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The first time I listened to Peabo Bryson's music
– I mean really
listened to it – was the spring of 1984. I was at Pennsylvania State University, on a
date with Denise, a girl with whom I thought I might just be in love. Before going out, we
stopped off in her dorm room. As she was getting ready, Denise slipped a tape of Peabo
Bryson's latest album into a boom box.
It was in that little room in Thompson Hall that I gained an
appreciation of the true essence of what made the music of Peabo Bryson universal. I
learned the way his music captured the promise of a glance across a room, the wonder of a
slow dance in the silent moonlight, the giddy recklessness of surrendering yourself to
someone completely and the tragic depths of having that go astray. Peabo Bryson sings the
music of romance, the music of love. He says things most men would love to have the
courage or conviction to say, but usually can not bring themselves to. He opens himself up
in ways most women – or even men – would love to hear, if only once in a lifetime.
I haven't seen Denise in over a decade now. But I never
again lost track of Peabo Bryson.
Robert Peabo Bryson was born in the small town of
Greenville, South Carolina in 1951. His parents were rabid fans of music, taking young
Peabo to see such seminal acts as Sam Cooke, Little Anthony & The Imperials, The
Drifters and Ike & Tina Turner. By the age of ten, Bryson was actively involved in
talent shows. Still, he never realized that music could be a life-long vocation until he
met his musical mentor, Moses Dillard.
"Hes the first guy who ever talked to me about
music," Bryson recalls. "He was the first person I knew in the world who
actually recorded music and could write music and had made records and had success with
records. He happened to live in my hometown. I worked with him for many, many years and I
learned everything I know about music from this man. Moses Dillard was a guitar virtuoso
who jammed with Cornel Dupree and Wes Montgomery and all those guys. He was one of the
guys. [He was] one of the most famous unfamous people that I knew of. Led Otis
Reddings band for a while. Led Al Greens band. You name it and hes done
it. And these guys absolutely loved this guy. As I did."
Dillard got Bryson on the road and he started making a name
for himself. Bryson followed his dream up to New York and landed a gig singing on a single
by Michael ("Lets All Chant") Zager. "Do It With Feeling" became
a pretty substantial R&B hit and led to Bryson being signed to Bang Records, former
home of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. After a couple of well-received albums for Bang,
Capitol Records snapped him up. This is where Brysons career exploded. Bryson was
with Capitol for six years and hit the soul charts over twenty times. Classic soul tunes
like "Reaching For the Sky," "Feel the Fire," "Im So Into
You" and "Let the Feeling Flow" earned Bryson the title King of the
Romantic Balladeers. In 1983, Brysons songs started spreading out into to a wider
audience to become pop hits. His first huge crossover success was "Tonight I
Celebrate My Love," a duet with longtime friend Roberta Flack. This led to
Brysons reputation as a superb duet partner. That smash was followed by other huge
tunes like "If Ever Youre In My Arms Again," "Without You,"
"Show & Tell" and "Can You Stop The Rain." Then came Walt Disney,
who blasted Brysons career into the stratosphere. Brysons duets on the
animated Disney smashes "Beauty & The Beast" (with Celine Dion) and "A
Whole New World" (with Regina Belle) became his biggest hits to date.
Soon after that, Bryson got involved in a long contract
battle with his then-label Columbia, which dragged on for years. "Its nice to
be done with that whole situation," he says. "You cant be angry about that
stuff. Im not angry at anyone. Id like to help them. Even people who may have
inadvertently or directly tried to hurt my career in one way or another, or hurt me
personally in one way or another. Life is too short to harbor any hostilities towards
anybody." Bryson recently signed with Private Music, a division of Windham Hill that
is taking an aggressive stance in R&B, having signed such respected artists as Bryson,
James Ingram, Barry White and Jeffrey Osborne. "Being at Windham Hill now has made me
more appreciative of the people who still believe in the things that I believe in, that
are a part of me. It makes it a lot simpler to get things done, and theres a kind of
different sense of caring and a kind of personal relationship that doesnt seem
corporate. I like that sense of were all on the same page and trying to get the job
done." Brysons new album is Unconditional Love, his first for Private
Music and also his first new album in five years.
Unconditional Love is an amazing album. It feels
completely comfortable in contemporary soul music and yet at the same time it is classic
Peabo Bryson. The music is incredibly tight and well played. And the singing – the fact
is that Bryson has one of the best singing voices in the world of popular music, period.
What makes it so refreshing is that unlike so much current R&B music, Brysons
vocal are featured by being mixed right out front for all to hear, not masked behind
overly busy arrangements and too much instrumentation.
"Theres nothing inanimate that can be more
important than something [human,]" Bryson says. "I mean, on the food chain, do
instruments really rate? I dont think so. Theyre inanimate objects, and
without human beings they represent nothing. If you have a Stradivarius and nobody to play
it, its just a Stradivarius. Or is it even that? Its nothing."
Unconditional Love has some of Brysons finest love
ballads including the deeply devotional "My Heart Belongs To You," the frisky
and playful "Eye On You" and the introspective "I Wish I Could," which
Bryson recorded for his granddaughter Marissa.
"Id like to think my music
– especially Unconditional
Love, is a representation of the philosophies and ideologies I want to share with
you," Bryson says. "I have to choose songs that represent my personality.
Something that represents philosophies and ideologies I can relate to personally.
Otherwise youre faking it. I never want to fake it. Thats my whole
It also nice to see that Bryson redid "Somebody In Your
Life," a fantastic dance song from his 1986 album Quiet Storm. "I thought
it deserved another shot," Bryson says. "I wanted to go in a different direction
with it. Its one of those songs, one of many songs like that from my past work that
never really got its due. Theres a good possibility that could end up being a
single. I think it needs to be something a little bit more, even. Lets take it and
bring it a little bit further towards the 2000 mark. Once we do that, then you have
something for every market, you know? Its kind of cool to be able to do that. We
have a live version of it that we do thats killer."
This renewed vigor for playing the song was also pushed
forward one more time by the memory of his mentor Moses Dillard. "I had something
wonderful happen to me," Bryson explains. "In the last couple of years Ive
been picking up my guitar again. To make a long story short, being a guitar virtuoso, he
had a lot of guitars. He died when I was on tour with Kenny G [in 1993.] I was talking to
my guitarist about what kind of guitar I should get. He said I would try to find an old
Gibson L5. Ill bet Moses had one of those. We got back from Japan and I
couldnt find his wife because her number had been changed. Suddenly, out of the
blue, after I had gone to the music stores to look for one, she called. He did have an L5.
Now when we do Somebody In Your Life I get to play this Gibson L5 and I think
Im him, and I think Im Wes Montgomery. I think Im everybody. Im
having fun just being a musician as well as an artist at this point. I havent had
that kind of fun in a long time."
Bryson also recorded a couple of new duets, "Light The
World" with Debbie Gibson, and a remake of Jim Brickmans "The Gift"
with his good friend Roberta Flack.
"Id sing with Roberta Flack in a taxi if you
called up and said shed be in it," Bryson says enthusiastically. "I adore
it. I adore being with Roberta. I adore being in her spiritual light. I adore being close
to her talent and gifts. Shes just extraordinary and exquisite in every single way.
She and Celine Dion are my two favorite people in the entire world. I feel similar ways
about Celine. I love her energy. I love being around her. I love them. You cant be
around either one of those women and not fall in love with them. I dont care who you
are. These are the most extraordinary two women I ever met in my life. They represent
whatever is quintessential in female vocalists, artists and musicians. The vast knowledge
and the discipline, in the terms of the standards of discipline that they set for
themselves and their art and their craft is just phenomenal."
Bryson is excited about Unconditional Love, which he
feels is one of his best and most personal albums. He is also proud about what it has to
"The lyrical content and the musical content has a
certain level of integrity. It doesnt mean that I wont be sexy or hip or
anything like that. I think you create your own hipness. Trends dont mean very much.
For me, the other thing is not just a strong sense of spirituality. It breeds a certain
high level of responsibility on what you put out there on the airwaves, or what you
unleash on the masses or what you unleash on their consciousness – in the sense of
morality or the lack thereof. Music should probably provide answers in terms of lyrical
content, and giving people a sense of togetherness and oneness, as opposed to being alone
in their thoughts and dilemmas or regrets or happiness or whatever. If you think about it,
everything we do in life is set to some kind of music. Every significant event that takes
place in our lives is set to some kind of music."
While Brysons new music is breaking ground, his older
songs are getting more exposure as the new radio format of classic soul music becomes more
and more popular. Bryson is glad to see that this celebration of R&Bs roots is
getting such a good response.
"I think its an important piece of history,"
Bryson says. "Of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans, the very nature of
diversity in this country. There was a time in American history when almost every white
person knew who Aretha Franklin was. Those were good times. Thats when music was
really something and songs were really songs. People really appreciated that. There was
also a time when you could listen to Dobie Gray and know that Dobie Gray was different and
had a little more depth than maybe Hootie and the Blowfish. R&B music was an intricate
part of what American society was all about. If you think about it, Aretha did basically
the same things that I do. Whats the difference between her singing Bridge
Over Troubled Waters and Respect? Its all Aretha, isnt it?
When you think about it, thats exactly what she did. Who wouldnt want to hear
Aretha sing anything? Any song? There werent any white people in this country who
didnt know who Gladys Knight was. Or the Pips were, as far as thats concerned.
But you dont have that now. You have a younger generation that doesnt really
understand or have full knowledge of its history or where it comes from. Programming like
that is indispensable. Otherwise, a good portion of your pop culture is disavowed. It goes
down the tubes. Until somebody picks it up and says, hey, I think this is hip. Why should
history, and recent history especially, be relegated to some kind of time capsule?"
In the long run, Bryson feels proud and grateful that he has
been able to have such a long and influential reign as a singer. The fact that his music
has brought people joy constantly gives him an awestruck feeling of pride.
"Thats probably one of the ultimate
accomplishments of anybodys career. In anything, especially art. Because
theres so many intangibles about art. Its so personal in terms of whether it
is good or bad. Or you like it or you dont like it. The line between greatness and
obscurity is very, very small. To have achieved something that represents music that is
played long after my bones are dust, I dont look at it as an epitaph, although it
could be. It could well serve as that. But my attitude about it is I have miles to go
before I sleep. The level of gratitude that you feel – theres two things that
happen. Either your ego grows so big – and becomes so out of place and disproportionate
to your talent and your reality on a day to day basis – that you lose all perspective.
And everything is over at that particular point. Or, you find it to be what I found it to
be, and that is an extremely humbling experience. Because you realize how precious it is
to find yourself in that position at anytime. To find yourself in that position once is a
life-long goal of every artist. To find yourself in that position repeatedly is Gods
influence and his power asserting itself."
Let us know what you think.
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