Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Don Bryant - I'll Do The Rest (Hi 2104)

I'll Do The Rest

Don Bryant grew up in a large family in Memphis. His father, Edward, was a member of Gospel Quartet The Four Stars Of Harmony, who were among the first outfits to broadcast live on local radio. Traveling with the group, young Don felt the power of song within him, performing at area churches at five years of age.

By the time he was in high school, Don and his brother Jamie had organized a vocal group of their own, The Quails. In the tradition of other popular doo-wop 'bird' groups of those days, you could find them singing out under the streetlights most nights. Taking a page from their father's book, they began hanging around radio station WLOK in Memphis, hoping to get noticed. It wasn't long before popular dee-jay Dick 'Cane' Cole heard them, and offered to let them sing live on his show, providing they changed their name to 'The Canes'. No problem. They would go on to win the fabled amateur night at the Palace Theater down on Beale Street, and were soon the most popular teenagers in town.

Our man Willie Mitchell was the leader of the house band at Danny's, a busy night-spot out on the strip in West Memphis. There are conflicting stories about exactly how it came about (some say that they replaced a previous vocal group, The Four Dukes), but by 1957 the group had changed their name to The Four Kings, and were knocking 'em dead working with Willie at the club. Supposedly, Willie had to sign the papers to become Don's legal guardian, as he was still under age. In any event, they soon became the hottest ticket in town, packing 'em in at places like Curry's Flamingo Room, The Manhattan Club, and The Plantation Inn.

You know the more I do this, the more I am amazed at how everything, eventually, seems to be connected. After hearing them perform at the Manhattan Club in 1957, local rockabilly legend Eddie Bond (whose guitarist, you may recall, was about to join Bill Black's Combo at Hi Records) signed them to his Stomper Time label. Two singles would follow, Tell It To Me Baby and Walkin' Alone in 1958. Although big local sellers, neither record dented the charts. They continued to work regularly, and when Mitchell himself signed on with Hi Records in 1962, he brought the Four Kings with him, resulting in two ultra-rare singles on Hi's subsidiary label M.O.C..

In an interesting aside, Cane Cole brought a group around the corner to Stax at about the same time, and their lone release, Why Should I Suffer With The Blues (Stax 123), was released under the name of 'The Canes' in April of 1962. None of the original Canes were involved. With brother Jamie drafted, and the usual ego problems within the group, The Four Kings would go their separate ways in 1963.

Bryant was signed as a solo artist by Hi the following year. His first release for the label, a cover of Chris Kenner's I Like It Like That (Hi 2087), didn't do much. Don's nascent songwriting skills would be showcased on his next release, the excellent Don't Turn Your Back On Me (Hi 2095), a sweet country soul record that could have been a huge hit if it had been distributed by somebody like, say, Atlantic...

Just a word here on the whole R&B chart thing; it's tempting to look up a song in Whitburn's Top R&B Singles, and figure that, since there's no listing for it in the Billboard charts, the record must have tanked. I'm beginning to learn that that's simply not true, and that those charts can be misleading, especially when it comes to the Hi label. Owner Joe Cuoghi had no illusions about the record business, and was first and foremost a jukebox distributor. He knew he could move over 150,000 copies of a record to the guys on the jukebox routes, and so never really bothered with the whole radio 'promotion' thing. When Billboard stopped using the 'Most Played R&B In Juke Boxes' formula for its charts in 1957, guys like Cuoghi didn't care. The new charts were based on radio station playlists (often influenced by 'payola' of one form or another) and sales reported by stores. Consequently, a single could break really big in local markets like Memphis and New Orleans, get played to death in the bars and juke joints, and never show up in the national charts... just my two cents.

After an uncredited appearance as the vocalist on Willie Mitchell's two sider That Driving Beat/Everything's Gonna Be Alright (Hi 2097) in 1965, Bryant would write this absolutely killer B side we have here today (issued as the flip of Glory Of Love). Sounding even more like a Solomon Burke or Joe Tex record, perhaps there's a reason for that. This is one of the last releases to feature the original Hi Rhythm section, an incredibly tight group made up of the remnants of Bill Black's Combo and members of Willie Mitchell's Jumpin' Band. These are the guys crankin' it out on virtually every Hi instrumental release from 1962 to late 1965, no matter what the label said. Although there were personnel changes over the years, by this time, in addition to Hi stalwart Howard 'Bulldog' Grimes on the drums, the group would also include Bobby Emmons on the organ, Mike Leech on the bass and the man who'd been there all along, Reggie Young. That's Reggie's unmistakable trademark guitar on here, a sound that would go on to illuminate so many of the best records ever made. Be that as it may, Don Bryant had him first. Check out the horns, the bass, the drums... just top shelf stuff, man. How Bryant could not have been considered among the greatest soul singers (and songwriters) of his day is beyond me.

Don would go on to release seven more singles for Hi under his own name over the next four years, and all of them are worth seeking out. An album of cover songs, Precious Soul, would also be released by the label in 1969. In early 1970, Willie Mitchell's contract expired. Realizing how much he needed him, Joe Cuoghi made him the Vice-President of the company. That July, Joe died suddenly of a massive heart attack at age 47. Willie was now the president and principal owner of Hi Records. After all those years in the business, Willie knew how things worked, and it was obvious that the most succesful labels employed at least one 'staff songwriter'. Aware of Don's talents, he put him on the payroll.

As one of his first assignments, Willie told Don to work on developing the delivery of a young singer that fellow bandleader Gene 'Bowlegs' Miller had brought to the label, Ann Peebles. Although they both resented the arrangement at first, they began making some beautiful music together (for more on Ann, please check out this post from last year). Shortly after the success of their soul masterpiece I Can't Stand The Rain, the couple were married in 1974. I guess Willie knew what he was doing...

They would go on to create and perform together throughout the seventies, and weathered the whole disco era in fine fashion. Staying with Hi even after Willie sold it in 1977, the couple would have the very last release on the label, a duet called Mon Belle Amour in 1981.

By the mid-eighties, Bryant had decided to return to his first love, Gospel music, and was back singing at the Carnegie Church Of God In Christ, where he had performed with his father all those years before. He continued to write and, in 1987, he started his own label, By Faith Records. Although he recorded two excellent albums for the label (What Do You Think About Jesus and I'm Gonna Praise Him) by the end of the decade, neither has been released commercially.

Still as much in love as they ever were, Don would supply material for Ann's great 1992 album, Full Time Love. He would rejoin with her and sing two duets on her 1994 effort, Fill This World With Love. The couple began collaborating with Paul Brown (from whom I've borrowed many of these photographs) in 2000, and are involved in the local Gospel community. An album, It's All In The Word, has recently been completed, and is featured on Bryant's MySpace site.

Don and Ann's incredible soul chops remain intact, as evidenced by the song they co-wrote with Brown for Joe Henry's I Believe To My Soul project in 2005, When The Candle Burns Low. Great stuff, it is, in my opinion, the best thing on the album. Just this past Friday night, Mr & Mrs Bryant were onstage in Memphis at the local NARAS chapter's awards dinner, and honored their old boss Willie Mitchell with a couple of soul songs (I'm still trying to find out which ones) as he recieved the chapter's regional Lifetime Achievement Award (along with Booker T & The M.G.'s, Irma Thomas, and Sun heir Knox Phillips).

Apparently at peace with walking the line between Gospel and R&B (as folks like Al Green and Roscoe Robinson have done throughout their careers), I think it's high time we got Don Bryant back into Royal Studio working on some Soul with Poppa Willie, in addition to the Sacred Music he's been producing with Brown...

Is That Asking Too Much?


Blogger Allen said...

Red --

I think you must be a ghost! :) You write so well, it's as if you were actually THERE when all these recordings were originally done. Count me as a fan!

Allen S.

7:36 PM  

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