"He's one of the greatest singers that I've ever heard. He had a tone in his voice that was unimaginable." - the late Memphis music producer Willie Mitchell
Continuing my quest to learn about the music that somehow passed me by, I bring you Overton Vertis (O.V.) Wright.
In the 60s, there were two kinds of soul music - the kind that "crossed over," as it was euphemistically called, and all the rest. O.V. Wright didn't cross over to the white audience and I didn't know a damn thing about him, despite growing up in the Washington D.C. area, until I heard him singing the otherworldly Eight Men, Four Women (from 1967) on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour a few years ago. They call his sort of soul music deep soul, and with good reason - it is drenched in a gospel tradition, it is gut wrenching, and it is authentic. As much as I love Motown, that description doesn't fit much of its music. Berry Gordy consciously developed it for a mass audience, and it succeeded in the biggest possible way.
However, black music that was more raw and impassioned was less likely to find champions in the music industry. It wasn't always the case, but the deep soul sub-genre faced challenges in reaching the masses. Its emotional intensity - in both vocals and instrumental backing - was arguably too much for the casual listener. (Not me - I specifically gravitate toward that kind of anguish!)
Thus, depending on where you were, it wasn't easy to follow Wright's recording career when he was alive. It took place in large part in two recording meccas - first Gold Star studios, based in Houston (then the largest city in the South), which was the first enterprise of any heft to make a business of the music of black artists, and then Willie Mitchell's Hi Studios in Memphis.
Wright began singing gospel in church at the age of six, and such was the quality of his performance that he made an early life as a regular on Memphis' gospel circuit, performing in various groups, the last of which was the Sunset Travelers. With them, he recorded his first music with the Duke-Peacock label, one of those that rented Gold Star's studios in Houston. (The Duke label had originally been in Memphis but was acquired and merged with Houston's Peacock.)
As typically happens in these situations, someone discovers the gospel singer and starts to imagine him or her in the secular world, and with Wright it was no different. Songwriter Roosevelt Jamison was instrumental in getting Wright signed to Memphis' Goldwax label, which released There Goes My Used To Be (A-side) and That's How Strong My Love Is (B-side). This did get airplay in some places, especially the B-side, but not long afterwards, Otis Redding covered That's How Strong ..., and Wright's version receded into obscurity.
In conjunction with this, Don Robey, who was the impresario of the Duke-Peacock label, sued Goldwax, claiming that Wright was still under contract to Peacock as a member of the Sunset Travelers. The court concurred, and Goldwax activity screeched to a halt. Robey started a subsidiary specializing in soul music called Back Beat, and it was then that Wright started to receive some recognition. But here's where it gets perplexing.
Except for the period between Nov. 30, 1963 and Jan. 30, 1965, Billboard has always maintained two music charts for pop music and R&B. According to Top R&B Singles 1942-1999 by Joel Whitburn, Billboard felt that this time period, during which Motown established itself, saw too much similarity in the two charts due to crossover and so stopped the practice. However, by early 1965, the British Invasion re-established the gulf. Anyway, I was one of those odd kids who looked at the chart listings in the newspaper each week, and I remember always thinking it peculiar that the R&B/soul and pop charts were separate. I listened to everything, or so I thought.
The week of August 28, 1965, Wright's Back Beat recording You're Gonna Make Me Cry made the top 10 soul singles, charting at #6. All nine of the other songs on the soul list - Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, Same Old Song, Tracks of My Tears, Since I Lost My Baby, Baby I'm Yours, The "In" Crowd, In the Midnight Hour, Can't Help Myself, and Nothing But Heartaches, were well known to me and played in heavy rotation on the stations I listened to in Washington/Maryland. (The pop list for that same week was very different, with two exceptions - the Four Tops' Same Old Song and James Brown's Papa's Got a Brand New Bag each crossed over, landing at #5 and #10, respectively, on that chart.)
What happened to You're Gonna Make Me Cry? I never heard it - anywhere. How did that happen? I'd have to be able to access the playlists of my stations (I listened to several) to figure that one out, I guess. It must have been one of those "regional" hits that I keep realizing existed.
Of the many songs I've listened to in catching up on the Wright canon, I'll Take Care of You (composed by Brook Benton) has really burrowed into the fiber of my being. The collaboration of Wright and Willie Mitchell reaches a zenith here, in my opinion, one that lasted to the end of his short, unsung life. (Mitchell had produced the Back Beat recordings as well as the Hi Records ones, and their friendship went back to their earliest days.)
Although O.V. Wright had a profound influence on fellow musicians and his fans alike, his life should have been much longer. He developed a drug habit that resulted in some prison time and poor health, and died of heart failure in 1980, at 41. When, decades later, two writers and soul enthusiasts, Preston Lauterbach and Red Kelly, realized that Wright had an unmarked grave (Willie Mitchell paid for the funeral expenses, according to his widow, but insurance money for the headstone never materialized), they mounted an online campaign to raise enough money to memorialize him in the manner he deserved. That commemoration took place in 2008 after funds poured in from around the world.
I'll never know why I was oblivious to Wright's existence when he was alive, but the lapse has now been rectified.