"Ann Peebles has a voice like Billie Holiday's, with the same kind of intimacy, the same kind of heartbreak, that unadorned quality that I find completely irresistible. When I hear 'I Can't Stand the Rain' or 'Wrong Way on a One Way Street,' the presentation is so personal to me that I'm not hearing it as a spectator listening to a record. I'm hearing it as part of my life."
So says Joe Henry, who has built a sort of cottage industry producing records for soul stalwarts such as Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas.
Add Peebles to that elite roster. The nonpareil R&B singer appeared on Henry's most recent effort, last year's various-artists collection I Believe to My Soul (Rhino). For the project, he asked the Memphis-based Peebles to sing Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," which wasn't exactly in her wheelhouse.
"I sat down with the song before I said I would record it and I dissected it," Peebles explains. "I studied it until I understood where he was coming from. I think it's a beautiful story, and I was able to put myself into it. I'm not going to rush into [cutting] a song that I don't fully understand. I had to feel it was my song."
She nailed the tune, of course, wrapping her dusky pipes (which have picked up a few barnacles over the years) around the lyrics, caressing them, in effect murmuring them in the listener's ear.
It's the kind of thing Peebles, 58, has been doing for a long time. The preacher's daughter from St. Louis visited Memphis in 1968, where she ended up sitting in with Bowlegs Miller's band. He was so smitten with the 20-year-old's performance that the next day he spirited her off to meet producer Willie Mitchell at Hi Records, who signed her virtually on the spot. (Peebles came onboard before the label's most renowned artist, Al Green.)
Writing tunes with her soon-to-be husband, Don Bryant, and recording with Mitchell, Peebles scored a series of torchy R&B hits in the early '70s, several of which -- "Tear Your Playhouse Down," "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" and especially "I Can't Stand the Rain" -- have been covered extensively over the years.
And it wasn't just singles. "As a whole album, I Can't Stand the Rain  is the exemplary soul record for me," Henry says. "It's like a genre-defining record."
When Hi caved in the early '80s, Peebles found herself adrift. "It was heartbreaking that they folded, but at that point in my life, I didn't want to get desperate," she says. "I just laid back and waited, prayed on it."
Peebles' career went in fits and starts for a couple of decades, and in the '90s she even consciously dialed it back to spend more time with Bryant (they've been married 32 years), her son and grandchildren. About four years ago, she says, "I decided to get back out there and fight some more."
Peebles embarked on her "acoustic soul" tour, compiling performances for a live CD soon to be released in Europe. Even better, she has a solo project in the works with Henry, which will be released as part of his Rhino Work Song R&B series. Recording is slated for May. She and Bryant are writing tunes and looking forward to the experience. "He made me very comfortable," she says of Henry. "He was the kind of guy to let you have the rope, but he definitely knew what he was doing."
For Your Ears (and Eyes)
• Various artists: I Believe to My Soul (Rhino) (features two songs by Peebles, and others by Toussaint, Billy Preston, Staples and Thomas)
• The Best of Ann Peebles -- The Hi Records Years (The Right Stuff)
• I Can't Stand the Rain (Hi)