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Don’t Give Up On Love
Release date: 5.12.17
Label: Fat Possum
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Memphis Soul Survivor Don Bryant Returns With 'Don't Give Up On Love' Out May 12th On Fat PossumRead More
Age. Some things do get better with age. Like the slow grind. Kids are always in a hurry—not enough time in the day, not enough minutes in the hour, too many things to do and places to be. Age makes us appreciate the depth in experiences, the range of senses in a single moment, a single touch. Instead of trying to fill 60 different seconds, age opens up the fullness of a single minute. Less becomes so much more.
Oh, the slow grind. Don Bryant gets inside it, slows it further, fills every little crevice with sensuous feeling, with yearning, with pain and love. You know that old song that O. V. Wright did so well in 1971 that no one can ever do the song again (as much as everyone tries)—“Nickel and a Nail”? O. V. Wright has held tight to that song and rightfully so. But not no mo. Don has slowed it, made it a richer and deeper experience. Not to take anything from O.V.—he made it possible for others to try, for Don to succeed. But O. V., after nearly half a century, now you gotta step aside. Don Bryant is here.
Though it ain’t like he just showed up. The roots of this record are in the Memphis church. That’s where Don Bryant began singing when he was 5. He joined his father’s family vocal group, then formed a gospel quartet for a high school radio gig. Broadcasting broadened the audience and they went secular, singing pop at WLOK on Dick “Cane” Cole’s popular show. Kids walking to school every morning listened to Don and the Four Canes. After parting with the DJ, they took a very real step toward careers when, as the Four Kings, they began fronting Willie Mitchell’s band.
Willie Mitchell led the swingingest, groovin’est band in the Memphis-Mississippi-Arkansas area—the American music floodplain. (He would later discover Al Green and make him—and keep him—a star.) Willie’s band was known for instrumental records, but when they’d play at Danny’s in West Memphis. Don’s group fronted them, the voices that pulled dancers onto the floor. But the group broke up, as groups will do, and Willie, who was touring concert venues and dance halls, needed a vocalist who could play with his supple, slinky funky beats. The Four Kings were deposed, but Willie anointed Don Bryant. Don could stand in front of Willie’s orchestra and lead.
Don could also write songs. He was still in his teens when, in 1960, Willie was producing the so-great 5 Royales and Don handed him “I Got To Know.” The 5 Royales put it on wax. Don was hot in the spotlight and in the writer’s room.
As Willie Mitchell carved out his place at Hi Records—first as an artist, then as a songwriter, then a producer and co-owner—Don was close by. Don cut songs at Hi under the Four Kings moniker (dig “That Driving Beat”) and as a solo artist (“Don’t Turn Your Back On Me”). He wrote material for other Hi artists, including Janet & the Jays and Norman West. In 1969, still in the age of 7” singles, Don was popular enough to release an album. But the big hit that would put his name in every household proved elusive.
Around 1970, Willie put Don with the Hi label’s newest act, a petite chanteuse from St. Louis with commanding pipes. Ann Peebles burst on the scene with “Part Time Love.” Don looked at this slight young lady and penned “99 Lbs” for her: “You wouldn't know what I'm talking 'bout/ If you never had a love like this/… 99 lbs of natural born goodness/99 lbs of soul.” The relationship warmed, they co-wrote the hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain” in 1973 and were married the following year. Ann’s performing career continued, as did Don’s writing, and they began raising a family. Between then and now, Don returned to the microphone periodically, sometimes dueting with his wife, sometimes releasing gospel material. Always, he continued to write songs.
And all the while, that voice was maturing, mellowing, until these recordings that find him, at age 74, in peak form and taking O. V.’s song. The band is a mix of lifelong cohorts and upstart stalwarts. They understand where he’s been and where he wants to go, and they take him there, making his song “How Do I Get There,” a rhetorical question, because they have clearly found the way. Again it’s so much about the pacing—restrained and slow to allow the nuance in his voice to ooze and soothe. The organ and keyboard interplay of Charles Hodges and Hubby Mitchell, both from the Hi Rhythm Section, set us firmly in church firmament. Don’s song moves steady and deliberately, like a gang of chained slaves seeking hope, like a doleful band of earthbound angels. The yearning is the thing—spiritual, sensual, and from the heart.
Willie Mitchell died in 2010, but Don makes his presence palpable on “Don’t Give Up On Love,” a song Don co-wrote with bassist Scott Bomar. The strings leap out like a classic Hi record and the mood never breaks. The same team evokes the feel of Willie’s band crowding the Danny’s Club dance floor in West Memphis with “Something About You,” the killer guitar is played by young man/old soul Joe Restivo. And their “What Kind of Love” keeps us at Danny’s Club til much later, when the beats are harder and the moves more angular. “First You Cry,” a contemporary cover, is built on the simplicity of solid soul through the decades; it’s wise, witty, and true.
A few of these songs come from Don’s past. He reprises the 5 Royales’ version of his own “I Got To Know.” Despite its age, it’s fresh as a New Orleans hurricane, and just as tasty. Don’s “It Was Jealousy” has become a soul music standard, familiar to Northern Soul fans as an Otis Clay recording and to southern soul fans by Ann Peebles’ treatment. Today he puts a pop patina atop it, the smooth horns giving it an extra shine.
His new version of “Can’t Hide the Hurt” hits the sweet spot that all contemporary soul music strives for: It’s yesterday’s now music today. Like the whole album, it’s completely new but with an old soul. Do you grab your boogie shoes or a handkerchief to wipe away the tears?
“One Ain’t Enough” is a new track written by some of “the kids” who play on this album. It draws from all the right influences to sound like a fossil that’s been cleaned, polished and robustly reanimated.
I was lucky and popped by the end of the recording sessions. They’d just cut “One Ain’t Enough” and were listening to playback. Veteran drummer Howard Grimes, also of Willie Mitchell’s tutelage and the drummer on many of Don’s Hi sessions—he couldn’t keep from keeping the beat and he stepped to the middle of the control room floor. The Soul Train line formed.
Howard’s arms came up and his feet went down. His eyes took a distant look and he was transported beyond the slow grind. His backbone slipped, he began to dip, everyone shouted and clapped. This kind of music moved audiences then and it moves them now. Even the music makers can’t stand still. Soul survivors, young and old—nothing holds them back.
--Robert Gordon, Memphis, 2017
Robert Gordon is the author of Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, among other books and films.