Black Music Month Exclusive: Up Close and Personal with R&B Legend Peabo Bryson
By Shelah Moody
Peabo Bryson performs at Yoshi’s San Francisco, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Friday, June 7 and Saturday, June 8, 1330 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, (415) 655-5600, www.yoshis.com/sanfrancisco.
"I'm So Into You." "Feel the Fire" "Let the Feeling Flow." “Tonight I Celebrate My Love.” If you were born in the eighties, chances are, you are here because of one of these fireside love songs recorded by Grammy winning singer/songwriter Peabo Bryson. With more than 30 albums to his credit and acclaimed duets with Roberta Flack, Regina Belle, Natalie Cole and others, Bryson is still going strong.
I first discovered the genius of Peabo Bryson when I bought his “I am Love” album (1981) at age 15. As I played each of the tracks over and over, I often wondered what the man behind the ebullient, operatic tenor, who freely dispensed words of wisdom on life and love, was like as a person. When I thought no one was listening, I would sing along at the top of my lungs, “Let the feeling flow/it’s a shining star that’s here to guide you/every lover knows/ you’ve got to hold on to the good inside you,” not really understanding what the words meant.
I have seen Bryson in concert several times and attend his annual Colors of Christmas concert every year with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. I have even seen Bryson in in a starring role in a very off Broadway production of “The Wiz,” with Grace Jones, in Oakland, CA.
Although I have spoken with him several times in passing and expressed to him how much I loved his music, it took me 30 years to land my first formal interview with Bryson, and I must say it was well worth the wait.
Real talk: I was a bit nervous knowing that I was going to interview someone who I had put on a pedestal for so many years. Once our phone conversation began, all of my fears were laid to rest. I found the balladeer to be honest, sincere, philosophical possessing a refreshing sense of humor, a man who loves his wife, his family and loves real music.
Bryson also has his share of admirers in the Bay Area. One of them is his niece, Deja Bryson, an aspiring singer/songwriter who just released her first singles, “Just a Woman” and “Love Sounds.” www.iloveyoudeja.com. Another Bryson admirer is Marlon Washington, Jr., a singer/drummer at Matthew Zion Baptist church in San Francisco. In this clip, Washington pays tribute to the King of Soul with an A Cappella tribute to Bryson with a snippet of “Can You Stop the Rain.” http://youtu.be/NdJ_UCCgLZ0
Shelah Moody: First of all, thank you for so many years of inspiring, soulful and beautiful music. I’d like to ask you about the inspiration behind some of your greatest hits, starting with “Feel the Fire.”
Peabo Bryson: (Laughs). Actually, I was in my apartment and I was looking out of the window at the view as a thunderstorm was brewing very heavily. Across the courtyard from me, lightning just took the biggest tree I’d ever seen and split it in half. I could feel the heat from the lightning strike. That’s what inspired “Feel the Fire.” It was more spiritual and divine than anything. It was inspired by an act of God.
SM: So, you literally felt the fire…
PB: No doubt!
SM: Where did the universal refrain in the song “Don’t try to play with my emotions” come from?
PB: The first thing about “Feel the Fire” is that it’s a metaphor for an act of God. The repose reminds us not to take anybody’s feelings for granted.
SM: Let’s talk about one of your niece’s favorite Peabo Bryson songs, “I’m So Into You.”
PB: It’s about an experience where you are so into someone, that whatever they did didn’t matter; whether it was good, bad, indifferent, right or wrong. You believe they can do anything short of walk on water. It’s about the highest level of admiration and respect that you can give someone, not that it’s always reciprocated or healthy. It does happen to people; and it happens for a reason, not all of the reasons good, not all of them valid. A lot of times, we superimpose characteristics onto people that we are enamored with, that they don’t truly possess. “I’m So Into You” kind of transcends all of those basic rules, especially the negative ones. It’s what every lover hopes to find at some point, every person hopes to find that person at some point; you may find them early, you may miss it, you may do a lot of things; you may never find it; you may never be receptive enough to find it, even though you want it or you desire it. It’s what we all want; it’s inherent in our DNA. “I’m So Into You” is that moment where nothing can keep you from that person. At first, nobody liked the song except my sister, my manager and me. A lot of people didn’t get it.
SM: And it became one of your biggest hits.
PB: Tell me about it. That was a lesson about what and what not to listen to in terms of people’s opinions about what you do. I’ll bet Pablo Picasso never even asked anybody about what they thought. If you don’t like oblong pairs of hands and oblong faces, then don’t buy Picasso. If you are ok with that expression and you are receptive enough to buy into what its meaning is and what’s behind it, then Picasso is your guy.
SM: And now, the song that I still sing in the shower to this day, “Let the Feeling Flow.”
P.B. I love that song. It’s about a realization and acknowledgement of self and others. If you are not calm, you’re going to miss something. “Let the Feeling Flow” is both a reminder and a warning. If you’re not at the right place, you are not going to be receptive to information; and it could be information that changes your life. If you miss it, then you become someone different; and your life ends up differently. “Let the Feeling Flow” tells you not to try to measure out emotions, especially love, like it’s a tube of toothpaste. Love is not a tube of toothpaste, and you can’t dole it out, you can’t squeeze it out like it’s a tube, let it go. Whatever it is; it’s going to be anyway, and whatever you deny yourself today is lying asleep at the foot of your bed, while you sleep.
SM: Is that what you mean by the lyric in the song that says “It was too late when I realized, that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees?”
PB: It’s always too late. The old story in relationships of any kind is that it is not appreciated until you’ve lost it or you’ve missed it, you’ve missed its value. It exists in every relationship; I mean somebody’s taking somebody for granted as we speak. It’s not like it’s an odd thing that takes place.
SM.: Let’s talk about another Peabo Bryson fan favorite, “Can You Stop the Rain.”
P:B: That song wasn’t meant for me; it’s a song I didn’t write but wish I had. I was listening with my A&R guy at Columbia Records. I still believe this: if someone is thoughtful enough to go through a few hundred songs to find 20 for you that you might like, you might want to sit there and go through the songs with them if you have the opportunity to do so. While (the A&R rep) was listening for songs he thought that I might like, he played me something that was meant for a female vocalist and asked my opinion. I said that I thought it would be a good song for her; but it would be a great song for me. That’s how that song came into being. It was a blessing to be in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing.
SM: Because of songs such as “Tonight I Celebrate My Love” (with Roberta Flack), “A Whole New World” (with Regina Belle) and other songs, you are also known as the king of the romantic duet. Is there any singer in particular that you would like to record with now?
PB: That’s a good question; there are only a few artists that I haven’t worked with. I almost had a chance to work with Barbara Streisand; and I would have liked to have done that. The events surrounding September 11, 2001, stopped it the last time. That’s something that’s still on my bucket list. I’d like to do something with Annie Lennox. She’s in a category all by herself. Oddly enough, I’d like to work with Mariah Carey, but only if Walter Afanasieff produces it. Actually, I like Adele. I like her honesty. Roberta Flack is probably responsible for all those duets. She had the choice of anybody she wanted to sing with and she chose me. I am eternally grateful for that. She’s my all-time favorite duet partner. I never miss an opportunity to be in her presence; she makes me…better.
SM: That’s another album that I played over and over when I was a teenager, “Born to Love,” with you and Roberta Flack.
PB: We’re threatening to do another album. I’m going to start sending her some songs. Once she’s into something, she will get really excited.
SM: Speaking of songwriting, what inspires you to write nowadays?
PB: Life—how it feels, understanding it, when I internalize it intellectually and spiritually. You can understand something in the literal sense and in a philosophical sense, but not be able to put it into a practical application in life.
SM: When do you find time to write—on tour, during your quiet time…?
PB: There’s always time to write. I can be inspired by this conversation.
SM: As a young woman, I loved buying your albums on vinyl, because in your liner notes, you always dispensed words of wisdom on life and love that no one else taught.
PB: If you follow me on Twitter—that’s all I do! You know what I like? Twitter is a language in itself, a means of communicating within itself. The language is learning how to communicate whatever it is that you have to say, however significant, observant or poignant, in 140 characters. Twitter cuts through all of the BS; and there is no extra rhetoric, because you only have 140 characters to get to the point quickly. I’ve actually gotten really good at it. I’ve only started on Twitter last year. It’s something I do almost every day.
SM: Do you find that people are connecting with you on Twitter and other social media outlets?
PB: Oh yeah! I am close to the 4,500 mark on Twitter, and I’m not buying any of my followers, I earned them. It helps if you have something to say. I’m getting followers who have powerful contingencies on Twitter, and that’s always good.
SM: Any new projects in the works?
PB: I’m working on new music at this point; I don’t know where that is going to take me; it will probably dictate itself. It will probably be in front of the camera somewhere judging vocal talent and having vocal talent legitimately judged. I remember something that my daughter said to me when she was 16 or so, she wanted a pair of sling backs because all of the kids were wearing them at school. I went to Neiman Marcus and I bought her several pairs of shoes in various pastel colors. I brought them home and she was really excited. She pulled the shoes out of the box, and her face dropped, and her smile turned into a frown. I asked her what was wrong, and she said “these are the real ones; I wanted the fake ones.” That’s what they want; they don’t want the real thing.
SM: Hmm…Fake versus the real thing. mmmhThat is a deep commentary on popular music and culture.
PB: And then some.
Recent Tweets from Peabo Bryson:
“I read a passage when I was a boy that left an impression, the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
“Note, pain makes life surprisingly lucid, perspectives fall into a natural order, the mind and body seek healing and the soul seeks God.”
Follow Peabo Bryson at: www.peabobryson.net
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/peabo.bryson.900?fref=ts
On Twitter @PeaboBryson2