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

Continued from Part One

By the middle of the 1960s, the Four Kings had broken up, but Bryant remained as a vocalist with Mitchell. Between 1965 and 1969, Bryant released at least nine singles on Hi; for most of those, he penned either the a- or b-side; sometimes both. Unbeknownst to Bryant, Hi Records had decided to position him as a “jukebox artist” as opposed to one whose songs got played on radio. “That was an area that I wasn’t particularly involved in,” he says. “It was basically coming out of Willie Mitchell’s mind to try to get me established as an artist.” At the same time, Mitchell and Hi Records began to be more interested in Bryant for his songwriting than his recordings.

“I noticed that when it started happening,” he says, “because established artists were beginning to come in. When Ann [Peebles] came in, that just blew everything out of the water. With her voice and everything, all attention went to her.” When Peebles and other acts found themselves short on material, they found they could turn to Don Bryant. “Lo and behold, that’s how it got started,” Bryant says. “I just got deeper and deeper into writing, because the artists that were coming in were getting more and more attention in recording. I thought, ‘this writing thing is a good thing, and maybe I can get some things out of that.” He became staff writer at Hi, penning songs for Al Green, Otis Clay and other artists signed to the label.

But his recording career wasn’t over. In 1969 Willie Mitchell decided to record a Don Bryant album. “We were doing a lot of live dates,” Bryant recalls, “and Willie decided to try some of these things that we were doing live for our album.” So instead of a collection of originals, Precious Soul would feature Bryant—backed by Mitchell’s band—singing soul standards. “I was doing them just about every night on stage anyhow, so I knew them well,” Bryant says. “I totally agreed with it, because it was always a blessing to be able to cut an album.”

Precious Soul features a dozen tracks, covers of well-worn classics like Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” Gamble and Huff’s “Expressway to Your Heart” and the Isaac Hayes/David Porter tunes “When Something is Wrong With my Baby” and “Soul Man.”

Bryant continued to write songs for others, sometimes collaborating. He and Ann Peebles wrote “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” a hit in 1973; the pair married the following year and remain together today. He performed regularly throughout the 1970s, often as an opening act for his wife. But once the 1980s began, Bryant’s time as a soul singer seemed over as he began moving back toward gospel.

He explains his reasoning in simple terms. “Just being in the business for so long and writing, and not getting to that point where I was a well-known and recognized artist, I began to try to write in all directions,” he says. “I was still going to church, and I felt that possibly I could write about the things I was learning in there.” He says that it wasn’t easy. “It wasn’t totally backed by [Hi Records], but I tried, and I was happy doing it. I wasn’t that deeply into singing on stage, anyway.” Eventually Bryant suspended his performing career, only singing within the context of church services. He did record and release a few albums in the late 1980s and beyond, all in the gospel idiom and billed as Donald Bryant and a Chosen Few.

But lovers of soul hadn’t forgotten about the sizzling secular sides Bryant cut. Though Precious Soul had long since gone out of print, a 2000 CD set (released in Europe only) called The Complete Don Bryant on Hi Records collected all of his album tracks and singles. In 2012, Fat Possum Records secured the rights to Precious Soul and gave the album its first domestic reissue.

Memphis producer and bandleader Scott Bomar has long been a fan of Bryant’s work. “The very, very first time that I ever did anything musical with Don Bryant was at Willie Mitchell’s [2010] funeral,” he recalls. “Willie’s son Boo asked that Don perform ‘Everything’s Gonna be Alright.’ That’s one of Boo’s favorite songs of Willie’s, and Don was the vocalist on the [1965] recording with the Willie Mitchell Band.”

That funeral was also the first time Bomar played with drummer and Hi Records legend Howard Grimes. “I played bass behind Don, with Howard playing drums,” Bomar says. He would eventually enlist Grimes as a member of his classic soul outfit, the Bo-Keys. To date the band has released two albums under its own name (2011’s Got to Get Back! and 2016’s Heartaches by the Number) and has backed other Memphis-focused artists onstage and in the studio.

Grimes was in touch with Bryant, who had begun thinking about returning to singing soul. “He had not been doing his secular music for a long time, and he’d been missing doing that,” Bomar says. “He’d been talking to Howard on the phone, and Howard was telling Don about the Bo-Keys and about the stuff we had been doing.” Bomar recalls hearing from Bryant not long thereafter. “Don reached out to me to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about what you guys have been doing; I’d be interested in coming down, checking out the studio and meeting with you about maybe doing some work together.’”

Click here to continue