Ann Peebles’ philosophy is simple: Nothing monumental can be accomplished alone. This basic principle applies to her performances as a classic Memphis soul singer in the ’70s and to her laudable work as a social crusader in the ’80s. In both cases, Peebles followed her heart and her passion to create something memorable and lastingand in both cases, she’s quick to credit others for helping her realize her dreams.
Ask her about creating such classic soul songs as the great “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down,” and she’ll say she was fortunate to hook up with Memphis producer Willie Mitchell and with the stable of songwriters, musicians, and arrangers at Hi Records. “It’s like baking a cake,” she says of making music. “You have to have all the right ingredients, or it’s not going to come out right. I was fortunate because I came to Memphis at a time when all the ingredients were there to make good music. I now know that that is something that doesn’t happen too often.”
After witnessing the increasing violence and hopelessness in the inner city, the singer participated in the creation of Harmony Vision, a Memphis agency and shelter that counsels abused children and recruits potential foster parents. Her goal was to give young people a stronger sense of self-worth. But ask her about her role as a counselor who works with these children, and she’ll credit those within Memphis’ religious and civic communities for helping her make a difference.
“We have to think about our young people and set an example for them that is positive,” she says. “So many people want to do something to help; they just need a place that will show them how. What Harmony Vision does is help children, because that’s where my heart is. We try and meet the child’s needs. When a child is abused, there is no more trust there. We try to help them learn to trust again by showing them that somebody loves them. We help them build their self-esteem, which is so important in this world.”
Peebles never planned to retire from music, she says. But in 1981, after 11 years with Hi Records, the musical ingredients were no longer in place. Her longtime producer, Willie Mitchell, had left the company. So had most of the musicians who helped her create the tense, dramatic R&B that set her apart from labelmate Al Green and other ’70s soul singers.
Peebles’ best songs had a tightly wound intensity to them; hits like “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” “Part Time Lover,” and “Come to Mama” had a hard-blues edge that added a taut punch to the smooth horns and raw rhythms that were Mitchell’s trademark. Just as important was Peebles’ distinctive voice; her focused theatricality transformed each song into an emotion-drenched mini-drama. But Peebles didn’t have the window-shaking strength of Aretha Franklin or Etta James; to compensate, she sang with a gritty dignity, and she frequently sang about women demanding respect in difficult situations. Her balance of anger and anguish created a weighty tension that put a darker spin on Mitchell’s wondrous arrangements.
It was after leaving Hi Records that Peebles decided to concentrate on social causes in Memphis. She never toured as prolifically as most ’70s singers, preferring instead to preserve her home life with husband Don Bryant, a songwriter, singer, and producer in his own right. Even so, with what little touring she did, she was ready for a break by the early ’80s. “We felt it was a good time to lay off for a while,” Peebles says. “My son was growing up, and we had these other things we wanted to do. We stayed busy, let me tell you. But my line of thought was always to rest for a minute and come back. I never saw myself as totally quitting. Music has always been one of my life’s joys. But I guess we stayed away a little longer than we expected.”
Peebles returned in 1992 with Full Time Love, an album on Bullseye Blues Records that proved her voice still carried its steely, restrained effectiveness. Her latest, Fill This World With Love, isn’t as consistent as its predecessor, but its highlights soar with remarkable soul power. Rather than trying to recreate the Hi magic of the ’70s, Peebles’ recent album dips deeper into gospel-style vocal testifying while kicking the music into tougher blues-rock grooves. The high point is the title song, a Peebles original that the singer originally recorded in 1976. The new version takes the tune to church, with Mavis Staples joining in for a rousing, glorious duet.
The song’s core message is a familiar oneit’s the same declaration found in “All You Need Is Love” or “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” The difference is that Peebles’ song is more insistent: It acknowledges the desperation in the world while suggesting that our capacity to love is the only saving grace we have. As with everything Peebles does, her conviction is fired by the rough heat of classic R&B: She’s positive enough to see rainbows where storms rage, but she’s realistic enough to know that the world’s light only gets dimmer as time passes. To do her part, she packs Fill This World With Love with optimistic calls for unity and understanding. She’s determined to do what she can to clear the clouds of hate and despair that now blow violently over America. “Looking at the times we’re living in, we need positive songs,” she says. “I think that’s important.”
Other than an occasional performance in a church or gospel gathering, Peebles rarely tours or performs outside of Memphis. She has embarked on concert tours abroad in recent years, but her performance at the Summer Lights Festival this Saturday is part of her first U.S. tour in more than 15 years. She’s performing in nine cities in May and June, with Nashville among the fortunate few.
“The first time I walked out onstage, I was afraid because I wondered if people were going to remember me,” she says. “But once I walked out there, it was like I never left. The faithful fans are there. It’s really exciting for us to be getting a chance to do this. We can’t wait to get out there and give it everything we got.”
Ann Peebles performs with Don Bryant, 8 p.m. May 31 at the Summer Lights Cabaret Stage.
Best of luck Chris. I'm rooting for you.
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