great.”
Bryant wrote his first Hi plug side of 1966, “I’ll Do The Rest,” another impassioned ballad. He transformed the ancient pop chestnut “The Glory Of Love,” a sweet love ballad when the Five Keys topped the R&B hit parade with it back in 1951, into a jackhammer grinder for the flip. The Hi braintrust hedged their bets during the summer by pairing Don with Marion Brittnam to do a duet single under the billing of 1 + 1, the duo tackling Buck Owens’ ‘63 country chart-topper “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” which nestled into an R&B groove quite nicely (Don brought the ballad flip “Been So Long” to the proceedings). Marion had come over from the Drapels, a Stax vocal group.
“That was a young lady that was singing, I think she had done some things with a group at Stax. And that didn’t happen, so she came to Hi on her own, just to do some things, to do some writing,” says Bryant. “We got together, and we were doing some writing together and what have you, and we would have beaucoups of time in the studio where we would be just playing around on the piano, and just singing and writing stuff. And we came up with a song. Other people would come in and join in and what have you. And I think Willie heard some of the stuff we were doing, and decided, ‘Hey, let’s see what can happen with it!’” But there was no encore for the duo.
Brenda Lee’s then-current hit “Coming On Strong” was a particularly inspired choice to cover as Don’s next single that autumn; penned by country singer Little David Wilkins, it worked just as well as a torrid R&B workout for Bryant as it did for Brenda. “‘Coming On Strong’ was another cover,” says Bryant. “A girl had that tune. Brenda Lee, that’s what it was. Sure was. Like I say, Willie and them was picking a lot of the material for me then. Things that they thought I’d be good at doing or what have you. And I was leaning to his judgment.” Someone at Hi had a great feel for vintage material that suited Bryant; “The Lonely Soldier,” the opposite side of the single, was an obscure six-year-old ballad by Chicago crooner Jerry Butler.
Bryant took things into his own hands for his initial Hi single of 1967, writing himself what he hoped would be a new dance craze, “Doing The Mustang.” “I created a little dance to go along with it,” he says. “Never did catch on, but–well, you know, that was a time when dances were really hot at the time. You fall off into those moods, you know. ‘Hey, let me create a dance!’” He also scribed “The Call Of Distress,” one of his most intense ballads, for the opposite side. What inspired it? “I would think just a mood that I was in at the time,” he recalls. “I might have just lost a girlfriend or anything. Sometimes anything like that would spark a song, especially if you stayed in that mood any length of time. It would generally spark a song.”
The savage stomper “Can’t Hide The Hurt,” released in late summer of 1967, was another Bryant composition that was twinned with the country-tinged ballad “Is That Asking Too Much.” The latter emanated from outside the immediate fraternity that gathered at Royal (situated near Stax/Volt at 926 E. McLemore Avenue). “That was written by a young man (actually two of them, Wylie Sappington and James Horton) that was just around the studio doing some writing,” says Don. “At the studio, you’d have people kind of hanging around writing and what have you. And he brought this song in. I think he presented it to Willie, and Willie thought it would be a tune for me.”
Either Willie or one of his cohorts must have flashed back to flamboyant New Orleans singer Bobby Marchan’s two-part rendition of Big Jay McNeely’s blues-soaked “There’s Something On Your Mind” for Bryant’s next offering late in the year, though his considerably reimagined remake took it at a brisk clip with a rolling bass line and choppy horns. Part 2 was a recitation accurately echoing Marchan’s treatment of the song (a 1960 R&B chart-topper), complete with violent climax.
Don’s only Hi single of 1968 was a supercharged rendition of the Miracles’ ‘61 R&B chart-topper “Shop Around,” paired with “I’ll Go Crazy,” a testifying ballad in an Otis Redding mode. It was the work of two more ex-members of the Drapels, Mary and Johnnie Frierson, better known under their recording aliases of Wendy Rene (of “Bar-B-Q” fame on Stax) and James Fry (who had “Tumbling Down” on Hi the same year) as well as James Cross. Along the way, Hi’s house band had turned over, Poppa Willie bringing in the Hodges brothers (Teenie on guitar, Leroy on bass, and Charles on organ, along with Grimes) as his resident groove makers.
“He was playing at a club called the Manhattan Club here, which only allowed whites,” said the late Mabon “Teenie” Hodges. “I joined the group first, even though Leroy, my brother the bass player, had done an album with him, the Sunrise Serenade album, while he was in high school. And then when I got out, he actually hired me first to join the group. And then about a month later, he hired Leroy. And a couple of months later, he hired Howard Grimes. And then a couple of months later, he hired Charles. So we had really been playing together all the time though, except for Charles. I’d never played with Charles. I didn’t even know he could play, because I left home at 18. But he started playing with O.V. Wright at 14. But I never knew it, and when he told me, I didn’t believe him. When Willie suggested hiring him, I told him, ‘But Charles can’t play!’ He said, ‘Well, I hear he’s the best keyboard player in town.’ I said, ‘Well, I ain’t never heard him play. I can’t say that.’ But anyway, he went on and hired him.”
Hi’s signature sound changed under Mitchell’s direction. “They had an engineer over here from Sun named Ray Harris. He had done a lot of things, and I just didn’t like the way he was doing it,” said Mitchell. “So when Joe died, I just went at it. Everything became like the way I heard sound. I tore the studio down and done everything.” The sound that Mitchell created would sweep the soul world. The studio, with its slanted floor left over from when it was a theater, played its own role. “Because of the way the ceilings were made,” said Hodges. “The ceilings were so tall, but they had baffles to close sound out from the other instruments. I think it definitely had an effect on it, because you could get a live sound or a dead sound, any way you wanted to.”
LIFE ON THE ROAD
Crafting soul classics inside the spacious confines of Royal was a lot safer than touring, as Mitchell and Bryant learned first-hand circa 1967-68 when the band’s van flipped over. “We were going to the NCO Club in Fort Worth. We had an accident, two tires blew out,” says Grimes. “It kind of messed us up. I didn’t get hurt seriously, but James Mitchell went through the windshield. Willie Mitchell broke his ankle. And Donald Bryant broke his nose. But we performed that night.
“They didn’t want us to. But we were all laying out on the highway. It just was fortunate there were some doctors and nurses that were getting off that weren’t too far from the accident. They saw us and jumped out of the car and ran across the highway. They rushed us all to the hospital. Somebody said we were dead, but we weren’t. That word had come back to Memphis, but we got home. They didn’t want us to perform, but we didn’t want to let the people down at the Air Force base, the NCO Club. So Willie suggested that since we were here, to go on and perform. And it turned out to be one of the best performances, although everybody was bandaged up when we played. People loved us.”
BACK AT HI
In between stints at Stax, Sir Mack Rice dropped by to provide both sides of Don’s first 45 of 1969. The sizzling “That Ain’t Right Woman” sounded like a hit with its churning bass line and fat horn cushion, but like all of Bryant’s singles that preceded it, the song failed to dent the R&B charts (ditto its tough mid-tempo B-side, “You Cause Me To Wonder”). Mitchell always did terrific work as Bryant’s producer, yet hits would continue to elude Don despite the excellence of his last Hi single, coupling the incendiary screamer “What Are You Doing To My World” and the self-penned ballad “It’s So Lonely Being Me.”
Don’s entire stay at Hi was permeated with covers, albeit well-chosen ones. The strategy culminated with Don’s debut album for the label in 1969. Precious Soul consisted of nothing but remakes, Bryant belting a dozen familiar R&B standards by Tyrone Davis, Sam & Dave, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, and Marvin Gaye. “
“See, we were doing dance shows, and the people wanted to hear the hot tunes at the time,” Bryant explains. “So I mean, that’s basically what I concentrated on doing. And when I got in the studio, eventually one of those people that I was imitating in the clubs would come out on the vocal thing. So it was Willie’s idea to just do an album on the cover things. It was kind of like this was the show we was doing in the clubs, so he decided, ‘Let’s try to do the covers!’ That’s how that came about.”
Truth be told, Bryant’s Hi singles output also contained an unusually large number of remakes. “It was kind of time to develop a solo thing from all those years of singing with a group,” he says. “That’s why I wound up singing so many other people’s songs, and never really being able to concentrate on me to find out what I had.”
PROLIFIC STAFF SONGWRITER/ANN PEEBLES
Maybe that was because Don gave several of his better compositions to his labelmates. He scribed “Without A Reason” for Janit (sic) and the Jays in 1966 and both sides of future Soul Children sparkplug Norm West’s ‘67 M.O.C. single, pairing “Baby Please” and “Hey Little Girl.” Still, he had little success custom writing from a commercial standpoint until a diminutive new recruit from St. Louis came to Royal Recording in search of stardom.
St. Louis native Ann Peebles was another gospel-trained vocalist who had worked with saxist Oliver Sain prior to heading to Memphis. There she met trumpet player Gene “Bowlegs” Miller, who brought her to Hi. Mitchell knew he’d found a special talent and began producing Peebles, who hit immediate chart paydirt in 1969. “I met Don when I first started at Hi,” she says. “He was an artist there, plus he was a staff writer. Willie, he put me with Don so he could write some things for me. That’s how we really met. We kind of hit it off right then and there.”
“I was a staff writer at the studio when she came. And I was still vocalist with Willie’s band. And I was looking forward to my career blossoming out and blooming and becoming. And when Ann came in and they started doing some things on her, her stuff started catching on,” says Bryant. “She came in and some things started happening with her. Willie put me with her to do some writing, and we started writing together.
“Then the next thing I know, Al Green come in, and wow–my thing got pushed down another rung, you know? I was enjoying the writing situation so much, I just kind of decided to lean more toward the writing thing, because all the slots were getting filled up, artist-wise,” he continues. “I was traveling with her, with the Hodges brothers and all of ‘em. They were her band, and I was traveling and singing and emceeing the show and different things. We just found out a lot of things we had in common, and we were writing together. We spent a lot of time writing together, and ideas seemed to be traveling the same path. So we just spent a lot of time writing together, and we learned a lot about each other that way. And realized that we had something in common that might be compatible.”
Bryant co-wrote “Solid Foundation,” the B-side of Ann’s second hit, and tailored another flip side for her in 1971, the clever “99 Lbs.,” specifically referring to her diminutive frame. “I was 99 pounds, and he wrote that song for me,” Peebles says proudly. The two began writing together, placing their “Trouble, Heartaches And Sadness” on the back of her ‘72 hit “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.” They would prove a formidable writing team during their joint tenure at Hi, and their relationship grew a great deal more than professional–they were married in 1973. Their songwriting approach varied from song to song.
“It went all kind of ways,” says Peebles. “Lots of times, we may be in the bed. He might say, ‘Ooh, I have a line! I got this line!’ And we would just get up and start working on it. Or we could be riding along, and a melody line might come that he might be humming, or I might be humming. Sometimes we put the music down first, and then we come up with the lyrics. Sometimes it’ll be the lyrics, and then come up with the music. It works all kind of ways. We’ve been together, and we kind of read each other. Then we’ll feed off of each other, and that’s the most magic part about writing together, that you can read each other and you can feed off of each other.”
The duo’s gilt-edged writing partnership arrived at its zenith in 1973, when Don and Ann wrote her supremely atmospheric smash “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” “We was getting ready to go to a show, I believe it was at the Coliseum,” remembers Peebles. “It was raining hard, thundering. There was a tornado watch out, I believe. We had a disc jockey over–Bernard Miller, Mr. B. We decided, ‘We’d better wait until the weather clears.’ I wanted to get to the show, and I just hauled off and said, ‘Well, I can’t stand the rain!’ I think it was Don that said, ‘Oh, that’s a great title!’ Somehow, we just sat down and started writing. We just forgot about the show. Got that spurt of energy going. We wrote the song, we put it down on tape and everything that same night. Willie came up with that idea of the electric timbales on the front.”
Peebles wasn’t the only Hi artist that Bryant wrote for during the early ‘70s. In addition to “It Was Jealousy,” he penned “I Die A Little Each Day” and was in on the creation of “You Can’t Keep Running From My Love,” “Brand New Thing,” “Let Me Be The One,” and “You Can’t Escape The Hands For Love” for Otis Clay. His imprimatur also graced “I Can’t Take It” and “Don’t Take It Away” for O.V. Wright, who did a lot of his recording for Don Robey’s Back Beat logo at Royal under Mitchell’s savvy supervision.
“Being a staff writer there, I was trying to come up with something for everybody. Al’s thing was so, I guess overwhelming with the Willie Mitchell thing, and he and Al, they put a combination together. They would stay together all the time working on material, what have you. So I really didn’t get a chance to get anything in that direction, so I concentrated basically on writing for Ann and all the rest of the artists that were there. And I was just blessed to be able to come up with them,” says Don. “Most of the time when I wrote, like when I wrote for Ann, when I put it down on a demo, I’d be trying to sing it just like Ann, or phrase it like her, so she could hear. If I thought it was for Otis or anybody else, I tried to do it in a manner that I thought maybe they would do it, so they could hear it better. It worked. It worked pretty good.”
THE END OF HI RECORDS
With Green cutting one blockbuster after another as he embraced superstardom and the rest of the Hi talent stable consistently climbing the R&B hit parade, it must have seemed the good times would never end at Royal Recording. “Willie enjoyed every artist we ever recorded. It was magic there, man, all those artists we recorded,” says Grimes. “You could tell it was something special about that whole unique organization at that time–the band, the horn section, Willie the engineer. It was like a spiritual thing up in there. That power was in there, man. And everything we did turned to gold.”
But it did end. Green split to follow his spiritual journey, the label changed hands when L.A.-based Cream Records acquired it, disco came into vogue, and the magic that once existed in such magnificent abundance dissipated fast. Bryant witnessed the dissolution first-hand. “Yes, I sure did. Went through the Cream experience, from London (Records) to Hi to Cream,” he says. “(I wasn’t) really surprised, because being there at the time, we saw it. They would tell us some things, some rumors would be circulating or what have you, so I really wasn’t all that surprised. But you know, they tried afterwards. Everybody tried to turn it over, keep it turning over and hang in. But we saw it coming.”
Don came out of retirement briefly as a singer, turning up as his wife’s duet partner on her 1981 Hi farewell, “Mon Belle – Amour,” written and produced by Homer Banks and Chuck Brooks. Then Bryant retreated to the sanctity of the church, becoming a minister and waxing a gospel album in 1987 for his own By Faith label, What Do You Think About Jesus.
“I guess eventually it was going to lead to that, because that’s where I started out. It just came back around to me,” he says. “For a long time, I just felt that God just had something else for me, other than doing what I was doing music-wise. Because I thought I had some pretty good songs, and did some pretty good recordings, but they never did get through. So I just felt that–and that was one thing that kept me content, not really being worried about not making it through to stardom. It was a thing in my mind, I guess, that God’s got something else for me, and he’ll reveal it to me eventually.”
Bryant wasn’t altogether through with secular pursuits. He was involved in Ann’s pair of ‘90s albums for Bullseye Blues, Full Time Love and Fill This World With Love, producing the latter disc as well as singing on one track. But until recently, the concept of Bryant waging a full-fledged secular comeback campaign seemed a long shot at best. Happily, that’s no longer the case. Don Bryant is at long last singing his Hi classics once more, right alongside material from his excellent new CD–and the Stomp’s got him and the Bo-Keys. His set is sure to be one of the weekend’s many highlights.