He won two Grammys for voicing two of Disney’s greatest Oscar-winning songs.
On Saturday, Peabo Bryson performs live at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club in Maryland.
“We do a Greatest Hits,” Bryson told WTOP. “We also do a section where I’m playing guitar, showing my other skills, validating being a composer. … It’s cool when you can share with an audience your musical skills as well as have a chat with them so they get a sense of who you really are. The dialogue and conversation is as important as the music.”
Born in Greenville, South Carolina in 1951, Bryson dreamed of someday joining Motown.
“My folks beat the living crap out of me because they got the phone bill and were like, ‘Who made all these long-distance calls to Detroit?’” Bryson said. “I got past the receptionist and talked to an A&R person! … I wanted to be one of The Temptations.”
He recorded his first album, “Peabo” (1976), before singing to Capitol Records in 1977, but his big break came with the Roberta Flack duet “Tonight I Celebrate My Love” (1983).
“Because of Roberta Flack choosing me out of the blue, you suddenly become the person that everybody wants to sing with,” Bryson said. “I had done one duet project prior to Roberta Flack, I did an entire album project with Natalie Cole, but I didn’t know how to really do a duet project … until I met Roberta. … She taught me how to give and take.”
He went solo with producer Michael Masser’s “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again” (1984).
“This guy’s a mad genius,” Bryson said. “I sang [it] every day for 11 days, eight hours a day, he ended up with 120 vocal tracks, made a comp from them and spent over $300,000 making this record. … Finally, I looked at him on the 11th day and said, ‘Listen, whatever you don’t have, you’re not gonna have. I’m not going to sing this song ever again.’”
He followed up with another solo hit called “Can You Stop the Rain” (1991).
“You got [producer] Walter Afanasieff, who did all the Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey hits, just classics that will always be here … he’s a pleading kind of producer,” Bryson said. “There were great producers and they all have a different perspective. David Foster doesn’t really care about your interpretation. … They only thing he cares about is pitch.”
That same year, he joined Celine Dion for Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1991).
“Celine and I actually didn’t meet until the studio,” Bryson said. “She’s on the other side of this partition with glass in the middle, hoping I can stand up to my reputation because she probably blows people out of the water. She sings some of her B stuff, I smile and send some of my B stuff, she smiles and sings some of her A stuff, I smile and sing my A stuff.”
It won a Oscar for Alan Menken & Howard Ashman and a Grammy for Bryson & Dion.
“We didn’t know we were going to be able to perform it at the Oscars until the week of the Oscars,” Bryson said. “[Angela Lansbury] wanted to sing it at the Oscars and I was like, ‘You’re a teapot! What are you going to wear?’ So, we compromised and she sang a verse of her version, and then [Celine Dion and I] sang the [radio version], so it was cool.”
Disney next paired him with Regina Belle on “A Whole New World” in “Aladdin” (1992).
“They were trying all these different pairings like Gloria Estefan and Axl Rose … but that was a bridge too far and they came back to me,” Bryson said. “Disney songs don’t come with a playbook. … That’s what makes it so special. You’re the first one and whatever character you give it will last forever and gazillions of people are going to hear it.”
The song won another Oscar for Menken & Ashman and a Grammy for Bryson & Belle, cementing two of the greatest Disney songs of all time with consecutive victories.
“One song represents if you know true beauty, you have to look past its outside to its inside to see what its heart and soul is — if there’s a greater lesson for children to learn, I don’t know what it is,” Bryson said. “Then you’ve got ‘A Whole New World,’ which is our greatest hope and promise. … They were the No. 1 sellers in Disney history until ‘Frozen!’”
These days, Bryson’s 4-year-old son is just starting to discover his dad’s Disney flicks.
“My 4-year-old absolutely refuses to accept that I’m famous,” Bryson said. “I have relative pitch; he has perfect pitch. … I try to convince him I’m more famous than Miguel in the movie ‘Coco.’ I said, ‘Daddy’s more famous than Miguel.’ ‘No you’re not.’ We get into arguments! I said, ‘I’m more famous than Ernesto de la Cruz!’ But he refuses to accept it.”
All joking aside, he remains eternally grateful for his time with Disney.
“Working with Disney was probably the greatest honor of my life.”