FROM GOSPEL TO SOUL TO GOSPEL
"When you gave O.V. Wright a song, the song belonged to him. Nobody would do it that way again. In fact, I think O.V. Wright was the greatest blues artist I've ever produced." So related Willie Mitchell in a 1987 interview discussing the people with whom he had worked and produced for Hi Records.(1) In fact, Memphis-based O.V. Wright was the quintessential gospel-based soul/blues artist whose intense, aching style was captured so perfectly by Willie on the vast majority of his recordings during a turbulent, yet woefully short career.
Overton Vertis Wright lived in the Memphis area throughout his life. Born on 19 October 1939 in the small town of Leno about 30 miles outside Memphis on the Germantown road, O.V. was brought up singing in church at the tender age of six. "My mother used to give me a quarter every time I'd get up and sing a solo," he was quoted as saying. This was at the Temple in Eads. By the age of 13, he had progressed to the Golden Leaf Missionary Church under the Reverend L.A. Hamblin from where he went on to sing lead in the Five Harmonaires, which included his older brother Edward. O.V. also sang briefly with The Spirit Of Memphis Quartet and the Highway QCs before returning to The Five Harmonaires, although it is unlikely that he recorded with any of these groups.
It was with The Sunset Travelers, who were formed in 1950 on the streets of Memphis, that O.V. subsequently joined and with whom he turned professional. On 16 May 1957, he made his debut with Sit Down And Rest A While as a test recording for the Memphis radio station WDIA. Grover Blake, baritone singer and musical director/arranger for the group, recalled meeting O.V. and introducing him to The Sunset Travelers:
"Our [The Sunset Travelers] first recordings were in 1953 for Duke [the label formed in Memphis by WDIA station manager David James Mattis and subsequently taken over by Don Robey in Houston, Texas]. The record we made for Duke 'I'm Building A Home' and 'I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down' - our first record - was a hit. We started on the road and we was blocked because our lead singer, Sammy Lee Dotch that made the hit, he couldn't go. He couldn't travel. And then that threw us to search for another lead singer.
"I'd taken O.V. Wright out of high school. He was from out here in Germantown. He was 17 - that was in 1956. When he came to the group, he was singing like Sam Cooke but, taking him out of high school as a young kid, then I changed his voice. I said, 'I wouldn't sing like Sam Cooke.' He said, 'Why? I love Sam Cooke!' I said, 'Rev. Morgan Babb, he's a much better singer.' He sang with the Radio Four [who recorded for Tennessee, Republic and Nashboro from 1952 to 1964]. I gave O.V. a style, singing like Rev. Morgan Babb. Back in that time, Babb would sing such songs as If You Miss Me From Praying [recorded in 1955/56 for Nashboro].
"When I got O.V. we would let him sing just one song, and he could just stand straight, wouldn't even move, just stand. It was such a tremendous voice that when he'd got to a certain peak in his voice, people couldn't stand it anymore. We cut a hit tape, WDIA played it, 'Sit Down And Rest A While'. That's O.V. Wright. That was the first song he sang. See, I got it from 'If You Miss Me From Praying'. I arranged this number something like on the order that Rev. Morgan Babb sang... When he [O.V.] left The Sunset Travelers, he started with pop, but he was a gospel lover. He would come back many times and sing with the group when he was around or wanted to sing with them. But we didn't let him sing on programs because people knew he was singing rock'n' roll, and, you know..."(2)
After a couple of singles on Duke, the group was later switched to the parent Peacock logo. Initial singles for Peacock with O.V. as lead were Lazarus and You Are Blessed, both recorded in 1959. Others followed, up until 1964.
The Dixie Nightingales, a Memphis-based gospel quartet, had also made some test pressings for WDIA in the early 1950s. Ollie Braxton Hoskins (later Nightingale), the lead singer of the group, who subsequently recorded secular material for Stax, Pride, Retta and Ecko, met O.V. whilst he (O.V.) was with The Sunset Travelers. "Although we never sang with The Sunset Travelers, O.V. and I would meet up at different singing locations and have a ball, testifyin', swapping ideas, etc. He was a great guy - I liked him a lot and we got along beautifully. People have sometimes remarked that my style of singing is somewhat similar in its phrasing, etc. Yes, he was a dear friend of mine and was devastating vocally. He sang lead most of the time, though Grover Blake, who sang baritone, was the group's manager. He was a good singer too, but not as good as O.V."(3)
It was common for gospel groups to sing together at the various churches in Memphis. One of these groups - The Redemption Harmonizers - included Roosevelt Jamison, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School. At the age of 19, whilst Roosevelt was running the Inter-State Blood Bank for the University of Tennessee, he began rehearsing other groups such as The Harmony Echoes, which included James Carr, and The Sunset Travelers. Roosevelt had grown up singing in the Baptist church but turned to writing "because my timing wasn't very good." Whilst going out with one of the nurses in 1963, he started to compose a poem about the ways to express how strong his love was for her. She encouraged him to write a song, 'That's How Strong My Love Is', which he initially took to a Stax audition one Saturday morning in 1964 as he later recounted:
"I wanted to find out if there was any interest in it, so I brought it to Stax. Steve Cropper was there when I walked in and I showed him the song I'd written on paper. He asked me to sing it if I could, but I found it difficult without any musical accompaniment. So Steve began plunking away on the piano while I sung onto a tape machine."(4) Stax didn't appear to want to do anything with the song at the time, so Roosevelt started to scout around elsewhere.
Around this time O.V., whose day job then was working for a garbage truck company, was encouraged by Roosevelt to break into R&B and went to the small Goldwax studio in Memphis to record a demo of 'That's How Strong My Love Is'. "It was through Richard Sanders that I hooked up with Goldwax," Jamison continued, "Richard Sanders was a friend of mine and also part owner of Goldwax. Richard and I acted as talent scouts to find new acts for the label. It was through Richard that I met Quinton Claunch and Rudolph 'Doc' Russell, the label owners. I had O.V. record That's How Strong My Love Is and brought a tape of that song to Quinton's house and played it for him."(4)
"I remember the way I met O.V. Wright and James Carr," recalled Quinton. "It was right here on my doorstep, when I heard a knocl on my door at about 10 o'clock one night and found Roosevelt Jamison, James Carr and O.V. Wright standing there. They had this little portable tape recorder, so we sat down here on this floor and listened to some tapes. Both of them just knocked me out, and I made moves to sign them on the spot."(5)
Having recorded the demo of 'That's How Strong My Love Is', the idea was to sell it to one of Goldwax's artists but, as O.V. said, "After they heard me sing it, they gave me $500 to record it." Roosevelt offers a slightly different slant on the story: "I brought a tape of that song to Quinton's house and played it for them, but they didn't care for it too much. The song that they were interested in was 'There Goes My Used To Be'. When the single was released, 'That's How Strong My Love Is' was the B-side and There Goes My Used To Be was on the A-side. When the dee-jays got it they preferred the B-side and played it imstead. Just after it was released, Otis Redding's version of That's How Strong My Love Is came out. My understanding is that while they were [Stax] were working on an Otis Redding session, Steve Cropper brought out this song. Otis liked it and wanted to record it, When they went to cut the song, they found it wasn't long enough. They tried to get in touch with me, but couldn't reach me, so Steve came up with a little sketch at the end that went something like; 'I'd be the ocean so deep and wide / To catch all your tears whenever you cried'. I had nothing at all to do with that particular verse. I wasn't even aware that Otis was cutting the song until after it was released. If I had known, I would've supplied them with numerous other verses... there were six or seven more that they were never exposed to. On top of that, there is an introductory monologue for the song which no one has ever recorded that opens up the whole song and lets you look inside it."A.C. Williams, 'Moohah' as he was known, was an important dee-jay at WDIA in Memphis whom O.V. and I knew very well from our on-air gospel performances at WDIA. I believe he was the one who suggested to Stax that the Otis single be flipped to plug 'Mr. Pitiful' in order to give O.V.'s version a chance to break in."(4) It is more likely, however, that Moohah wanted Stax to go with 'Mr. Pitiful' as he had reportedly coined the phrase to describe the way Otis sang his ballads.
'That's How Strong My Love Is' began to sell quite well for O.V., but not as well as it might have as Goldwax was distributed by Chicago-based Vee-Jay (later releases were distributed by Bell) who were encountering their own problems at the time. It subsequently became a much-recorded song over the years, including versions by Tommie Young, Candi Staton, Laura Lee, Little Milton and a re-cut by O.V. himself as part of a medley for his 1977 Hi LP 'Into Something (Can't Shake Loose)'. Unfortunately, O.V. hit a contractual problem, as Jamison explains:
"When the record came out, Don Robey sued Goldwax, claiming that O.V. was still under contract to Peacock. They came to an agreement and O.V. left to join Robey's label in Texas." (As part of the settlement, O.V. had to pay Robey damages.) Robey kept him under contract, placing him on the Back Beat subsidiary alongside Jeanette Williams and Joe Hinton amongst others. But Jamison adds some further fuel to the story: "There was another single O.V. had recorded for Goldwax - 'You're So Good To Me' / 'Treasured Moments' - two songs I had written. Because of the lawsuit, though, the single was never released [although Treasured Moments eventually appeared on a Back Beat 45 in 1967]. Y'know, personally, I doubt that any such contract between O.V. and Don Robey ever existed. If there was, I never saw it. That was only part of the reason why O.V. left Goldwax, though. O.V. had an engagement to do a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for some local dee-jay named Dickie Doo, but Quinton Claunch refused to give us the money for the gas to get there. Ricky Sanders, Earl Forrest and I went with O.V. and did the show anyway, but after that incident O.V. went straight to Texas."(4)
Jamison thought that O.V. had "all the emotion of the old hymns and spirituals. He was very concentrative. He would think about a single note or phrase for a very long time and experiment with note arrangements aloud. O.V. worked on perfection. He used to like spending hours at the piano hitting notes and trying to reproduce them with his voice. He'd always be out getting a band together himself and rehearsing them."(4,5)
In early 1965, O.V. recorded his debut single as an R&B singer for Back Beat, combining the relatively light Can't Find True Love with the raucous I Don't Want To Sit Down, the latter being a secularized version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's gospel tune Sit Down, recorded for Decca in 1941. This and all of his subsequent releases sold well, reputedly in excess of 100,000 copies, with two attaining gold status.
The first of these was the April 1967 outing 8 Men 4 Women produced by Willie Mitchell. It was O.V.'s fifth Back Beat single and reached number 4 in the Billboard R&B chart. A 'jury of love' theme comprising O.V.'s tortured vocals, sparse accompaniment from what was to become the core of the Hi house band featuring a dominant guitar figure courtesy of Mabon 'Teenie' Hodges and pleading femme back-ups from Rhodes-Chalmers-Rhodes, placed this firmly in the 'classic' category. The flipside, Fed Up With The Blues was one of the very few straight blues tracks that O.V. ever recorded. An album quickly followed that summer, entitled, not surprisingly after the single. However, it differed in only two tracks to his first album 'If It's Only For Tonight' that came out a couple of years earlier - a neat Robey trick!
Willie Mitchell started to become increasingly involved in producing O.V. around this time. "Willie's been knowing me since I was a baby, and he would produce me, 'cause we had a friendship thing," O.V. had said.(6) The friendship developed during the ensuing years with Mitchell overseeing all of O.V.'s subsequent secular recordings on Backbeat, ABC and Hi. The combination of O.V.'s soul-drenched churchy vocals and Mitchell's laid-back yet tight framework produced some stunning and totally convincing results. None more so than the slow, mournful This Hurt Is Real (1968), the desperate When You Took Your Love From Me (1970) and the ultimate Sacrifice (the last track on his 1978 album 'We're Still Together').
Listening to O.V. Wright can be a somewhat depressing experience, allowing the listener a rare glimpse into the dark recesses of the man's very soul. However, humour can be gleaned from the lyrics of 'When You Took...' and on the later Drowning On Dry Land (1972) to help lighten the emotional load. But it was the driving Ace Of Spades that gave O.V. his second gold disc in October 1970, attaining the number 11 spot in the R&B chart. By this time, Willie Mitchell had nurtured the 'Hi' sound to prominent effect. Both 'Ace Of Spades' and the subsequent A Nickel And A Nail, which peaked at number 21 in the same year, were later recorded by his friend Otis Clay. O.V. was not averse at covering other people's songs giving them his own unique phrasing and interpretation - Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' In The Wind' and Johnny Ace's 'Pledging My Love' being two prime examples.
Backbeat started to go downhill in the early 1970's, and in May 1973 Robey sold Duke/Peacock and all subsidiaries including Backbeat to the ABC/Dunhill conglomerate in Los Angeles. Releases on Backbeat were still forthcoming, but by July 1975 the switch to the parent ABC label was made and two singles were put out in fairly quick succession. However, O.V. was disenchanted: "I didn't think ABC were doing much for me and they gave me my contract back."(6)
Soon afterwards, and somewhat appropriately, he signed for Hi Records in 1976. Nothing much changed, though, as he still continued to be produced by Willie Mitchell at the Royal Recording Studios in Memphis. Cream Records of Los Angeles bought out Hi in 1977 and one of the first singles they released was O.V.'s storming Into Something (Can't Shake Loose). Unfortunately, O.V. was hospitalised for three months during the winter of 1976/77 with heart trouble, but recovered to complete what turned out to be Cream's initial LP release named after the aforementioned single. The 45 second intro to 'Into Something...' was pure sanctified singing that the driving tempo of the remainder of the track didn't allow O.V. to quite match. He admitted at the time that he was 'discoing just a bit' on the album, but when asked if he was likely to change his style, he retorted: "Well, I guess I could if I really had to, but I'm not saying I'd feel it now."(6)
In November 1978, O.V. spent a further spell in hospital following a near fatal heart attack partially brought on by drug abuse. (O.V.'s involvement with drugs led to a term of imprisonment at the Texas State Penitentiary during the mid-1970's). O.V. recorded his third and final studio album for Hi - 'We're Still Together' - which was released in May 1979. By this time, Willie Mitchell's sound had become smoother and more commercial, although O.V. retained his conviction and potency despite reportedly recording the album without his false teeth! A trip to Tokyo in September that year resulted in his only live recording - and that was available only in Japan at the time, such was the measure of his popularity in the Land of the Rising Sun. The live set culminated in a short but frighteningly intense version of one of O.V.'s most searing early Backbeat outings You're Gonna Make Me Cry from 1965 which had been given a breathtaking treatment by Mavis Staples with The Staples Singers in 1971.
In the latter half of 1980, O.V. teamed up with The Luckett Brothers, including L.C.Luckett, for a gospel album 4 And 20 Elders on Nashboro/Creed on which the ailing O.V. took the lead on 4 out of the 9 tracks. Thus the circle was completed, O.V. having finally returned to his gospel roots. On the 16th November 1980, O.V. was taken ill and expired on arrival at hospital in Mobile, Alabama. He was just 41. O.V. was expected to have performed at the International Blues Festival in Birmingham a few days earlier but he became unwell and missed the show. His brother, Edward Wright said of him: "He was the kind of person that had his own mind - you couldn't tell him nothin'. We had our hard times. We went through some hell of a time. O.V. went to the top, he had some of the greater things. I thought he would settle down and take some of the money where it would keep coming back to him. He didn't. He just wanted diamonds and fine cars."(7)
Maybe the combination of drug abuse and fast living finally took its toll. The last known photograph was taken of him spread-eagled across a police car during a drugs bust in Memphis. But O.V. left a legacy of some of the most emotive Southern soul recordings ever made. Furthermore, he has become revered not only in his native town but also in Europe and Japan as the leading exponent of the genre. In a 1977 interview, O.V. referred to his career as a soul singer: "Personally, I still don't like it. I'd still rather sing gospel." Soul music, O.V. style, really isn't that far removed from the church anyway, as O.V. succinctly expressed: "Soul is church. Just changing 'Jesus' to 'baby'. That's all it is."(6)
...continued in PART TWO - Personal Recollections
Clive Anderson sleevenote to 'The Wright Stuff' LP (UK Hi 414)
Brian 'The Rockin' Man' Paige article 'Here's Another Thing' published in 'Shades Of Soul' number 12, December 1987.
Special thanks to Gregg Levethan and Cies De Theye for their assistance with the audio portion.
(1) From an interview with Pete Lewis, October 1987. Published in
'Voices From The Shadows' number 6
(2) Sleeve note by Doug Serof to the 'Bless My Bones' LP (Jap P-Vine 9051)
(3) From an interview published in 'Vintage Soul' number 14, 1995
(4) From an interview published in 'Soul Survivor' number 9, 1988.
(5) From an interview published in 'Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted' by Barney Hoskyns
(6) From an interview published in 'The Commercial Appeal' - 7/10/77
(7) From an interview published in 'Sweet Soul Music' by Peter Guralnick
About The Author:
Ray Ellis has been a writer, reviewer and photographer for Juke Blues Magazine for over ten years.
We'd like to thank him for generously allowing us to reprint this article.