NEW YORK — WHEN people think of singer Peabo Bryson, the first thing that usually comes to mind is romance - Bryson singing ``Tonight I Celebrate My Love for You'' with Roberta Flack, or crooning ``Lovers After All'' with Melissa Manchester. One of soul music's most durable performers, Mr. Bryson is praised for his smooth baritone and his good looks. But there's a good deal more to him than a great voice and a handsome face.
Bryson has just released a new album - ``All My Love'' - for which he wrote, or co-wrote, most of the songs. It's a return to the romantic music that has been his trademark and continues to be his forte. It comes after a lukewarm reception for his ``Take No Prisoners,'' a street-oriented dance album released a couple of years back.
Curious about the departure from and return to his trademark style, I decided to ask him. Reached by phone, Bryson was outspoken about the mixed blessing in the music business of a personable appearance and about what he sees as the manipulative practices of record companies, among other things.
Bryson says he experienced some of that image manipulation when he recorded ``Take No Prisoners,'' which was designed to capitalize on popular tastes at the time, rather than his own particular strengths. He explains, ``I think that the album would have worked, had there been more of my songs on it and more of my personality in it. It's not that it wasn't a fine album, but it's not me.
``The thing that's sustained me (in my career) is that I go against the grain,'' he continues. ``Be yourself first, foremost, and last. In the beginning, I decided that I did not want to contrive an image. I didn't want anybody to make me up. I examined what I was and said, `I like me.'''
Bryson, who was born into a music-loving South Carolina family, decided he wanted to be a singer at about age 4. By the time he was 14, he was touring the South as a backup singer. His mother warned him that his looks were going to play an important part in his career.
``We fought like cats and dogs about that,'' he recalls. ``I've had to apologize to her several times, because she was right.''
Recently Bryson signed a new contract with his label, Capitol Records. ``You know what they wanted when I re-signed? To see me. I'm still resentful of that. I don't think that the criteria should be based on how you look.''
And that's one of the reasons why the trend toward judging pop artists by their videos disturbs Bryson.
``It's a scary time for those who really have talent. You want to know what's going to happen to the people who really have talent? It depends on if they have other things.'' He adds that Muhammad Ali, ``when he was still Cassius Clay, said, `People really do want the pretty man to win.' We want all the people that we consider to be attractive to succeed in whatever field they're in. And even if they're mediocre, they're somehow better....''
So Bryson forged ahead and established himself not only as a ``pretty'' crooner, but a respected songwriter, and more.
``I think it makes you more of a complete artist, when you're a composer, writer, performer, producer. I think that consumers end up with a better perception of who you are - I mean all of you, as opposed to some image that somebody has to contrive for you. Talent is the thing that's taken the back seat to everything else at this point.''
``When I sing a ballad or when I write a melody, I give myself to it. It comes across because a ballad is easy to understand - it comes across slowly and sensitively, and the words are easier to internalize, as well as the emotions. And if you're doing it earnestly, then you're actually doing something that's pertinent: You're passing along viable information that you've learned in your life. It's therapy for me, and at the same time it's information for all those out there who have any questions about this thing called `relationships.'''