Saturday, June 18, 2016

Music Reviews: O.V. Wright

O.V. Wright
I didn't hear or more likely didn't remember hearing O.V. Wright until relatively late in life, probably in college. But once I heard him he became one of my favorite singers. Most of the top soul singers, and Wright was in that class, came out of the church. 

Wright was no different. Wright, who had a very expressive tenor voice, started out with gospel groups such as The Five Harmonaires,The Sunset Travelers, and The Spirit of Memphis Quarter. 

Wright's I don't want to sit down is a rewrite of gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Sit Down. Don't Let my Baby ride is an obvious reworking of the gospel classic Don't Let the Devil Ride. That O.V. Wright song may also be the inspiration for the humorous Albert King lyric "If you got a good woman you'd better pin her to your side/Because if she flag my train brother, I'm bound to let her ride!" In 1964-65, no doubt at least partially inspired by Sam Cooke, who had made a similar journey (and whom Wright occasionally sounded like early on, check out Gone for Good to hear the Cooke influence) Wright made the switch to non-gospel music. 

Even as he sang secular music Wright always kept that gospel tinge. In fact in some aspects Wright never left gospel behind. As mentioned in other posts, with many older singers born before a certain time it's simplistic to talk of them as a "blues" or "soul" or "R&B" singer. They did it all. Wright moved more or less seamlessly between various forms of traditional Black American music both secular and profane.  

Wright had a voice and style that could make you feel the oozing pain from his soul in one song and the transcendent joy he was experiencing in another. Even singers as talented as Tyrone Davis, Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor hesitated to go on stage after O.V. Wright. 

There weren't too many singers who could take a song associated with Bobby Bland and make it their own but Wright did just that with "I'll take care of you". Wright and Bobby Bland often used the same studio band as each man famously recorded for the Duke/Peacock/Backbeat music group presided over by Houston based black entrepreneur/gangster Don Robey. 

Robey was not only a record label owner and promoter but also a songwriter and publisher. Or more precisely he was listed as the songwriter on many tunes recorded by performers who worked for him. Robey had a certain reputation. In some areas it wasn't considered smart to cross Robey or say no to him. If Robey said he had a contract with you it might have been wiser (and healthier) to agree regardless of the facts. 

Whatever the truth of these rumors around Robey may have been it's a fact that there are a number of classic and presumably lucrative blues, soul and R&B songs that have Robey listed as the songwriter under his preferred pseudonym of Deadric Malone, including several recorded by O.V. Wright. 

The other music giant associated with O.V. Wright, albeit in a much friendlier context, was legendary Memphis music producer WiIllie Mitchell, who also produced such luminaries as Al Green and Ann Peebles. Mitchell and Wright had known each other since Wright's youth. Wright's later studio bands included many of the same musicians who made up Green's and Peebles' bands. 

I like a lot of Wright's classic work most obviously because of his one of a kind voice but also because of the spare sparse arrangements that Mitchell and Robey favored. Wright worked in a period and genre before autotune and excessive overdubbing. The idea widely shared among most soul producers at the time was that a recording should capture the live grit and personal imprint of an artist as much as possible. Virtually all of Wright's recordings met that goal. 

Unfortunately, like many other musicians then and now, Wright suffered from substance abuse issues. After some prison stints/rehab in the seventies Wright passed away in 1980 from a heart attack almost certainly brought on by his earlier abuse. Ironically this happened just after he made a back to basics gospel album. So it goes. If you either like or are curious about classic soul music you need to hear O.V. Wright. He's just as important as people like Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and other genre giants if not more so. Wright was also an essential influence on people like Robert Cray and Percy Sledge. 

I don't think I could pick just one O.V. Wright song as my favorite. But certainly Ace of Spades, You Must Believe in Yourself , Memory Blues, I don't know why I love you, Afflicted, and I'll Take Care Of You stand out. In a time when so much of popular music lyrical content, particularly in the rap and R&B genres, seems to be about disdain or exploitation between men and women, Wright's work stands as a wonderful reminder that despite the romantic loss,heartache and frustration that men and women can and do cause each other, that each sex still badly needs the other. There's also a fair amount of humor in the songs Wright favored.

Ace of Spades  You're Gonna Make Me Cry   Eight Men, Four Women 
That's How Strong My Love Is   Afflicted  I'll take care of you   Why Not Give Me A Chance 
Nobody but you   I don't know why I love you
Memory Blues  When you took your love from me  I don't want to sit down 
I'd rather be blind, crippled and crazy  Gone for Good  You must believe in yourself
What did you tell this girl of mine  Don't Let My Baby Ride  He Made Woman for Man
Sacrifice  I'm going home to Live with God (Troubles of this world)
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