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Ann Peebles: The forgotten soul of Memphis

Every now and then, a singer comes along with a heart of gold who seems to contain the entire world’s sorrow and can express it in just a couple of lines of a song. 

One doesn’t need a complex song to make an emotional statement. That is certainly the case with Ann Peebles and the soul music she made for a fundamental but often forgotten American institution embedded deep in the south: Hi Records in Memphis, Tenessee.

Ann Peebles was born in Kinloch, Missouri, as the seventh of eleven children. She got her start in her father’s choir, Peebles Choir, and after cutting her teeth performing at clubs in Missouri, she would eventually move to Memphis, where she met her future producer and main man for Hi Records, Willie Mitchell. Upon hearing her perform, he instantly signed her to the record label. “Willie Mitchell was like a father, and the musicians were like brothers,” Peebles said about the label. 

Hi Records are responsible for creating and releasing some of the greatest soul records the world has ever seen. This was the label that Al Green was signed to, who by 1972, became their biggest star. Peebles would eventually get her long-sought-after hit in 1974, with ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’, co-written with her collaborator and lover, Don Bryant. 

While Hi Records had a family-orientated and supportive atmosphere, Peebles was still up against and very much shadowed by Al Green’s success. At the same time, Green was a man in a man’s game and possessed a lighter touch, sometimes careening into gospel, completely — while Peebles had Southern grit and a voice that cut to the heart. She had the makings of a star but was also very selfless throughout her career.

Many have speculated as to why Ann Peebles isn’t more well known. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the music business being too cutthroat. “She was the girl with the big voice who could have really gone further,” Mitchell observed in an interview with Blues and Soul magazine in 1987. 

He added, “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.” 

Peebles continued to release records throughout the ’70s, but none proved to be the success that ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain” was.

The single has been covered by a slew of artists, including Ronnie Wood, Humble Pie, Tina Turner and Missy Eliot. While it is somewhat overly romanticised and a cliche to say that songwriters create things out of thin air, it seems that the story behind this song was the closest thing it would ever get to something like that.

Her lover, Bryant, Peebles as well as DJ Bernard Miller were all headed for a concert one night in 1973. “As a professional songwriter in constant need of new material, Bryant was used to plucking resonant phrases out of the air and he liked the idea of reacting against recent R&B hits that celebrated bad weather, such as the Dramatics’ ‘In the Rain’ and Love Unlimited’s ‘Walkin’ in the Rain with the ‘One I Love'” commented the DJ.

The skies opened up, and rain began to fall. In response, Peebles said, “I can’t stand the rain.” In a flash of momentary inspiration, Bryant picked up on it. Instead of going to the concert, they decided to stay in and pluck the song out of thin air; this is the stuff that myths are made of. “It really was that easy. “We didn’t go to the concert,” Bryant remembers. “We forgot about the concert.”

By 1980, the record label shut down, and Peebles’ career slowed down but didn’t necessarily mind this. By this point, she had a family with Bryant and refocused her attention. “I was happy the way I was. I still did a lot of songs, but 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,” Peebles remembered.

“It helped me to know that somebody was listening and recognising my talents. Of course, there’s a lot of stories in a lot of the songs I wrote but that’s the one people recognised. I never get tired of telling that story.”

Listen to her beautiful Memphis soul record, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ below.

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