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A Quietus Interview

Love Like Rain: Ann Peebles & Don Bryant Interviewed
Jennifer Lucy Allan , April 13th, 2021 10:51

tQ is in partnership with Oda, a new speaker system that allows artists including Ann Peebles and Don Bryant to broadcast directly into your home. Jennifer Lucy Allan speaks to the legendary Memphis soul couple about telling stories, singing gospel, staying together, and their biggest hit, I Can’t Stand The Rain

Ann Peebles and Don Bryant’s biggest hit ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ was a creative bolt of lightning in a literal downpour. It is a story that has been told and retold so many times it’s a piece of southern soul folklore.

One evening, they were with friends, about to head out to what Ann recalls was one of her favourite artists, Johnnie Taylor. All of a sudden, it started pouring down. “The rain seemed like it stopped everything,” Don tells me over the phone. I have them both on speaker, and Ann remembers that she felt like the evening’s fun was being washed away in front of her eyes. Frustrated, she said “I can’t stand this rain!”

It was the title, and the chorus, and Don just needed a melody. There was a piano in the room, and he sat down and started writing it out. “Within that night, in just a few hours or less, the whole song was done,” he says. It was a huge hit, turbo-charging their careers, Don as a songwriter and Ann as a singer. There was a disco version by Eruption recorded a few years later, and it has since been sung by Tina Turner, Little Feat’s Lowell George, and sampled by Missy Elliott, among others.

Ann and Don are on the phone to me from their home in Millington Tennessee, a few miles from the city where they helped shape the Southern gospel-infused Memphis soul sound of the 60s and 70s, as mainstays of Hi Records. Memphis soul had an enveloping heat in its heavy basslines and deep sound, on which sashayed super-cool vocals often with gospel inflections. Hi Records, which Don and Ann were signed to, had started as a rockabilly label but went on to sign Al Green and Syl Johnson, and along with labels like Stax, went on to define the period’s distinctive Southern soul and R&B sound.

Today, Don and Ann are starting to make plans for an Oda broadcast on April 17th, where they will talk through some of their favourite music and listen back to some of Ann’s recordings. Don is also basking in the success of receiving a Grammy nomination at the grand old age of 78. It’s been a long time coming, so I ask how it feels. “It feels great,” he says, “something I have been longing for and waiting for through the years. Doing what I love doing and hoping maybe it might catch on – and it finally did! Hey, I’m just overjoyed… I don’t know if I was waiting on it or not, but I'm sure glad it got here!”

Don’s Grammy-nominated album, You Make Me Feel, was released in May last year, a follow-up to 2017’s Don’t Give Up On Love, which came almost 50 years after his debut in 1969, Precious Soul. Despite now being a great-grandfather, his voice remains strong and limber – in single ‘How Do I Get There’ there is a powerful growl behind the track’s most emotionally charged lyrics, and he slides effortlessly into the gentler moments, with a rich, syrupy vibrato. But while many hailed Don’t Give Up On Love as a return for Don, he had never stopped writing, and his ability to spin stories from his surroundings into songs is a talent he can’t turn off. “I didn’t completely go away,” he explains, “I did some things on my own, kept my voice in shape by singing – it's just a part of me, I couldn’t help it. I always find something to sing about, and I stay in tune with writing songs too.”

Ann suffered a stroke in 2012 that stopped her performing, and it is rare for her to join an interview, but today she is whipsmart and funny, correcting Don, chipping in on anecdotes the remember together from their early career, and thoughtful about her connection to the many songs she recorded. Her singing career began when she took a trip with her brother from her home in St Louis into Memphis. She was still only a teenager, but was taken into the Hi Records studio to sing for producer Willie Mitchell. “I think I was 19,” she recalls. “I walked in with [Memphis band leader] Gene ‘Bowlegs’ Miller and he introduced me to Willie. He told me to sing a song, so I sung an old blues song, I think. Then Willie says to me: ‘You wanna record?’ so of course I said ‘yeah!’ I had to get my dad to sign some papers and then come back to Memphis, and it started from there… It was an exciting time, because I had wanted to record forever,” she says. “That was where I could sing, and that's all I ever wanted to do.”

Ann sang with deep conviction; her voice had a gorgeously charred and smoky edge and she could dance her way around a melody while giving it bite too. As the Memphis Music Hall of Fame puts it: “always classy but often sassy”. She describes her voice to me as “gospel with a whole lotta soul,” and Don says proudly, that it was clear to everyone from the first time she was in the studio that Ann was something special – not just from the sound of her voice, but also the way she embodied the song. “When she got into it, she let it all go,” he says.

Soon after Ann joined Hi Records, she and Don began working together. Don was singing with Willie Mitchell’s band at the time, and had been tipped as one of Hi Records’s next big stars, but moved instead into songwriting and backing singing, mainly writing material both for and with Ann. Working together, they found out they had a lot in common, and later became a couple. They had both grown up in large families, where there had been gospel music and singing – Don’s father was a gospel singer, and his group would practice at their house. Don says he and his brothers would imitate their elders. While there was nothing but gospel in the house, “when we would get out with the boys out on the street, under the street lights was when we would sing the songs from the radio stations,” he says.

Ann also came from a large family, where people were always singing around the house. Her father and grandfather formed a family gospel choir – the Peebles Choir – who ended up backing stars like Mahalia Jackson. She remembers being a little girl, singing lead and realising she could sing. “All my brothers and sisters had to sing in the Peebles choir, because there was so many of us,” she says. “When I really began to love it is when I sung for myself.”

In 1974, the same year ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ was released, they were married. Ann had already charted with a number of singles, and had released three albums on Hi since her debut This Is Ann Peebles in 1969, but that hit, and the album of the same name, cemented their place in the Memphis Soul canon, rocket-fuelling their careers. For Don, who had been singing and writing, he says it made him “realise that the song-writing situation was a great place to be, because there was so many artists needing material”. Ann was nominated for a Grammy for best female R&B vocal performance that year, and the following year for ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’. “For me, it boosted my career,” she says, as far as better shows, bigger shows, but it was a big lift for the both of us. I still look back and that is the most memorable part of our careers, writing that song, and seeing it grow the way it did.”

After ‘…Rain’, Ann and Don toured the world. They say their favourite place was Italy, where they made a lot of friends. Ann says wherever she went the first thing she would do was find the nicest restaurant and go to eat. She tells me, laughing, that her manager would joke that she should be as big as a house – not ‘99lbs’ as one of her other songs said.

A handful of hits charted and she released three more albums on Hi – Tellin’ It, If This Is Heaven, The Handwriting Is On The Wall – but the rise of disco meant that their sweltering gospel-infused R&B lost out commercially. Ann continued to record into the 90s and 00s, and I ask how they feel about the songs they wrote that didn’t storm the charts. Ann says she truly believed in every song she sang, and has a lot of fondness for all of them, whether or not they came with commercial success: “I love everything equally, because every song has so much of yourself in it,” she says. She picks out the song ‘Just You, Just Me’, an organ-backed ballad from 1992’s Full Time Love, which they wrote together and on which Don sang backing, as one she particularly remembers. “Probably nobody has heard that song,” she says, “but I love it as much as I love ‘Rain’ because to me, it's saying something, I feel something about it.”

They often wrote together – Don describes how songs would often come together very quickly. “We were writing together, we were around each other a lot at the studio, so we got to know each other well,” Don says. “When I was around her and a story would pop up, we would sit down and come up with the full story of the song and the melody. Once you got started, things just started coming to you – we could finish up songs pretty quickly… You finish one, you sit down, you talk, and next thing you know you just started on something new.”

“…and we have a whole lot of songs that we started on and never finished!” Ann adds, which makes Don laugh. “If I could go back and take up all of those I left back there, hey, I'd be one happy soul,” he says.

While R&B isn’t the same genre now as it was in the 60s, Don says he’s cheered to still find such a big audience for that vintage soul sound: “The type of music I’m doing is the same style as then, you know, and it’s shown me there are still plenty of people out here now that still love that sound.”

While Ann won’t be returning to performance, Don has no plans to slow down. His voice is strong and the songs still flow, so he says he’s looking forward to doing as many albums as he can – “R&B, that’s me,” he says. “I still love it, and I’m blessed to still be able to sing, and enjoy my singing. Whatever the songs are I have a tendency to want to put everything I got into it. I am thankful for that, I’ve been able to do it ever since I was a child. Even if I don’t do anything with the material, I still enjoy sitting down and writing, it's just a part of me.”

Ann says she still listens to all sorts of music, and still picks things out that she likes and feeds them to Don to build into a song: “I'm a music lover,” she says, “and I'm going to love music until the day I'm no longer here.”

I ask them what has kept them together after all these years. “Through the years we've learned about each other,” says Don, and Ann continues: “Having the love of god in your life, has everything to do with it – with you being together and staying together – if you've got that, you're gonna love somebody else, so I feel a big part of us staying together is having that spiritual love, as much as that natural love.”

“I definitely agree,” says Don. “We found out that we had a lot of things in common and the more things we found out the better we understood each other. I guess love was something in the air, waiting to drop down on us.” Like rain, I suggest?

“There you go,” laughs Don, “like rain!”

The Ann Peebles and Don Bryant broadcast takes place this weekend, April 16, 17 and 18th. You can find out more about Oda via their website, Instagram and Twitter. This editorial is part of a commercial partnership between Oda and The Quietus