BILLY WRIGHT

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BILLY WRIGHT

Savoy Jazz SJL 1146 – Billy Wright, “Goin’ Down Slow (Blues, Soul and Early R ‘N’ R, Vol 14)”

 

Well, what you have here is your basic album of good stuff by Billy Wright. You say, “Who” you ask? Billy Wright, that’s who! “Who’s that?”  Why just one of the best singers to come along when Rhythm & Blues was beginning, that’s who!! … So, what???…  OK, then let me take it from the top.

The decade of The Second World War and the immediate post-war period was a time of great change in the American music business. The impact of the war years on the industry diminished record production so much that there is a very real gap in our knowledge of the changes that were taking place in black music at that time. Certainly, it is well-known that bebop was “happening” instrumentally during that period. There are some things that we do know concerning the course of popular music in general during those years, though, that had an impact on black music. The middle-forties A.F.M. ban on recordings is one, and it kept players out of the studios for some time, but not singers or vocal groups. Back in the thirties, the role of the singer was to spell the hot players in the band, to let them rest a bit – mere interludes! By the end of the war, these roles were reversed and the band-members served more to accompany the singer. Once into the fifties, the instrumentalists were essentially anonymous and the name of the singer[s] was almost all that appeared on a record label.

The major record companies had no real idea what was going on outside the uppermost levels of the entertainment business, tending to stay with what had been successful for them in the past. Big bands, though, were coming on hard times after a short-lived post-war flush of popularity. The combination of rising costs and diminishing venues hit the band business hard, and many bands either folded altogether, or pared down to a smaller size.

It was the independent record labels [i.e. – local] like Savoy that were recording other, “minority interest”, music. They were the ones taking the new tape equipment out and taking chances on music that was not what the majors were covering. In fact, Savoy is probably best known for getting on record much of the now highly-developed [jazz] music known as bebop, a highly complex music that developed as a reaction to swing. There was a major convergence going on between aspects of blues, swing and boogie woogie, and gospel that was to emerge by the fifties as Rhythm & Blues.

Blues, of course, has always been one of the tap-roots for jazz in all eras, from Louis Armstrong through Duke Ellington to Miles Davis and beyond. During the big band era, blues was the basis for many a hit recording. While a few bands after the war became elephantine in size and overly complex and precious in their arrangements, they were in a minority. Most of the remaining bands went in the opposite direction towards a swinging riff-blues tunes, possibly as a result of the [commercial] influence of boogie woogie and its emphasis on repeated figures. Band size was kept small and the main interest for them was to generate enough energy to keep the dancers happy, which the early bands in what was to be called R’n’B did very well.

From the religious side of black music came not only “quartets”, but a singing style that still predominates to this day. That is one where the notes are bent, pushed, and slid through pitch away from the “official” tone of the note – a technique known as melisma. This singing style can be heard in all the forms of black music since the war: blues (B.B. King, Bobby Bland), R’n’B (Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson), soul (Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding). And rock & roll (Little Richard, Larry Williams). Even the singing of today’s stars like Luther Vandross or Ray Parker comes from that base. It is a singing style that reflects the Afro part of Afro/American music, and is not out of any European precursors. Among the important gospel-styled pioneer artists in the early days of R’n’B was Billy Wright, “The Prince of the Blues”.

Billy Wright is an Atlanta, Georgia native who has remained based in that city all his life. In a 1978 interview, he is quote as being born there May 21, 1932 – possibly, although local radio personality Zenas Sears told me a few years earlier that he thought Billy had “started [performing] about ‘27”.[1] While there was no direct musical influence from his family, Billy started singing at the Vernon Baptist Church as a child. He would also hang around Bailey’s 81 Theatre on Auburn Avenue (the local counterpart to the Apollo in New York) after school to see the stage shows. Then he would go home and attempt to mimic the performers he had seen earlier in the stage. Eventually, he came to the attention of the late Sammy Green, the man who ran the theatre and put together the[ir] shows. Green gt Billy involved in the shows, first as a dancer in the chorus line, then as a feature, and eventually as a choreographer. One of the interesting aspects of the 81 Theatre was that Green would send out a show out to tour the South and Midwest from April to November. This was a great experience for budding performers and led to Wright becoming a singer. Billy ended up singing the hits of the day as a part of the show.

Leaving the 81 to perform as a single and moving temporarily to Washington, D.C., Wright’s singing career slowly grew. After his return to Atlanta, he had the good fortune to open a show with Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown, and Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams in the early fall of 1949. Both Williams and Brown thought that Billy should be recorded and the former persuaded Savoy owner Herman Lubinsky to come down to Atlanta to hear fro himself. Three days later, on September 23rd, Billy Wright was in the studio at radio station WGST for his first session. The first release from that session (“Blues for my Baby”/“You Satisfy”) came out about two months later. The “A” side was Billy’s first hit and was on the BILLBOARD national charts for five weeks, reaching the #5 slot; the flip reached #9 for a week two months later. More recording ensued for Savoy after this initial success for another four years, and producing at least thirty cuts – no national hits, but a number of regional ones. After 1954, Billy recorded for Don Robey (Duke/Peacock – 1955) and possibly for Bobby Robinson (Fire/Fury – 1959), both producers/owners of important black indie labels; the local Carrollton also did a [jingle] session in 1959, but none of those recordings led to [major] release[s]. It’s been twenty-five years since the last Billy Wright session, and thirty since his last release.

Yet that has not been a major problem, for Billy has always been able to find work [locally]. Zenas Sears told me, “I don’t know if Billy ever really needed a record hit… he’s a fantastic entertainer.”[2] “I was always able to keep working in the best clubs” said Billy in 1978. “Then I changed to MC, and I kept working in all the clubs. Good money… I MC’d and sang. And I’d go out on the road and do the same thing. I stayed working, ’cause I had a beautiful wardrobe and I looked good.”[3] Wright kept performing and producing shows until a mild stroke in the mid-seventies stopped the touring. These days he still puts on a show in Atlanta, emceeing and occasionally singing a song or two. Billy Wright stayed home: While he is one of the forgotten figures in the formative years of R’n’B, he knows what he’s done. Now those of you holding this album can find out for yourselves.

 

If I Didn’t Love You So – kicks off the album, and is a strong Latino mambo from Billy’s only non-Atlanta session. These New York pros don’t drop the three over the two after the verse, but maintain it with Skip Hall’s rippling piano to the fore over Bobby Donaldson’s drumming – all the way to the fade. A great start. [E]  (Savoy 870)

Sad Hour Blues – is an unissued slow blues that features Ben Richardson alto obligatos with the rest of the band playing “organ chords” in back. This is as strong a Wright blues as any that were released; good song, well sung and well backed. Dig the band riffs during the last verse. [E]  (Savoy unissued)

Goin’ Down Slow – comes from the pen of St. Louis Jimmy and is a classic “downhome” song not done too often by “band” blues singers (only Jimmy Witherspoon comes easily to mind). Pat Jenkins plays some very tasty muted fills, complementing Billy’s convincing singing on what was the flip-side of the first track. A great reading of a great song. [E]  (Savoy 870)

After Awhile – is a superb medium-tempo shuffle, again with Skip Hall doing a totally appropriate job on the piano; typical bop-tinged blues of the fifties. This performance might be referred to as both controlled and frantic at the same time – the band does get its kicks. [E] (Savoy 1100)

Four Cold Cold Walls – was written by one Mae Moten and was the other side to the previous cut. Here’s a throwback to Wright’s early days at the 81 Theatre, a late twenties/early thirties vaudeville-styled performance. It is reminiscent of, say, Butterbeans and Susie or some such duo – a dialogue with Cleve Lyons and his piano that is a superb and unexpected side (especially in 1952!). [F]  (Savoy 1100)

Live the Life – comes off as a romping stop-time that borders on rock and roll with guitarist Wesley Jackson playing tough, near-distorted guitar. This cut, from Billy’s last [session] for Savoy, shows that he was quite aware of the newer developments going on in popular music at that time. [G]  (Savoy 1127)

I Remember – stems from a mid-forties record by Cecil Gant (“I’ll Remember You”), but Billy has altered the lyrics somewhat. There is good guitar (Jackson) and piano (Albert Dobbins) here, as well as a Jimmy Hinsley tenor solo that adds the “whipped cream”. [G]  (Savoy 1127)

Will You Need Me – closes the first side, an unissued performance that anticipates the sound of Sam Cooke a few years later. This last Atlanta session certainly demonstrates that the players out in the hinterlands were just as good as those in the Big Apple. [G]  (Savoy unissued)

 

Billy’s Boogie Blues – comes from Wright’s first recording session and it really romps! It is a pastiche of what might be called “traditional” blues verses from the band/singer/vaudeville singer canon. There is a lightly honking, Lestorian tenor solo for three choruses, possibly by Artie Clark. [A]  (Savoy 715)

This Love of Mine – is a previously unissued version of a song with Frank Sinatra lyrics; he sang it with Tommy Dorsey a decade earlier and had quite a hit. Billy’s treatment of this popular ballad is a terrific textbook example of the vocal melisma that comes out of black religious singing in America. Those notes are bent! [C] (Savoy unissued)

If I Had My Life to Live Over – sounds like an oblique response to Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do”, yet this as recorded first (and not issued). It’s a fine slow blues with tenor and trumpet fills possibly by Fats Jackson and Mason Johnson – it’s the equal of any of Billy’s blues records. [D]  (Savoy unissued)

Every Evenin’ – is a record with a story behind it. Billy Wright was also something of a talent scout, and one of his discoveries was Little Richard. Wright has indicated that this tough record was made as a cover of Richard’s “Every Hour” at the behest of producer Lee Majid, so in this case, the “child” is truly the father to the “man”. [D]  (Savoy 837)

Drinkin’ and Thinkin’ –Starts out with a familiar blues line (“If the blues was whiskey, I’d stay drunk all the time.”, but turns into more than cliché-mongering. It’s a good, coherent lyric concerning the combined effects of failed love with alcohol – very fine piano and sax (persons unknown) and, of course, great singing from Mr. Wright. [B] (Savoy 827)

New Way of Lovin’ – goes at a medium tempo with the same small band doing stop-time verses and solid singing from Billy. Lyrically, this is one of the many blues that fit into a subject category of “advertising the singer’s unique abilities in bed”. Hmm. [B]  (Savoy 819)

Restless Blues – closes the album, another unissued low blues with John Peck’s trumpet sort of “lining out” the head [arrangement] that acts as backing. It is a clever arrangement that underscores well the consistency of singing and writing that is Billy Wright; a final gem from the [Savoy] vaults. So, now do you know what I’m talking about?!! [B]  (Savoy unissued)

Peter B. Lowry (1984)

 

Personnel and release date/issue number:

A.) Atlanta, Sep 23, 1949: Billy Wright (vo), w. possibly: Howard Callender (tpt), Fred Jackson (ts), Artie Clark (ts), Neil James (as), Lum Scott (bari), Sam Cochran (pno), George Battle (bs), Melvin Booker (dms).

B.) Atlanta, Apr 15, 1951: Wright (vo), w. John Peck (tpt), rest unknown.

C.) Atlanta, May 1, 1951: Wright (vo), w. unknown band.

D.) Atlanta, Jan 25, 1952: Wright (vo), w. Mason Johnson (tpt), Willis Jackson (ts), Wesley Jackson (gtr), rest unknown.

E.) New York, Oct 8, 1952: Wright (vo), w. Pat Jankins (tpt), John Haughton (tbn), Ben Richardson (as), George “Buddy” Tate (ts), Archie “Skip” Hall (pno), Carl “Flat Top” Wilson (bs), Clarence “Bobby” Donaldson (dms).

F.) Atlanta, May 29, 1953: Wright (vo), w. Cleve Lyons (pno/sp).

G.) Atlanta, Feb 25, 1954: Wright (vo), w. Roy Mays (tpt), Charles Holloway (as), Jimmy Hinsley (ts), Albert Dobbins (pno), Wesley Jackson (gtr), George Battle (bs), J.W. Simpson (dms).

(More Billy Wright can be found on: Savoy LP 2255.)

[1] Zenas Sears interview, P. Lowry – 1974

[2] Billy Wright interview; Jonas Bernholm – 1978.

[3] ibid

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