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wpe53464.gif (116363 bytes)Peabo Bryson

Feel The Fire

by Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright 1999 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved. 

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.

"He’s 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 Redding’s band for a while. Led Al Green’s band. You name it and he’s 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 ("Let’s 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 Bryson’s 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," "I’m So Into You" and "Let the Feeling Flow" earned Bryson the title King of the Romantic Balladeers. In 1983, Bryson’s 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 Bryson’s reputation as a superb duet partner. That smash was followed by other huge tunes like "If Ever You’re In My Arms Again," "Without You," "Show & Tell" and "Can You Stop The Rain." Then came Walt Disney, who blasted Bryson’s career into the stratosphere. Bryson’s 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. "It’s nice to be done with that whole situation," he says. "You can’t be angry about that stuff. I’m not angry at anyone. I’d 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 there’s a kind of different sense of caring and a kind of personal relationship that doesn’t seem corporate. I like that sense of we’re all on the same page and trying to get the job done." Bryson’s 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, Bryson’s vocal are featured by being mixed right out front for all to hear, not masked behind overly busy arrangements and too much instrumentation.

"There’s nothing inanimate that can be more important than something [human,]" Bryson says. "I mean, on the food chain, do instruments really rate? I don’t think so. They’re inanimate objects, and without human beings they represent nothing. If you have a Stradivarius and nobody to play it, it’s just a Stradivarius. Or is it even that? It’s nothing."

Unconditional Love has some of Bryson’s 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.

"I’d 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 you’re faking it. I never want to fake it. That’s my whole thing."

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. It’s one of those songs, one of many songs like that from my past work that never really got its due. There’s a good possibility that could end up being a single. I think it needs to be something a little bit more, even. Let’s 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? It’s kind of cool to be able to do that. We have a live version of it that we do that’s 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 I’ve 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. I’ll bet Moses had one of those. We got back from Japan and I couldn’t 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 I’m him, and I think I’m Wes Montgomery. I think I’m everybody. I’m having fun just being a musician as well as an artist at this point. I haven’t 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 Brickman’s "The Gift" with his good friend Roberta Flack.

"I’d sing with Roberta Flack in a taxi if you called up and said she’d 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. She’s 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 can’t be around either one of those women and not fall in love with them. I don’t 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 say.

"The lyrical content and the musical content has a certain level of integrity. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be sexy or hip or anything like that. I think you create your own hipness. Trends don’t 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 Bryson’s 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&B’s roots is getting such a good response.

"I think it’s 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. That’s 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. What’s the difference between her singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ and ‘Respect?’ It’s all Aretha, isn’t it? When you think about it, that’s exactly what she did. Who wouldn’t want to hear Aretha sing anything? Any song? There weren’t any white people in this country who didn’t know who Gladys Knight was. Or the Pips were, as far as that’s concerned. But you don’t have that now. You have a younger generation that doesn’t 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.

"That’s probably one of the ultimate accomplishments of anybody’s career. In anything, especially art. Because there’s so many intangibles about art. It’s so personal in terms of whether it is good or bad. Or you like it or you don’t 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 don’t 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 there’s 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 God’s influence and his power asserting itself."

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Copyright 1999   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved. 

Copyright 1999   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.