Peabo Bryson isn’t an artist associated with funk at all. The South Carolina native made a name for himself as a quiet storm ballad vocalist-most notably with female singers such as Roberta Flack. He also became known a “Disney singer” as I call it-in particular the themes to the movies Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast. A consistent concert goer on the chitlin circuit as a teen,Bryson began singing and writing for local bands shortly thereafter. His 1976 debut album did well in his particular area. But it was when he signed with Capitol records a year later that his career really took off.
I actually came to that first Capitol album entitled Reaching For The Sky via that free vinyl radio station giveaway. There were a series of funk and disco songs on the album that forever changed my perception of Bryson. With his rich,expressive soul baritone he has an amazing way with thick uptempo songs on the same level as he does interpreting ballads. When I got on YouTube,I began exploring this side of his artistry further. A wonderful example of Bryson’s uptempo majesty came via the title song of his 1982 album entitled Don’t Play With Fire.
The album opens with a big three not synthesizer and drum based fanfare. Bryson himself than provides the percussion and electric piano as a bed for Ron Dover’s powerful tenor sax solo. This musical progression represents each chorus of the song as well. The refrain showcases the same rhythm with a jazzy,liquid rhythm guitar and a popping bass line that slaps down heavy every few bars. On the segments between each part of the song,the melody changes to have a more Latin flavor in the rhythm before the song fades out on the chorus.
“Don’t Play With Fire” is an excellent example of Peabo Bryson producing strong “sophistifunk”. Between its reality check based lyrics and Bryson’s literally fiery vocals,this jazz/funk based groove moves between slinky,seductive and theatrical between different sections of the song. Its a quality that was prominent in the uptempo songs on Peabo Bryson’s uptempo material during the late 70’s and early 80’s. From what I see on YouTube, it is considered one of his strongest general songs. And just in terms of the level of fine wine jazzy funk,it surely is to my ears.