It was January 1984 and I found myself downtown with some time to kill. I decided to go into the now long gone Vinyl Museum on Yonge Street. (As you might surmise by the store name, they sold primarily used albums).
Looking through the racks I came upon new sealed copies of Night People by Lee Dorsey, Up On Love by Jerry Butler, and the treasured discovery: I Can’t Stand The Rain by Ann Peebles. Without hesitation, I bought all three.
Working the counter was soon-to-be celebrated Soul historian Rob Bowman. As he was ringing up my purchases he remarked “interesting choices” and paused at I Can’t Stand The Rain: “Do you know what you have here? This is one of the greatest Soul albums of all time”. My response was “Yes I know; I’ve been looking for that album for a long while”.
That marked the start of my love affair with Ann Peebles.
The dictionary defines “a eureka moment” as a moment of sudden, triumphant discovery, inspiration, or insight. It’s been known to occur, but rarely happens like it did one night at Ann Peebles’ and husband and songwriter Don Bryant’s apartment when local Memphis DJ and friend Bernard Miller came by with plans to attend a Bobby Bland concert. It was raining hard and while they were waiting for the rain to subside Peebles remarked “I can’t stand the rain”. Bryant’s response was “that’s a great title”. Inspired, the trio proceeded to write Ann Peebles’ signature tune, “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, in 15 minutes and recorded it the next day. Eureka!
Ann Peebles already had 8 R&B hits and 3 outstanding albums leading up to that fateful night in 1973. Peebles had been singing professionally since the mid 60’s. And going further back, she was a young teenager singing in her father’s church, and The Peebles Family Choir with her 10 siblings. Further back still, Peebles remembers singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” for her parents at the age of 5. Accordingly, it could truly be said that Ann Peebles had been singing virtually her whole life.
The 74 year old Ann Peebles’ career lasted more than 40 years and ended after suffering a stroke that damaged her vocal chords. (But, thankfully, as her husband of 47 years, Don Bryant said in an NPR interview, “She’s doing OK”). For all of her success over the course of 10 albums and a dozen R&B charting songs, she was still underrated and unappreciated by the record buying public. Some of it could be due to being overshadowed by Hi Records label mate and mega star Al Green who’s numerous hits crossed over to the Pop market. Another factor is possibly Peebles herself, who it’s been said had the talent to be a big star but not the enormous personality that went with it. Peebles simply accepted her success with a mixture of humility and reserve. Further on that point, long-time producer, Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell said of Peebles: “She was the girl with the big voice who could have really gone further…But I don’t think Ann spent enough time thinking about what she needed to do. I don’t think she put as much energy into her career as a singer as some of the rest of these people”
And Ann’s comments down the road, after the demise of the Hi Records label, and having no real desire to push things, seem to echo what Mitchell said: “At that point I was married, I had a child and I was happy…Knowing stardom would take me away from what I was really like; it didn’t bother me that much”
But things started out quite differently, when there seemed to be nothing but endless possibilities, for the young woman who found true joy in singing. For Peebles, the 7th of 11 children, born and raised in East St. Louis Missouri, it started at home with Gospel music all around her. Her mother was a Gospel singer and her father was a minister of The First Baptist Church and the director of The Peebles Choir that Ann first joined when she before she was 10 years old.
The Peebles Choir would travel the Gospel circuit, and with East St. Louis being located some 300 miles south west of Chicago, they would intersect regularly with 2 huge influences and idols from the windy city – Mahalia Jackson and The Soul Stirrers (featuring Sam Cooke). Jackson would prove to be a lasting inspiration for Peebles; and Sam’s success in secular music – along with Aretha Franklin’s – would motivate Ann to try her hand in the field as well (with her father’s blessing).
Peebles first significant venture in the secular music world occurred when she met band leader Oliver Sain. (Sain was an important figure in the development of R&B in St. Louis. In addition to leading The Oliver Sain Revue, Sain was a songwriter and record producer of note. Among other accomplishments, Sain was responsible for writing and producing the top 5 R&B hit “Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing” that was recorded by two members of his Revue: Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure). Peebles was still a teenager when she decided to join Sain’s Revue. And, years later, a Sain composition “Walk Away” that just missed the R&B Top 20, would be Peebles” first single release on Hi Records.
That release would be preceded by events in 1968. Specifically, Peebles happened to take a trip to Memphis and catch and sit in with Eugene “Bowlegs” Miller’s band at The Rosewood Club. She impressed all concerned with her rendition of Jimmy Hughes’ hit “Steal Away”. Miller, a trumpeter, and a Stax sideman, was also good friends with Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell. Miller recommended Peebles to Mitchell.
Following a successful audition, Peebles was signed to Hi Records, (with her father signing the contract on Ann’s behalf because she was only 20 years old). This was at a time when Hi was still in the transition of moving from more of a Country label to R&B, and a full year before Al Green was signed to the label. And, in 1969, by way of the release of her first album, This Is Ann Peebles, the world would be introduced to the commanding, poised, sultry, and confident voice of Ann Peebles. The release included the aforementioned “Walk Away” and provided Peebles an opportunity to put her personal stamp on a number of covers – notably “Steal Away”, Bettye Swann’s “Make Me Yours”, and a throw down take on The Isley Brothers’ funk “It’s Your Thing”.
One could sense Peebles becoming more assured on her second release as evidenced by her convincing version of Little Johnny Taylor’s, “Part Time Love” – Peebles’ first Top Ten R&B hit. But it was on her third album Straight From The Heart that she really started to outpace her previous work. And it’s not a coincidence that the timing coincided with Willie Mitchell putting Hi Records songwriter and singer Don Bryant together with Peebles to help her with both her songwriting and R&B phrasing. Both Peebles and Bryant agreed that “we didn’t hit it off at first… we bumped heads” but for different reasons. On Peebles part, since she had been singing her whole life, she was reluctant to take any advice on her singing style. Bryant, meanwhile, was more concerned with his own singing career thereby not giving the project his utmost attention.
But rewards were reaped from the union on Straight From The Heart that featured a couple of Peebles / Bryant contributions as well as a Bryant composition that he offered up to Peebles as kind of a peace offering: “99 lbs”, a salute to Peebles’ small stature. After an initial hesitancy, (Peebles said “I don’t want to sing about myself”), she belted out:
“I don’t mean to be braggin’
Just know it’s a natural fact
Good things come in small packages
You’ll have to agree to that
I’m 99 lbs of natural born goodness y’all
99 lbs of soul
Now I’m 99 lbs of natural goodness y’all
99 lbs of soul”
Just as important as the songwriting was Peebles continuing to assert herself with passion, power, and precision that cut to the heart and soul of every song. And none more so than Albert King’s “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” (# 3 R&B), “How Strong Is A Woman”, and the outstanding opening cut “Slipped, Tripped And Fell In Love”. The strength of “Slipped Tripped” has been best described by Tierini Jackson, the lead singer of the phenomenal Memphis based Blues, Soul and Jam band Southern Avenue. When commenting on why the band chose to record the song on their self-titled debut, Jackson said that the number fit the bill of exactly what she was looking for – “real deep Memphis Soul”. That it is!
While Straight From The Heart stands as Peebles’ first creatively recognized album, it also serves a high quality introduction to her follow-up – the masterpiece, I Can’t Stand The Rain. Aside from the obvious strength of the title song – Peebles’ biggest hit slotting # 6 R&B and # 38 Pop, and covered by the likes of Tina Turner and Missy Elliott – there are a number of strong cuts on the cohesive set of “love and respect” songs. The majority of the cuts penned by the now married couple, Ann Peebles and Don Bryant, include such titles as “Until You Came Into My Life”, “A Love Vibration”, and “You’ve Got To Feed The Fire” – love letters all.
And no discussion of “Rain” would be complete without the mention of the standout cut I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”. It isn’t a Peebles / Bryant co-write but it serves as a personal Ann Peebles statement, complete with a gritty, defiant, straightforward delivery. A true highlight that diminishes covers like those of Graham Parker and Paul Young. While both versions raise the intended ire, neither gets inside the song like Peebles does. In no uncertain terms Peebles declares:
“You think you’ve got it all set up
You think you’ve got the perfect plan
To charm every girl you see
And play with everyone that you can
But I’ve got news for you
I hope it won’t hit you too hard
One of these days while you’re at play
I’m gonna catch you off guard
I’m gonna tear your playhouse down, pretty soon
I’m gonna tear your playhouse down, room by room”
A final note on “Rain” is that, (with all due respect to Malaco), it cemented Hi Records’ position as the Southern Soul label of the 70’s. Stax owned that title in the 60’s based on the works of their outstanding artists, (e.g. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, William Bell), and the formidable house band of Booker T. & The M.G.’s. Hi, by comparison, had their own stable of high quality artists, (Al Green, Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, etc.), and boasted their own peerless house band, Hi Rhythm Section, complemented with the backing vocals of the highly regarded Rhodes Chalmers And Rhodes. (Both labels utilized variations of The Memphis Horns). With such an outstanding cast of singers and players, Hi ruled the R&B airwaves throughout the 70’s.
Peebles would go on to record 6 more albums with 3 on Hi Records before the label folded in 1979. At that juncture, she stepped away and raised a family while pondering the future. But the urge to do what came naturally – sing – didn’t leave her, and she returned (ten years later) to record a Funk oriented effort, Call Me, on Willie Mitchell’s Waylo imprint. Unfortunately, the release failed to move the needle.
While Call Me didn’t fulfill expectations, there proved to be more on the horizon for the Ann Peebles story. Marian Leighton Levy and her husband Ron Levy, who together started the Bullseye Blues subsidiary of Rounder Records, signed Ann to a recording contract. (Levy, a former B.B. King sideman and Bullseye producer, said that it took more than 3 years to finally convince Peebles to record again). Both the artist and the label were rewarded with 2 fine albums done in classic Ann Peebles style: Full-Time Love (1992; produced by Levy) and Fill This World With Love (1996; produced by Peebles and Bryant). Peebles supported both releases with extensive, well received tours, (including an outstanding show at Toronto’s Soul & Blues Festival).
Those two albums might well have signposted the end, by all standards, of a remarkable recording career, but Ann Peebles continues to live on in the hearts and minds of fans and critics alike. For those who were there from the beginning, keep on with the love for Ann Peebles, one of the most expressive voices of her time. For the uninitiated, who may be considering bringing to light one of the truly great Soul singers, look no further than all of her albums, (including a number of compilations), that are still available today. All display Peebles’ perfect balance of silky sophistication and grit that can’t be overstated.
AN ANN PEEBLES PLAYLIST
1. Walk Away
2. It’s Your Thing
3. Steal Away
4. Part-Time Love
5. Slipped Tripped And Fell In Love
6. How Strong Is A Woman
7. I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home
8. I Pity The Fool
9. 99 lbs
10. I Can’t Stand The Rain
11. Until You Came Into My Life
12. A Love Vibration
13. You Got To Feed The Fire
14. I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down
15. Come To Mama
16. It Was Jealousy
17. If This Is Heaven
18. St. Louis Woman
19. I Miss You (Sugar Ray Norcia, harp)
20. Fill This World With Love (Duet with Mavis Staples)
- Rico Ferrara, August 2021
2 thoughts on “ANN PEEBLES – St. Louis Woman With A Memphis Melody”
You said it well – “underrated and underappreciated”. How did that happen? Her albums are outstanding.
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Wow! What a gem! This is damn good Soul. I am moved by “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”, among others. As expected, I am captivated by her cover of “Miss You” (which curiously is entitled “I Miss You” – unless the Stones covered for her??).
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