An exclusive, career-spanning chat with the Queen Bee of Hi Records
Memphis soul wasn’t all Stax Records. Hi Records stacked up their own impressive roster and string of hits.
And Hi wasn’t all Al Green; there was also a gospel-trained young lady who scored her own hits there and has her own impressive legacy. Ann Peebles started out in St. Louis, but soon made Memphis her home, hooking up with the fabled Hi Rhythm band, including three siblings: organist Charles Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges, Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges, along with pianist Archie Turner and drummer Howard Grimes.
Under the direction of producer Willie Mitchell, Peebles hit the R&B charts starting in the late ‘60’s with audacious, no-BS love songs that staked her out as insistent and dominant as any guy, including “Part Time Love,” “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” (covered by Albert King), “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” (which also charted for Paul Young) and the immortal, crossover hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain” (later covered by Tina Turner and the basis for Missy Elliot’s first hit “The Rain”). A number of her greatest songs were composed by Peebles herself along with her soon-to-be-husband Don Bryant.
Peebles stayed with Hi throughout the 70’s and then took a break from music until the end of the 80’s, working with Mitchell again and putting out a pair of albums on Bullseye Blues in the 90s and a 2006 unplugged album before retiring about ten years ago.
She’s back in the news now with the release of a wonderful live album from 1992, Live In Memphis (on the Memphis International label). Recorded at the ballroom of the history Peabody Hotel for a lucky crowd of a few hundred people, the show was a benefit for the National Civil Rights Museum and featured her old friends/colleagues from Hi Rhythm. Sporting her classic silver beaded headdress and a lovely sequined dress, Peebles sailed through her old hits with style and provided the crowd with some prime stage patter (which you’ll hear more of later).
Peebles recently spoke by phone about her enviable career and that unique show, plus the tantalizing news that she is still active, working on new music.
Early on, you did shows with Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke. Did they influence you?
I was a little girl. I was doing it but I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think Sam Cooke really did influence me. And I would just stand on the stage behind the curtain and watch Mahalia. She would just send chills to me. I just loved her voice.
You were from St. Louis originally, and you came to Memphis when you were young to make music. What did you find different about the music scenes in those two cities?
Well, when I was in St. Louis, all I did was gospel. I guess I did do a few club things but what was different was the music, the musicians. I think in Memphis they were friendly with you and more to get with you and see where you are and what you’re doing.
When I first came to Memphis, I hung with Teeny Hodges, Leroy and Charles [Hodges] and Howard [Grimes]. And I really learned from those guys by just hanging around with them. And we became great friends. As a matter of fact, Charles and Leroy, we’re still good friends.
What did you learn from the Hi Rhythm guys when you were starting out in Memphis?
Well, I learned how to be a lady. And I can truly say that those are some of the guys who taught me how to go out on stage and conduct myself and so many other things. I was so young when I came into music. They took me as a baby sister.
We was all driving, trying to make music and we’d all meet up at the studio. We just hit it off real quick! It seems like we always knew each other. It’s really something. You can’t meet a friend like that today.
What kind of chemistry did you have with the Hi Rhythm band?
We was always like family, at the studio and even on the road. And I think that the warmness that came through the melodies and all the music is because all those guys were so close together, so caring and everything. And when they played, you could feel it.
What was it like doing those recordings at Hi Records?
Those guys [Hi Rhythm] were always joking around but most of the time, when they cut [recorded] for me, I wasn’t even there. [laughs] They would kind of lay a track down and then I could come in and overdub it. Not very often that I would see them play the song while I was in the studio. Sometimes. They’re great guys!
AUDIO: Ann Peebles “I Needed Somebody”
And you’re great, too.
[laughs] Thanks. Yeah, we all did get along. Yeah, that does help for creation- when you’re creating something, it’s wonderful when everybody can be on the same page, get along and do things with fun,
And that comes out on the recordings- you can tell that you’re all having a great time.
Oh yeah, we always did.
What was Willie Mitchell like to work with?
Oh, he was great to work with! I learned from him too. He was more like a… second dad, I would say. But he was great to work with. Sometimes he would fuss at me and sometimes I would fuss back at him. [laughs] But we would get the job done!
Don Bryant wrote songs for you and you also wrote some songs with him. What was it like to work with him?
Well, it was like magic. We worked together as husband and wife, just doing the same thing- writing, creation. It was just a wonderful time.
What stands out for you about that particular show on the new live album?
There were so many times that I went to the Peabody. I can’t remember everything way back then. I did songs that I already had out. I just remember that it was a wonderful time and it was a good crowd. [laughs]
You know, the background [singers], Tina (Crawford] was my sister in law and sometimes she would go out and do songs with me. [Singer] David Hudson was an artist on Hi Records. He was a great guy, good friend.
During the show on the new album, you have some great dialog there. You said to the crowd, “I can look back at the good times, the bad times, and face it all with a smile.” Do you find that’s still true for you?
I do. I have always thought that way. Why be sad when you can think of something to be happy about?
One special song on the live album is “Let Your Love Light Shine” and it has a real gospel flavor to it. When you had your R&B songs, were you conscious of wanting to have that kind of gospel component to it?
Oh, not really. Sometimes that gospel just comes through anyway! [laughs]
Here’s another great piece of dialog from you during that show. During “I Feel Like Breaking Up Someone’s Home,” you say this: “Ladies, sometimes we get that feeling and we like to go out there and get something goin on! But I feel like it sometimes… I said I feel like breakin’ it up but that don’t mean I’m gonna do it…” Did that ever really happen with you?
[laughs] Not really. If it did, I felt like it but it doesn’t mean that I’m gonna do it. You could think about it and feel like it a lot of times but that doesn’t mean you’re gonna go out there and do it.
You know what? Somebody in the crowd probably felt that way. And sometimes, you can just sense that just by being on stage. And I just say things like that to help people feel better.
You co-wrote two other great songs on that album- “Let Your Love Light Shine” and “If I Can’t See You.” What inspired those songs?
For “Let Your Love Light Shine,” I think we was doing a little show for my son. He was very small at the time and Don was saying “go ahead and let your love light shine” ’cause he was trying to do a song and dance too. [laughs] And I caught that right quick and I said “Oo, that’s a great title.” So, we all got to write that song.
With “If I Can’t See You,” Don and I wrote that. Actually, we had a friend that was going through some terrible times and we wrote that song for her.
VIDEO: Ann Peebles “I Can’t Stand the Rain”
Of course, I have to ask about “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” It’s a classic and an iconic song. What do you think made that song so special?
It seems like sometimes, the rain can be romantic. Sometimes, it can be a pain. I think about the rain sometimes and when I said “oo, I can’t stand this rain,” it was because I wanted to go somewhere. That’s how the song got started. I wanted to go somewhere and it was storming. And I just said, “oo, I can’t stand this rain!” And [DJ, co-writer] Bernard Miller, he was at our house that night and somebody said, “that’s a great title!” We just wound up writing the song. I’ll tell you, that was really something. We wrote it in about 45 minutes.
What music do you listen to nowadays?
Well… sometimes I go back and listen to the old things. [laughs] I love Johnny Taylor’s voice and I got everything I think he ever recorded. Sometimes, I go back and pick that up and listen. And I go back to Al [Green] to listen. All the old stuff, I go back and listen to. And sometimes, I get ideas to write other songs with.
So you think you’ll be writing songs again?
We have some already written. And we have what we call a ‘stockpile’ from years back. Every once in a while, we go back and pull one out and work on it and put it out to somebody else.