Bill Coday, J. Blackfoot, Percy Sledge, Johnny Rawls, Robert Cray, Swamp Dogg, Oscar Toney Jr. and Howard Grimes all recall O.V. with touching personal affection and tremendous respect for his consummate professionalism.
The late soul singer and Ecko recording artist Bill Coday met O.V. in the early 1970's as he recalled: "I met O.V. in Chicago in a club called The Burning Spear [5523 S. State Street]. This was back in 1970/71 when I first started recording. When I started getting big they started booking me on shows with big artists. So, every time O.V. was in town, they put me on the show with him, because he was a big draw. I was big in the city, because everyone knew me and O.V. already had his people. He was the kind of guy who put on a show. The women would actually be cryin' when he sung those ballads, man. He was good, he was real good. He lived a lot of his songs and he felt it."(8)
Solo performer and ex member of the Stax group The Soul Children, J. Blackfoot, knew O.V. in his formative years: "I've known O.V. Wright real well, we were real good friends. We rode together in Memphis and talked, had dinner together. I met O.V. when I was real young. O.V. was trying to get me to go to Goldwax when I was 13 or 14 years old. He had been hearing about this guy J. Blackfoot singing on the corner, because everybody called me J. Blackfoot even at that time. O.V.'s mother was staying in Lamont Garden and that wasn't far from where I was staying right up under the bridge. O.V. had been hearing about this kid J. Blackfoot singing on street corners and how good I was. I met him and O.V. said, "I could get you a contract at Goldwax. Give me a call and I'll try to help you." But I never did give him a call, because at that time I was, what you call, a thug! I was really young and foolish. I just wanted to be in the streets behind the liquor store singing the doo-wop thing and drinking a little wine! That's the way we used to do it. O.V. was friendly and a good person, a real good person. He would take out time with you. It was just unfortunate the things that happened in his life. He got caught up in drugs. You can easily get caught up in that drugs scene, especially when you start to get in contact with a lot of women and try to make it with them. If O.V. hadn't been into the drugs scene, he'd have been here today. He was a hell of an entertainer, a great guy. I miss him."(8)
"He was a big influence on me as I was coming up as a young singer," explains Percy Sledge. "He was older that I was, he'd been out there longer than I'd been. He always told you good things. As a person, when I met him, he was unbelievable - very much like Joe Tex and Otis Redding. They knew you was a rookie and they would let you know you was a rookie and they tried to help you. And he was that way. He was one of the greatest singers in the soul world and always will be. I thought he was one of the old school best. He took young singers, put them under his wing and would give them good advice. I met him at the same time I met Otis Redding, Arthur Conley and all of them. When I first met him, it was in Macon, Georgia. He was touring there. That was in 1966. He was so powerful, was a great entertainer number one and a great person. We played on the same bill in Georgia. The last time I saw him was just before I did 'Take Time To Know Her' in 1968. Yeah, because I didn't get to tell him about the song. I hadn't seen him anymore since. This guy was a blow, man. A blow, that's what we say when you're good! I'll never forget, and today I haven't forget him. In those days, I didn't know nothing about music. Him and Otis, they would always give you good advice - stuff that you didn't know yourself. They would bring it right out to you. Then it was up to you to bring it together."(13)
Oscar Toney Jr.
Oscar Toney Jr's band The Kayos backed O.V. on his live performances during the late 50's and early 60's as Oscar relates: "My impression of him was great. The way I got to meet him was when I working with this band The Kayos in Columbus. Believe it or not, where I am now in Opelika, Alabama it was a guy named Jackson who used to book Solomon Burke, Freddie King and O.V. Wright. He didn't book them all together - one weekend, stuff like that. Maybe once a month, but they didn't have a band. He just had enough confidence in us to know that we're good enough. All we had to do was to get their material and listen to it and my band could just kick it blue just like that! That's how we met O.V. Wright. I never did know that he had a bad ticker. He was a nice guy. We'd just play for him, behind him at The Bamboo Club over here in Opelika. This was in the early 60's, between the mid-50's and early 60's. Aw shucks, he was playing stuff from 'he Top Ten then and 'That's How Strong My Love Is'. He could hold 'That's How Strong My Love Is' for 15 or 20 minutes. But he could do any song he wanted to do. He would be out there singing and jiving with the public, you see. At that time, I was always the vocalist with the band. I would get up there and do my thing before he would come on. I would probably be the one to bring him on! I would always do that same thing that they would do for James Brown - are you ready for Star Time? I'd give him a build-up. I did ask him if there's anything special that he wanted me to say about him. He said, 'Oh yeah, you can tell 'em I used to sing gospel with my brothers.'"(10)
"It was early 1966 when O.V. was touring Florida, and so was I. I believe his big record at the time was Monkey Dog - at least in the state of Florida where it was a f#@kin' smash! They played it like the national anthem. Mine was Baby, You're My Everything. I opened some shows for him because we had the same promoter, disc jockey Nickie Lee. I tried to teach him to tie a necktie, but he never caught on... he used to have me knot all of his ties for him whenever we'd run into each other! We were all staying at the Sir John Hotel in Miami and we partied together all of the time. O.V. was a warm, wonderful guy who was just a little too naive."(14)
Howard Grimes, the renowned Memphis drummer and an integral part of the Hi Rhythm section, recalls meeting O.V. and the long-lasting effect working with him has had: "I met O.V. through Willie Mitchell. We were signed to the Royal Studios [at 1320 South Lauderdale, Memphis, TN] to record certain artists. Willie Mitchell knew Don Robey at Backbeat Records - they were pretty close friends. Don Robey decided to lease O.V. to Willie. I don't know how it actually happened... but Willie decided to take O.V. and he explained to us that he had a new artist coming in named of O.V.Wright. We were all excited, because we had done such tremendous work with Syl Johnson, Otis Clay and Ann Peebles. The day of the session when he came in, O.V. was such a beautiful person. He was a loveable man to know, you know. He was just a jolly, happy-go-lucky person - a lot of fun. We cut the first record which was his first hit 'Eight Men Four Women'. It seemed that he put so much life into that record. That record gave so much joy and love to people that knew O.V. I guess the rest is history, because after that happened he just kinda kicked off.
"I went with him to tour Japan in 1979. The tour was set-up for him and he took the Hi Rhythm section with him. We were successful over there, they loved him over there plus they loved the Hi Rhythm section. They knew all the artists and they were so excited. So much love and appreciation. In Japan, they were giving him alcohol after the show. He took the drink and started acting a little out of place. The alcohol was kinda gettin' to him while we were on this tour. I took him to his room and sat down and had a talk to him. I told him that if you're going to drink, you shouldn't drink before the tour. I said, drink when we're not doing the show, in your hotel room. That way, nobody knows or has got anything to do with what you're doing in your hotel suite. We're over here to represent the United States. He thought about what I said. He said, 'I won't have another drink'. And he didn't. He didn't take another drink because back in the younger days he would drink a little bit, you know. But the tour went over excellent and he didn't take another drink after we talked. He said he appreciated me talking to him, because it wasn't too long since he had come out of the hospital.
"The recording sessions... everything went fantastically. O.V. was so fun-loving, he could have been a comedian! He got everybody laughing all the time. He sung his heart out. Willie has said that O.V. was the greatest singer he had ever heard. We would come in and O.V. would come in. A lot of the time, O.V. would just be sitting around. We had a writer named Earl Randle who wrote most of O.V.'s material. It was just beautiful the way O.V. worked. He was such a spirit-filled man. There wasn't too much that you could say about O.V. because he was always fun! If he wasn't comfortable with the track he always believed he could do it better. He would say, 'Let me try it one more time.' We laughed, he was just like a kid! We all loved him. He would say things that would make you laugh. A wonderful person.
"We just loved working with O.V. Everything went smooth in the studio. We were like a whole family. All the tracks were recorded 'live' in the studio. Willie would cut the rhythm section first. Once the basics were done and Willie was comfortable with the tracks and O.V. was comfortable with them and that they were all in the right key, then he would take a day with O.V. for O.V. to put his voice on. Then the back-up singers would come in - Rhodes-Chalmers-Rhodes. People never knew at that time that they were white. It really shocked 'em!
"There were so many favorite songs. God Blessed Our Love was a favorite. But there was one that was never played on the air that really touched me and that Randle wrote called The Hurt Is On [from the album 'We're Still Together']. He was talking about people standing in the food stamp line. I don't know whether people were in tune with that record at that time. That was one of my favorites. As a matter of fact, I was talking to Earl Randle about that record only a month and a half ago. He can remember it, too. It was a great loss. Sometimes, Willie thinks about it, you know. Willie says there'll never be another O.V. We lost one of the greatest voices in the world.
"The talk that I heard about O.V. with The Sunset Travelers was that it was possible that those tracks could have been cut in Houston, Texas. In fact, we recorded The Sunset Travelers once at Hi with the Hi Rhythm section. Some of the other singers like Ollie Nightingale were all in that field. I'd heard from all of the gospel groups that O.V. was so bad in church singing that he had people crying all over the church. Nobody really liked to come after O.V. because there was nothin' left! It was the same thing in R&B. Ollie Nightingale used to tell me all the time, he said, 'Howard, O.V.Wright would hurt you on the stage. It's best if you're on the show with him to go on before him. Don't go behind him because there's nothing left after O.V.!' I can recall one time Ollie told me they had O.V.Wright, Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis and, I think, Little Milton on the show. They were trying to make up their minds who was to go out first. Ollie said that O.V. was sitting comfortable and peaceful. They asked O.V. to go out first. O.V. went out there and when he came off the stage Tyrone Davis told Ollie, 'Look, whenever I'm on the show with O.V.Wright, put me on first! I don't want to go behind O.V.Wright.' Most of the blues artists I know spoke highly of him. They say he was just great, you know.
"Melvin Carter was a close friend of O.V.'s. They sang gospel together. Melvin is doubling with O.V. on Ace Of Spades [according to Roosevelt Jamison, Carter wrote 'Ace of Spades', and you can hear his vocals better here in this alternate take - red] I think there was a little jealousy between Melvin and O.V. Melvin sounded so much like O.V. too.
"As far as I know, I didn't see O.V. take any drugs. Whenever he came into the studio, I didn't see him take any drugs. He returned to gospel with The Luckett Brothers after we came back from Japan. The church he went to was right around the corner from my house. On Sunday he stopped by and we talked before he went to church. I didn't really know that he was gone until Leroy [Hodges] called me. It hurt me so bad. To me, he was always clean-cut. I loved the man for what he was. They still play his music here [in Memphis] 'God Blessed Our Love', sometimes we hear 'Ace Of Spades'."(11)
Soul/blues guitarist and vocalist Johnny Rawls was a close friend of O.V., having been a member of his backing band since 1975: "I started playing for him from the time he came out [of the Texas State Pen]. He was a great guy, real funny. He was good fun like a comedian. When we got on the stage, he was very serious with the songs. Although he didn't write them, the songs became his life, very much so. He led a very happy life. He really wanted to sing gospel but there wasn't very much money in gospel.
"I don't know how Willie Mitchell and O.V. met, but O.V. chose Willie as his producer. Everyone in music in Memphis knows one another! Willie Mitchell produced every one of his records for 17 years. They had a great relationship, Willie Mitchell being a real nice guy. A respectable guy. People were great around that time and it was a great opportunity to feed off that. [In] a typical O.V. show he would come on with I'd Rather Be Blind, Crippled And Crazy then he would go off into something like The Bottom Line then maybe he would do 'Ace Of Spades' then he would come and do this medley 'God Blessed Our Love/That's How Strong My Love Is'. He would do You're Gonna Make Me Cry too. He would put all of that in the medley. Then he would leave the stage with 'Into Something (Can't Shake Loose)'.
"I still keep in touch with his wife, Alberta Wright. He'd been married once before to Emily and had a son O.V. Jr by her. His brother Eddie Lewis also sang too, but he's not singing anymore."
Johnny describes the events of the 16th November 1980: "We were together all the way up until he died. I was with him when he died. We did a show in Atlanta with Tyrone Davis, Bobby Bland, B.B.King and Little Johnny Taylor. Then we went down to Mobile, Alabama. He was gettin' really sick. But he would never go to a doctor. If we hadn't put him in the hospital, he would have just died in the car. He was very unhappy at this particular time. He and his wife were going through something and he was living with me in Milwaukee during this time. He was just going through a thing. He was very sick. He had surgery before [in 1978]. But he wouldn't take care of himself. He drank a lot of wine, a lot of booze, whatever, you know. When I took him to the hospital in Evergreen, he could hardly breathe. By the time we got him there, he was conscious, you know, he would talk, but he wasn't saying anything too much. He was full of fluid and stuff. Those guys down there they didnt know too much about it. They could have saved his life, but [the doctor] was afraid to go in there and release the fluid. It was a small hospital and this doctor was scared because he was more used to deliver babies or [fix] broken arms. O.V. waited for 3 hours and decided to go back down to Mobile which was 100 miles away. By the time we got in front of the door [of the Providence Hospital in Mobile] he just dropped to the side. I stayed with him for a couple of hours until the doctor came and told me that he did everything he could. People came by the hospital - his wife and brother. I was like in a daze. Then I went up to the room to say my goodbyes. That was it."(9)
The recordings of O.V. Wright are currently enjoying a resurgence, in particular with re-issues of his Hi material appearing with some regularity. His popularity has not diminished with time. On the contrary, the depth of appreciation and respect shown by fellow musicians and enthusiasts alike illustrate the measure of his influence and power. In a recently published interview with Robert Cray (Mojo magazine, July 1999), Young Bob talked solely about his favourite singer of all-time. In an earlier radio interview, he re-affirmed his view of O.V.Wright: "I have a lot of favourite singers, but O.V.Wright is at the top of my list because for me he's one that really brings the gospel thing into rhythm and blues to make it that soul thing. I liken him to someone like Archie Brownlee from The Five Blind Boys [of Mississippi] who takes a song from the beginning, takes it nice and easy then works it into a frenzy by the time it comes to the end."(12)
...back to PART ONE - From Gospel To Soul To Gospel
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.
(9) Interviewed by the author in June 1998
(10) Interviewed by the author in December 1998
(11) Interviewed by the author in February 1999
(12) Interviewed by Charlie Gillett for UK radio station GLR and broadcast in April 1999
(13) Interviewed by the author at the Porretta Soul Festival, July 1999
(14) Interviewed by the author for Juke Blues number 49, Spring 2001
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.