Born an independent spirit in St. Louis, Mo., on April 27, 1947, to a musical family, Ann Peebles’ destiny was all but assured. Her powerful singing voice, emanating from a diminutive frame, usually caught audiences unaware; but it only made her statue on the stage all the more remarkable and impressive.

No female artist in Memphis’ history has achieved the level of consistency that Peebles’ records have over a longer time span. Few Memphis artists have had their work covered more often and by a more diverse group of artists. “She’s my hero,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone in an interview. That admiration is shared among many musicians and music critics, nationally and internationally, who admire the artistry Peebles brings to her work.

Ann Peebles is always classy but often sassy, graceful yet forceful, reserved but emotionally deep. Her image and the attitudes portrayed in her music often vacillate, but always genuinely, making her an overwhelmingly soulful artist who firmly expresses her convictions.

Artwork courtesy Peebles Family Collection

Always Classy, Often Sassy

Courtesy Peebles Family Collection

“I heard my singing voice for the first time when I was five years old,” Peebles remembers. “My father was music minister at our church, and he taught me to sing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” for a school fundraiser. I knew then what I wanted to do.”

At age nine, she joined the Peebles Choir, founded by her grandfather and directed by her father. “It was no ordinary church choir,” Peebles recalls, noting that Mahalia Jackson was just one of many gospel greats the singers backed. “We traveled a lot, opening shows for some big gospel acts like Sam Cooke, who was with the Soul Stirrers as a gospel singer.”

“We (my 10 brothers and sisters) listened to all kinds of music,” she continues, “from Muddy Waters to Aretha Franklin.” Her father encouraged her dream by taking her to local nightclubs to sing. Peebles’ hometown background gave her the confidence needed to be at ease on any stage anywhere, a composure learned early and never lost.

Performing at the Recording Academy’s Premier Player Awards Honoring Hi Records, April 2003. Courtesy Peebles Family Collection

Part of the Family

In 1968, fate gave Peebles an opportunity to test her talent in Memphis, Tennessee. “I had a brother in the service that had a girlfriend in Memphis. He came home to St. Louis on furlough and brought her with him,” says Peebles. “When he drove her back to Memphis, I rode with him.” After arriving in Memphis, they went to a local nightspot where they met Bowlegs Miller, a popular bandleader. “I sat-in and sang “Steal Away.” It was an old song, but he liked what I did with it. He told me I should be signed to a record label, and I told him that’s what I wanted to do.”

Steal Away
Ann Peebles
Ann Peebles performing at the Center for Southern Folklore’s Mid South Music & Heritage Festival, July 1991 © Center for Southern Folklore Archives, photo by Robert Jones

The next stop was Hi Records, the label Bowlegs recorded on, for an audition with its vice-president Willie Mitchell, a multi-talented producer with the power to offer a recording contract on the spot. He did just that for Peebles, but it was not that easy. “I couldn’t sign at the time because I wasn’t 21. My father had to come to Memphis and sign the contract,” Peebles said.

For some time, Peebles traveled between Memphis and St. Louis to work at Hi. “Those were good years,” Peebles reminisces. “Willie was a father-type figure to me. He took me to meet disc jockeys and to clubs. I could go to clubs as long as I had a chaperone, a grown-up, with me.” The family-friendly atmosphere at Hi gave Peebles courage to move to Memphis.

An Unlikely Pair

Mitchell paired Pebbles with Donald Bryant, a recording artist as well as an in-house artist for the label. “We didn’t hit it off at first,” Bryant recalls. “Before Ann came along, the concentration was on me and my career as an artist. Then I was assigned to helping Ann with her R&B phrasing and writing songs for her. She’d been singing all her life, so she didn’t want me to tell her what to do.” For a while, the relationship between them was rocky.

Peebles’ debut single, “Walk Away” (supported by the Hi Rhythm Section), hit the charts in 1969, narrowly missing the R&B Top 20. Her fourth release, “Part Time Lover”, in 1970 was her first song to crack the R&B Top 10. The record’s success helped focus the independent singer and her producer on the direction they wanted to take their refined soul sound. “Hi was like a home to me — the writers, the musicians, Willie. We were one, big family,” Peebles said.

Part Time Love
Ann Peebles
Walk Away
Ann Peebles

By then, Bryant was warming up to Peebles. He wrote her a peace offering, a song called “99 Lbs.”. It appeared on 1972’s artistically-recognized LP, “Straight From The Heart”, along with “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home”, a song that brought Peebles’ performing persona to the forefront.

Ninety-nine Pounds
Lou Rawls

Rainy Night Magic

Then magic happened, one night in 1973 when Peebles, Bryant and Bernie Miller were leaving Hi to attend a concert. The sky opened with a downpour causing Peebles to blurt out, “I can’t stand the rain.” Bryant, aware of a good song hook when he heard one, put the trio’s wait time to good use. Finishing the song turned out to be more important than the concert, and it paid off when it was presented to Mitchell. The creative producer saw the song as an opportunity to use a new studio gadget, an electric timbale, to create a distinctive sound to complement the tone of the song. Although it was not Peebles’ biggest hit at the time, the song has become a classic.

I Can’t Stand the Rain
Ann Peebles

Beatle John Lennon would declare “I Can’t Stand The Rain” as “the best song ever” after watching Peebles perform it at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Pop star Bob Seger would count it number four in a Creem article “16 Songs I Don’t Want to Live Without”. Tina Turner would cover the tune, as would dozens of other artists. Missy Elliott would sample it in her smash hit “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”.

Peebles says her biggest thrill in recent years has not been about awards won. It is performing in festivals at home and abroad and looking down from the stage to see teenagers and their parents singing the lyrics to songs she recorded some forty years ago, reliving the melodies her family at Hi created for generations of fans to enjoy.

Peebles latest release can be found on Fat Possum records.

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