Don Bryant: This is All I Know (Part One)

Don Bryant started releasing soul 45s under his own name in 1965. But it wasn’t until nearly four years later that he’d finally record and release an album. A collection of well-worn standards, Precious Soul was an excellent showcase of Bryant’s vocal prowess. But it displayed only a fraction of the man’s talents. His gospel recordings notwithstanding, fans of Bryant’s powerful yet sweet vocals would have to wait 48 years for a follow-up. With the release of Don’t Give Up on Love, the Memphis icon is gaining belated recognition not only for his singing, but for his songwriting skills as well.

Bryant is far from a songwriting novitiate; he enjoyed success right out of the gate with his first composition, “I Got to Know,” written for and recorded by the “5” Royales in 1960. As a staff songwriter for Hi Records, Bryant would write or co-write more than 150 songs, including the Top 40 hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” written for Ann Peebles.

Even then, he was a seasoned performer. Bryant got his start in music singing gospel with the Five Bryant Brothers. But he says that he never set out specifically to be a singer. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think goals had anything to do with it,” Bryant says. It was more or less the family tradition. “My father was a gospel singer, and he had a quartet. He used to rehearse at the house with the group, and we would be around listening.”

Bryant was part of a large family. “With seven boys and three girls, you always had enough there for a quartet,” he says with a hearty laugh. To him, the act of forming a gospel group with his brothers was “kind of like imitating my father and his group,” Bryant says. “That’s what kind of got me started into it.” And he says he stuck with it for one simple reason: “I enjoyed it so much. To me, music was everything; I didn’t want to go no other way.”

Bryant describes his earliest musical efforts as little more than “just singing together under the street lamp.” And though he and his brothers started out singing gospel, they soon moved in a more secular direction, singing doo-wop and renaming the group the Quails. The elder Bryant didn’t seem to mind; if he did, he didn’t say much about it. “He didn’t interfere,” says Bryant. “There was no problem with that.”

But he reveals something that may explain the lack of conflict with his father. “We would never sing [secular music] around him,” Bryant admits. “But I’m sure he had a feeling or the knowledge as to what we were doing.” As his brothers left the group to pursue other paths, only Don would stick with music for the long haul. Soon he was in another group, the Four Kings. That group earned a spot on Dick “Cane” Cole’s show on Memphis gospel radio station WLOK.

The Four Kings got their big break when they caught the notice of Willie Mitchell, the bandleader who would soon launch Royal Studios and later run Hi Records. Bryant recalls how he first met Mitchell in Memphis. “In the city there were clubs that booked bands,” he says. “Each band had a [vocal] group. Willie Mitchell was playing the clubs, and for some reason his group broke up.” Bryant’s group was introduced to Mitchell, and an audition was arranged. “He said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you a try,’ and from then on we were the [vocal] group with the Willie Mitchell Band.”

But the singers weren’t yet of legal age. “When we started with his band, we were 15, 16 years old,” Bryant recalls. “So we weren’t allowed in nightclubs.” With the blessing of the young men’s parents, Mitchell got himself appointed legal guardian of all four singers.

In addition to live dates, the Four Kings did some recordings. “You Don’t Mean Me Right” and “Do-Li-Op” were both released in the mid 1950s on Fortune Records, and in 1958 the Four Kings were featured on a pair of singles backed by Mitchell’s band. One of those latter singles featured an a-side written by Bryant, “Tell it to Me Baby.” Bryant’s songwriting talent was beginning to get noticed.

“I was writing things for my group; Willie was the producer,” Bryant says. “We found out he was going to be producing some things for the ‘5’ Royales.” He says that he modeled his songs for the Four Kings on the “5” Royales’ style. “As a young group, you try to imitate your favorite groups. When I heard they were coming, I decided I’d try to write something for them, because I kind of had a feel of their sound.” He wrote “Is There Someone Else on Your Mind” and presented it to the group through Mitchell. The “5” Royales recorded it, releasing it as “I Got to Know,” the b-side of “Please, Please, Please.”

Bryant was all of eighteen when the “5” Royales cut his song. At that point he still didn’t view songwriting as a career. But the idea was dawning on him. “I figured, if Willie had some more people coming in, maybe I could write some things for them too,” he says.

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