At 78, Don Bryant Makes It Sound Easy

Rhythm-and-Bluesman Don Bryant’s new album You Make Me Feel, released in June, is just what the doctor ordered.

By Ethan Williford

In 2017, Memphis rhythm-and-bluesman Don Bryant emerged from a nearly fifty-year secular recording hiatus. His album Don’t Give Up On Love was met with deserved praise and acclaim. Now in 2020, amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic and fomenting social turmoil, Bryant has graced old and new fans with a worthy follow-up. And it could not have come at a better time. Suffering from COVID-19 blues? You Make Me Feel is just what the doctor ordered.

Though this is only Don Bryant’s third secular studio album, he is no neophyte to the music industry. Bryant honed his skills as a singer and songwriter while working as one of Hi Records’ leading staff composers. The 78-year-old has written gospel and soul hits for stars such as Otis Clay, Solomon Burke, and Albert King.

In fact, a few local stars join Don Bryant as the backing band behind You Make Me Feel. The R&B statesman is accompanied by Howard Grimes, Archie “Hubbie” Turner, and Charles Hodges—all members of the exalted Hi Rhythm Section. Virtuoso guitarist Joe Restivo of The Bo-Keys and established keyboardist Al Gamble of St. Paul and the Broken Bones round out Bryant’s supporting cast.

After a successful partnership on Don Bryant’s preceding record, Scott Bomar returns to produce You Make Me Feel. Bomar’s imprint can be found on some of Memphis’ greatest releases—a career spanning many genres. Albums from Calvin Newborn, Al Green, John Németh, and Jay Reatard have all been touched by Bomar. His talents have also translated onto the big screen. Bomar is responsible for music from Hustle & Flow, Soul MenBlack Snake Moan, and Dolemite is My Name. Don Bryant’s endless talent is unleashed by Bomar’s creative support. 

At the emotional center of You Make Me Feel, we find Bryant’s relationship with Ann Peebles, his wife of 46 years. The two co-wrote Peebles’ 1973 hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” In 2012, a stroke forced Peebles to give up performing. Don Bryant now carries the mantle for both singers. However, Peebles forever remains Bryant’s muse.

The album opens with “Your Love Is To Blame,” a bopping call-and-response between Bryant, his backup singers, and a spirited horn section. Bryant embraces his background in spiritual music, preaching a gospel of love that is not simply a singular facet of life but an omnipresent, world-changing experience.

“Your Love Is To Blame”

Where “Your Love Is To Blame” provides a picture of the overwhelming joy provided by love, “Is It Over” demonstrates the toil and confusion of losing out on it. The song is a plea for clarity, somewhat somber and resigned. Flanked by syncopated guitar and keyboard, Bryant’s vocals truly shine—his long recording hiatus seemingly preserved his voice in perfect stasis. He hits notes that many singers half his age wouldn’t dare try. Don Bryant makes it sound easy.

“Is It Over”

The first half of the album is sprinkled with some of Bryant’s older hits like the mournful “I Die A Little Each Day” and “Don’t Turn Your Back On Me.” Ann Peebles originally recorded “99 Lbs” in 1972 as a proud declaration of self-love. Don Bryant’s contemporary “99 Pounds” is laced with desire, passion, and evocative guitar work. “And she’s mine, all mine!” Bryant shouts at the song’s conclusion. 

Don Bryant album cover

Don Bryant

You Make Me Feel

2020 Fat Possum Records

Flipping to the album’s B-side, the listener is met with “Your Love Is Too Late.” A thematic mirror image of the album’s opener, the track begins with a surfy and mysterious guitar riff with Scott Bomar’s fingerprints all over it. The lyrics relay the album’s first sensations of anger and begrudging rejection. 

“Your Love Is Too Late”

“I’ll Go Crazy” is a reprisal of a 1968 single Bryant released on Hi Records. Bryant chooses to slow down his new version, effectively transforming it into a soulful power ballad. Again, Bryant puts his vocal prowess on full display, projecting from the recording booth into the cosmos.

Bryant and Bomar liven the pace with “Cracked Up Over You,” an oft-recorded staple of R&B setlists. A fun return to the up-tempo of the album’s A-side, “Cracked Up Over You” triggers some instinctive toe tapping—surely the work of the exalted Hi Rhythm Section. Echoing “Is It Over,” Bryant again expresses the overwhelming nature of love and the dangers of love unreciprocated.

You Make Me Feel concludes with the triumphant “Walk All Over God’s Heaven,” a favorite among gospel musicians over the past half century. Bryant and Bomar rearranged the tune, giving it a rhythmic joyfulness mildly reminiscent of The Blind Boys of Alabama. 

Combining a nuanced and deliberate mix of both old hits and new material, Don Bryant has delivered an instant soul classic with You Make Me Feel. But it all goes back to love—Bryant’s love for his wife, his love for his faith, and the universal love of humanity. Love drives the story. It is a message we all need to hear, now more than ever.

Ethan Williford was born and raised here in Memphis. He graduated from Rhodes College in 2017 as a history major focused on regional history. He’s been working as Robert Gordon‘s personal/ research assistant for three years now and is the “community columnist” for Memphis Current

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