In celebration of the April 13th birthday of the ever-soulful Mr. Peabo Bryson, we rewind to SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan’s first conversation with him 44 years ago when his recording career was just starting to gain momentum…
April 1978, phone interview
For Peabo Bryson, The Sky’s The Limit
With “Reaching For The Sky” as his newest album on Capitol, it’s obvious that Mr. Peabo Bryson has lofty ideas! Fortunately, everyone seems certain that he’s going to make it to the top…
One of the most impressive chart entries thus far this year comes from a young man who has managed to build up a healthy following and a strong reputation in a relatively short period of time. The gentleman with the distinctive name — there can’t be too many Peabos running around! — has a particular potent and distinctive vocal style and it comes as no surprise that as soon as Mr. Bryson’s contract with Bang Records (for whom he’d recorded one album which gave birth to three r&b-charted singles) was up, the astute Mr. Larkin Arnold, vice-president at Capitol Records, picked up the phone and tracked him down and before long, had Mr. Bryson in the studio recording his Capitol debut, “Reaching For The Sky” which has done very well for the gentleman.
But, since Peabo is probably a new name to many, let’s start at the beginning. “I’m originally from Greenville, South Carolina,” the cheery Mr. Bryson reports from Atlanta, Georgia which is now his home town. “And, as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been into music. It’s all I ever wanted to really deal with and of course, like everyone else, I had to make that decision — I guess when I was around 14 — as to what I was going to get into, career-wise. Well, I’d thought about being a doctor or something like that, but I really felt that music was my thing.”
Peabo recalls that his mother was somewhat concerned about that “because she figured I’d turn into a drug addict or something like that!” but, fortunately for all concerned, Peabo convinced all and sundry that music was truly his forte. “Whilst I was in high school, I started singing — I was with a local group called Al Freeman and The Upsetters — and believe me, we were terrible! Yes, you could say we upset a whole lot of people — we were that bad!” Having made the decision to make music his career, Mr. Bryson hooked up with a fellow townsman, none other than Mr. Moses Dillard, who staunch r&b fans will remember for his classic “My Elusive Dreams”, recorded with brother Joshua for Bell Records around 1966: “I joined Moses just after he’d had the hit with that record and initially, I started out just singing, although I progressed into percussion, guitar and much later, playing piano — that was basically when I started getting into songwriting.” Peabo actually joined Moses’ outfit — known as the Tex-Town Display — around 1968 and stayed with them until the end of 1973, beginning of 1974.
He recalls: “We really did pretty well, with gigs in the Caribbean, we went to Vietnam, played at the Felt Forum in New York. In fact, all in all, we didn’t do at all badly and there were several points at which Moses seemed like he was really going to break through in a high way.” In fact, the unit had one record out on Curtom Records in 1970 “which did nothing at all!” and around 1972-73, Moses met up with the principals at Bang Records in Atlanta — Ilene Berns (widow of producer the late Bert Berns) and Eddie Briscoe: “At the time, Moses was really trying to get the company interested in three projects — himself, the featured girl with the band, Martha Starr, and the band itself, which included me. The result was that I got the opportunity to do a couple of things in the studio, though really you could say I was auditioning more than anything else and it was non-original, contemporary material anyway.”
After Bang had released a record on Moses and Martha and nothing too much happened, the company showed some interest in Mr. Bryson. “Initially, my loyalty was with the whole unit and Moses because I just felt that there was safety in numbers and if you really don’t know the business, you can really make a lot of mistakes. I needed the protection of being part of a unit until I felt really secure about everything.”
With the failure of the Moses & Martha record, Peabo felt that the company was “really using a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy” and encouraged by the company, he worked on some songs with musicians from the Tex-Town Display. “The first couple of things we cut no one was really satisfied with and then a friend of mine, Jesse Boyce, gave me some material, Jesse wrote “Firefly” which appeared on the Temps’ album, “A Song For You” and the material he gave me was fine but again, nothing happened with it.”
In fact, it turned out that Peabo’s very first record release on Bang was on a song “which I really didn’t like! It was a dinky kinda thing given to me by a real Nashville cowboy, with boots and all! It was called “Disco Queen” and it went at about 90 m.p.h.! To be truthful, I was ashamed of it even though it did fairly well regionally for me.”
That was in 1974 and Peabo’s next venture brought him into contact with Michael Zager (of Love Child’s Orchestra and Cissy Houston fame) who was producing Street Corner Symphony at the time for Bang Records. “It was really like a kind of family situation with the label and one day, we were all just jamming around — me, Michael and Paul Davis and some musicians and the result was “Do It With Feeling” which came out on Bang under the name “Michael Zager and the Moon Band”. You can hear me doing some scatting on the record,” Peabo notes.
By this time, the gentleman had begun working on his first album project and he was steadily getting material ready for the event. “We all felt that Gamble & Huff might be the right producers for the album but, to be honest, they weren’t able to assist and in a very polite way, they turned down the project. So I just decided to do it myself and Bang just freaked out! I figured I couldn’t wait for Gamble & Huff because it was just time for me to get working on the album and at the same time, I was pumping myself up because I really didn’t know for sure that I could do it all myself— you know, produce and all!”
The company made one more attempt to get outside help by approaching Quincy Jones but at the time, he was recovering from his brain operation of a few years back. “Ilene Burns suggested we go down to Muscle Shoals just to see what we could come up with and in fact, I finished a couple of things down there. We did a few things in Atlanta and I even went out to Los Angeles and worked on some things with Gene Page. I guess the whole project took around six to eight months with all the travelling around trying to get it finished and it was finally ready around the end of 1976.”
Peabo’s initial album, entitled “Peabo” was released on Bang’s subsidiary label, Bullet Records in the beginning of 1977 and yielded three US R&B charted singles, “Underground Music”, “Another Day” and “I Can Make It Better” and he says that “I felt very good about the album but, of course, I see now that there are quite a few things I could have done differently.” Considering that he wrote all the material (co-writing one song with Paul Davis) as well as producing the album, Peabo had every reason to feel proud, noting “that I got the confidence and learned a lot from just doing it. We played it to Gamble & Huff afterwards and although it wasn’t up to the standards by which they work — they really got it down to a science — they were impressed.”
(DN 2022 note: the original “Peabo” LP included the likes of Cissy Houston, Luther Vandross, Diane Sumler and Robin Clark on background vocals; some tracks from the album were made available on a Capitol Records’ 2-CD anthology I compiled in 2001)
Although that first album didn’t make Peabo a millionaire and he wasn’t able to get the kind of tour support needed to promote and expose it, it did get sufficient exposure so that when it was time for Peabo to leave Bang, Capitol Records had already approached him with an offer: “At the time, I was lacking in management and that didn’t help. When the time came, I felt that I was being stifled at Bang and I’d really gone into the shadows of a big act — Brick. But the one real good thing that the company did for me was turn me on to David Franklin, who handles the affairs of people like Richard Pryor, Roberta Flack, Brick and Donny Hathaway.”
When Larkin Arnold called Peabo (“He actually called down to the Bang offices!”), Mr. Bryson had actually decided to see if he could work things out and stay with Bang “but we just couldn’t seem to get it together — there were personality problems and so on” and upon the advice of Mr. Franklin, Peabo found himself with a recording contract with Capitol. “It was mutually agreed that Richard Evans should work with me on the first album,” Peabo states, “and I had been familiar with his work for the things he did with people like Natalie Cole, for whom he did quite a few arrangements on the first couple of Capitol albums.”
The result was “Reaching For The Sky”, which Peabo recorded in Chicago and he feels that “I got more of personal touch, there was more feeling put into the whole thing by the people there. Everyone — Paul Serrano (who owns P.S. Studios, where the album was cut), Richard, the musicians — seemed to be really involved. I’m pleased with the album but I feel like the next one will be even better. “You know, sometimes you can just lose certain things in the transition from the rough idea on a song to its completion and that’s something that I’m going to be particularly aware of the next time we record.”
Already, Peabo’s second album is in the planning stages “although we haven’t actually finalized who will produce it — we have one or two people in mind” and he’s making plans to go out on the road “possibly with a Heatwave/Maze package. “I’ll be carrying nine musicians and some of them will probably double doing the background vocals. I’m really looking forward to it because it’s going to be my first real national tour.”
At this point in time, Peabo says he feels “very happy about everything. I don’t feel that I’m really in competition with anyone but myself because I want my music to be distinctive to the point where people consider it the best around! I really dig the appreciation that I’ve been getting from my music and I feel that I have been Heaven blessed with the chance to express my feelings and thoughts to people through music. You know, I’m really not into material things per se and I’m concerned about my music from an artistic point of view. More than anything, I want my music to reflect reality, the truth, not sugar and spice.”
Peabo hopes to be in a position at some point in his career where he can produce other acts and “maybe do a soundtrack for a movie, even put my mug in there too!” His debut album on Capitol may well have a prophetic title in “Reaching For The Sky” and no doubt, Mr. Bryson is well on the way to achieving such lofty heights. There seems little doubt that whatever he turns his hand to (be it soundtracks, outside productions or just his own albums), Mr. Bryson is going to be eminently successful and we strongly recommend that you keep a careful eye out for this amiable young man.
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