In the history of R&B music, you can make a strong case that Peabo Bryson is the most underrated singer of this genre. Bryson has one of the most powerful and smooth Tenor voices that ever existed. Bryson’s incredible Tenor has been the perfect compliment in the recording of several tremendous duet records with equally outstanding female counterparts. In 1979, Bryson recorded one of the greatest duet albums of all time: “We’re the Best of Friends,” with the late, great Natalie Cole. Then, beginning in 1983, Bryson recorded the first of three iconic duets with three different partners: “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” with the legendary Roberta Flack. A decade later, Bryson would record two of the greatest duets and motion picture songs back to back. We will start with his 1983 hit duet with Flack.
Bryson and Flack were no strangers to each other. In 1980, they recorded their own duets album together: “Live & More,” a live concert album that featured several of their own solo hits. Flack previously had several huge duet hits with her close friend and one of the greatest soul voices of all time: Donny Hathaway. With the success of both singers’ in duets, both with each other and others, it wasn’t a shock that their 1983 duets album “Born to Love” would go on to be both a financial and critical success. The highlight of this album would be the aforementioned “Tonight….”
“Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” written by Gerry Goffin and Michael Masser, is a beautiful ballad that describes a couple’s feelings before they consummate their love. Flack’s soprano voice blends perfectly with Bryson’s tenor to produce a song both tender and seductive, as they go back and forth and together throughout the song: “Tonight there’ll be no distance between us. What I want most to do, is to get close to you. Tonight I celebrate my love for you. And soon this old world will seem brand new. Tonight we will both discover how friends turn into lovers. When I make love to you. Tonight I celebrate my love for you. And that midnight sun is gonna come shining through.” “Tonight….” would peak at number 16 and five respectively on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts. Eight years later, Bryson would record a duet so incredible that it would launch his partner’s career as one of the greatest female pop stars of all time.
Following the success of “Tonight….,” Bryson continued to embark on a very successful solo career. In 1984, he scored a top 10 Billboard Pop and R&B hit, the heartbreak song also co-written by Masser, “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again,” and in 1991 another heartbreak melody, “Can You Stop the Rain?” which went to number one on the Billboard R&B charts. That same year, producers of the Disney movie “Beauty and the Beast” were looking for someone to redo a pop version of the titular track. The original version was a standard sung by legendary actress Angela Lansbury. While Lansbury did a phenomenal job in her version, Disney execs knew that her version would not sell at the popular music level. They reached out to music producer Walter Afanasieff, the same writer and producer of “Can You Stop the Rain.” It was the perfect choice for Bryson to be the lead singer in what would now be a duet, as his past success with both duets and Afanasieff made that decision a no-brainer. Bryson would be teamed with a fledgling French Canadian female singer, Celine Dion. Dion had just learned how to speak English when she received this opportunity of a lifetime.
The musical chemistry that Bryson exhibited with Cole and Flack once again was on display with Dion in “Beauty.” Dion’s Lyric Soprano vocals blended perfectly with Bryson’s smooth and seductive Tenor. The very beginning of the song captures the audience as Dion’s voice sets the stage: “Tale as old as time. True as it can be. Barely even friends. Then somebody bends. Unexpectedly.” Then Bryson chimes in: “Just a little change. Small to say the least. Both a little scared. Neither one prepared.” The song captured the theme of the movie: a beautiful woman and a beast become friends and than fall in love. Bryson and Dion capture that essential theme with their amazing voices, especially when the song reaches its crescendo. “Beauty and the Beast,” would be both a commercial and critical success, going to number nine on the Billboard Pop charts and winning both the Grammy award for Best Pop Performances by a Duo or Group and the Oscar award for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture. The song helped propel Dion’s career, which ultimately resulted in becoming one of the greatest female pop vocalists. Bryson would follow this duet with another iconic Disney theme song the following year.
The third and final iconic ballad featuring Peabo Bryson, “A Whole New World,” was also the theme song of the Disney animated film “Aladdin” once again produced by Afanessieff. This time, Bryson teamed up with one of the great R&B songstress of that era, Regina Belle. This wasn’t the first time Bryson and Belle recorded a motion picture duet. In 1987, the two recorded “Without You” from the movie “Leonard, Part 6.” Unlike “Beauty…,” Bryson sung the lead verse on “A Whole New World,” and set the tone for what would be the biggest song for him, Belle and any Disney movie as it was the only song to go to number one on the Billboard Pop charts for all three: “I can show you the world. Shining, shimmering splendid. Tell me, princess, now when did you last let your heart decide? I can open your eyes. Take you wonder by wonder. Over sideways and under. On a magic carpet ride. A whole new world. A new fantastic point of view. No one to tell us no
Or where to go. Or say we’re only dreaming.” Then when it was Belle’s turn, her verse was just as magical: “Unbelievable sights. Indescribable feeling. Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling. Through an endless diamond sky. A whole new world (Don’t you dare close your eyes). A hundred thousand things to see (Hold your breath, it gets better). I’m like a shooting star. I’ve come so far. I can’t go back to where I used to be.” Finally, the chorus were the two sing together brought everything home.
“A Whole New World” would garner Disney’s second consecutive Oscar award for Best Original Song from a Motion Picture. It also was the second year in a row Bryson and Afanessieff would win a Grammy award, this time for Song of the Year. It would also be Belle’s only Grammy win in her storied career, which is just as underrated as Bryson’s. It would also be the apex of both artists’ career, as neither would ever come close again to such lofty heights commercially. Despite that, both artists’ continue to record and have established themselves as two of the most underrated soul music greats of all time.