When F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated that “there are no second acts in American lives,” he had clearly never met anyone quite like Don Bryant, the soul music legend who has staged one of the most remarkable late-career comebacks in recent memory. On Friday night, Mr. Bryant will be showcasing his “living legend” bona fides in a live performance at the Crosstown Theater, where he will be joined by the retro soul outfit The Bo-Keys and members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
Prior to his unexpected return to the limelight in 2017 with his album “Don’t Give Up on Love,” Don Bryant was already an iconic figure within the pantheon of Memphis soul music, even if few people knew his name. While still in high school, Bryant was discovered by bandleader Willie Mitchell, who took the young artist under his wing and incorporated his vocal group the Four Kings into his live performances during the late 1950s. Over the years, Bryant began to separate himself from the pack, eventually becoming Willie Mitchell’s leading vocalist. By the time Mitchell eventually took over the reins of Royal Studio, Bryant was well-positioned to be a breakout star and began releasing singles as a solo artist. Unfortunately, despite his undeniable talent as a vocalist, Bryant never scored the hit single that always seemed to be right at his fingertips.
Undeterred, Bryant would soon discover his true value within the Hi Record family as a songwriter for fellow artists. “At the time, there were so many great artists coming along — Ann [Peebles], Al [Green] — that had something unique in their voices. I wanted to be a part of it. If it wasn’t gonna be the singing, I was content with trying to do the writing,” he told Rolling Stone.
During the 1970s, Bryant would go on to write timeless tracks for artists such as Etta James, Albert King, and O.V. Wright, although his most notable collaborator would be Ann Peebles, whose classic single “I Can’t Stand the Rain” was co-written by Bryant. In fact, the two made such a dynamic team that they decided to tie the knot, making them one of Memphis music’s most talented power couples.
In the ensuing decades, Bryant continued to perform alongside his wife and would often return to the gospel music on which he was raised, but was largely outside of the public eye. That all changed when Bryant was approached by drummer Howard Grimes, who he had worked with regularly during their 1970s heyday. Grimes asked Bryant to join the Bo-Keys as their featured vocalist, and the rest, as they say, is history. Since joining the group, Bryant has released two critically acclaimed albums, embarked on nation-wide tours, and became a member of the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, all of which would have seemed a near-impossibility just a few years prior.
As for the Bo-Keys, the group has made major waves of their own in recent years, contributing to the soundtracks of films such as “Hustle and Flow,” “Soul Men,” and “Dolemite is My Name,” among others. In addition to backing Don Bryant on Friday, the group will also be performing songs from “Dolemite is My Name” alongside the Chamber Orchestra.
For fans of Memphis soul music, especially those who may have been too young to experience the “golden era” of the 1960s and ‘70s, then Friday night provides a unique opportunity to experience both the past and present of one of the city’s greatest and most enduring cultural exports.
Tickets for Don Bryant are available here.