Peabo Bryson has established a career as one of the premiere soul crooners of the last four decades. Possessing a beautifully rich, almost operatic voice, he has survived and prospered despite the passage of time, changes in popular musical trends, and occasional periods of mediocre material.
Peabo was born in South Carolina and began performing at a young age. While in his early 20s he worked with producer Michael Zager's band ("Let's All Chant") and recorded as a solo artist while writing with other artists at Bang/Bullet Records such as Paul Davis. His Bullet Records debut, Peabo, was a moderate success and contained one notable song, "Just Another Day" (a dead ringer for the Spinners' "How Could I Let You Get Away").
It was his next album, Reaching for the Sky (and its oft-covered hit, "Feel The Fire"), that took Peabo to the top of the male R&B vocalist class. His follow up, 1978's Crosswinds, solidified that position and gave him his biggest hit to date, "I'm So Into You." In both albums he demonstrated himself as a smooth soul balladeer and a solid writer, with his rich baritone wrapping itself around mostly "quiet storm" material. 1979 brought a very good duet album with Natalie Cole, the first of several duet partners with whom he would work, and a moderate crossover hit, "Gimme Some Time." After the less successful Paradise album in 1980, Peabo made a surprising move, issuing an album of previously unreleased material from his Bang days, Turn the Hands of Time. While it included a few good songs, it became his second disappointing solo sales effort in a row.
With Peabo's slipping R&B sales and virtually no visibility on the pop charts, Capitol Records made a successful effort to obtain large crossover success for his next release. I Am Love, while still solidly set in the soul music world, contained "Let the Feeling Flow," Peabo's first crossover hit. And his 1983 duet album with Roberta Flack, the pure adult contemporary Tonight I Celebrate My Love, blew the roof off, yielding four hits and moving him to a leading role in the AC market. However, this crossover success came at a price, as the increasingly adult pop sound of his records (especially the singles) threatened his longtime soul music base. This continued with his next album, Straight From the Heart (his first on Elektra Records), a crossover smash that included the number one pop song of the year, Michael Masser's "If Ever You're In My Arms Again."
Bryson continued to release albums prolifically for a few more years, but found limited success on both the R&B and pop charts, as his material became less distinctive and compelling. Then his career found an unexpected boost: In 1991 he released the single "Can You Stop the Rain," arguably the best song of his career and his first #1 R&B hit in several years. It anchored a solid album of the same name. He then hit the top of the pop charts twice on themes from two consecutive Disney animated smashes, "Beauty and the Beast" (with Celine Dion) and "A Whole New World" (from Aladdin), with Regina Belle. Several guest vocalist appearances on pop and smooth jazz albums followed, as did work in theater, and Peabo approach age 50 with a solid reputation in the popular, smooth jazz and urban adult contemporary worlds. His Disney songs and a smattering of other smooth grooves were included in his 1999 album Unconditional Love, a pleasant urban AC effort with Jim Brickman, Roberta Flack and others.
In late 2005, Peabo released Live In Concert: Ladies Request, in association with Time-Life (Peabo has been the spokesman for some of TL's soul retrospective collections over the past few years). It was an excellent concert collection that covered many of Peabo's biggest hits. He followed it in early 2006 with The Very Best of Peabo Bryson, a great one-disc compilation of his biggest hits recorded on multiple record labels.
In late 2007, Bryson released his 20th album, Missing You, on Peak Records. His first entirely new studio album of the decade, Missing You featured work with producers Barry Eastmond and Norman Connors as well as a fantastic title cut co-written by Ledisi. It was a welcome return that, despite some uneven spots musically, found Bryson in good voice. He has remained active since Missing You, performing internationally. He is also heard regularly on urban adult contemporary stations and is frequently seen on infomercials for Time-Life. And in 2011, SoulMusic.com Records reissued Bryson's two breakout albums, Reaching for the Sky and Crosswinds, on a 2-for-1 disc. Bryson's extensive catalog will likely continue to be a gold mine for classic soul music lovers.
It would be tough to find a male artist who has straddled as many fences throughout his career as Peabo Bryson -- from R&B to pop to smooth jazz to theater -- while always maintaining a consistent identity as a gentle, romantic balladeer. He undoubtedly possesses one of the greatest voices of his generation and has continuously made even mediocre material rise to a higher level. And in the process he has deservedly accumulated million of fans who look forward to his releases more than three decades after he began.
by Chris Rizik