Saturday, March 15, 2008
"Oh I once had love
and plenty of money
But some way, somehow
You know I failed, yes I did
Now all, all I have
in my pocket, its a shame
All I can give account of
right now is a nickel and a nail..."
Born in Leno, Tennessee in 1939 Overten Vertis Wright was something of a musical prodigy, his professional gospel singing career began when he was just six years old at the Temple in Eads. Stints with other gospel acts such as The Jubilee Hummingbirds, The Spirit Of Memphis Quartet and the Harmony Echoes followed.
Possessed of a voice that Barney Hoskins memorably described as being like "Sam Cooke in terrible pain" O.V Wright was tempted from the path of gospel righteousness by Roosevelt Jamison.
Jamison was a remarkable man. Starting as a mere orderly in the City of Memphis hospital he managed to qualify as a medical technologist. To learn what he needed Roosevelt attended the lectures of Dr L.W. Diggs working as his slide projectionist since segregation at the University of Tennessee made it impossible for him, as a black man, to be a student there.
At one time Jamison had harboured ambitions as a singer but decided concentrated on songwriting and managing gospel acts instead as friends had told him his timing wasn't good.
One of the acts he was involved in was The Harmony Echoes which featured both James Carr and O.V. Wright as vocalists.
Jamison recalled in a 1988 copy of Soul Survivor magazine:"O.V. was very concentrative. He would think about a single note or phrase for a long time and 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."
Wright who in addition to gospel singing was working as a garbage man at this time and wanted to break into R&B field, where he saw an opportunity for commercial success.
In 1963 Jamison, who was married with a child, had fallen in love with a nurse who worked at the same hospital as him:
"One day we were sitting at a little drive-in place where we would all go and get sandwiches and things and the moon was shining bright, and I just started messing with this poem about how I roamed the prairies, searched the universe, trying to find ways to express just how strong my love is." (Sweet Soul Music Peter Guralnick)
This poem would form the basis of Wright's first hit on the tiny Goldwax label but not before Jamison had tried to pitching it to Memphis' big R&B label Stax.
"Well y'know, I had written this song and 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 had 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 on the piano while I sang onto a tape machine." Jamison recalled (Soul Survivor number 9 Summer 1988).
Jim Stewart, head of Stax apparently passed on the song believing it too gospel and so Jaminson turned up one night at Goldwax founders Quinton Claunch's place;
"I heard a knock on my door at about ten o'clock and found Roosevelt Jamison, James Carr and O.V. Wright standing there. They had this little portable recorder so we sat right down on the floor and listened to some tapes. Both of them just knocked me out, and I made moves to sign 'em on the spot" said Claunch. (Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted Barney Hoskins).
Claunch didn't much care for the That's How Strong My Love Is either:
" I brought a tape of that song to Quinton's house and played it for them but they didn't really care too much for it. 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 D.J. 's got it they preferred the B-side and played it instead." recalled Jamison.(Soul Survivor)
At about the same time Stax ,despite their purported lack of interest in the song, decided to cut That's How Strong My Love Is with their biggest star, Otis Redding.
Jamison says "My understanding is that later, while they were working on an Otis Redding session, Steve 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 numerous other verses..."(Soul Survivor)
DJ A.C. Williams, known as "Moohaw" , at WDIA in Memphis suggested to Stax that Otis' single be flipped to plug Mr.Pitiful in order to give O.V.'Wright's version a chance to break.
A more serious problem came in the shape of Peacock Records owner Don Robey.
Robey, a Texan, owned the Memphis gospel label Duke to which The Sunset Travellers were signed when O.V. Wright had sang with them. Wright did not believe the contract included his work as a solo artist but Robey felt differently. Goldwax owners came to a deal whereby they retained the rights to the hit single That's How Strong My Love Is but surrendered any claims to the artist O.V. Wright.
Speaking to Tim Perlich for Soul Survivor magazine in 1988 Roosevelt Jamison said:
“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 D.J. named Dickie Doo, but Quinton Claunch refused to give us the money for 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.”
Jamison stayed with Goldwax and he and Wright never worked together again:
"Me and O.V. shook hands, and O.V. told me if I ever wanted to go with him, and leave all this other stuff alone, I could have fifty percent of his salary. But I never did do that" (Sweet Soul Music Peter Guralnick).
So in 1966 Robey put O.V.Wright on his new R&B label, Back Beat, and, in a stroke of genius, assigned Willie Mitchell to produce him.
From Ashland Mississippi, Willie Mitchell was a music man through and through. Whilst at school Mitchell had become a trumpet player and played on early B.B. King sides.When drafted into the army, in 1950, he had a job DJing for Special Services and subsequently worked with Vic Damone's 18 piece road band.
From the middle of the fifties he had settled in Memphis and his band ,which had a residency at The Plantation Inn, was the acme of cool. Mitchell was also a face on the recording scene A&Ring, producing and arranging for a variety of Memphis' independant labels including most famously for Hi Records.
Mitchell had a vision which he articulated thus:
"I wanted to cut a record that would sell black and white, combine the two, you know in a pleasant kind of music. With O.V. Wright and Bobby Bland (who Robey had also brought to Mitchell to work his production magic on), their style was too strong in one direction, it was too rough. I wanted to add more class to it. O.V.'s music was a little more laid back; Bobbys had a little more spark to it. But I was trying to get a combination of the two" (Sweet Soul Music Peter Guralnick)
In his autobiography Take Me To The River Al Green, with whom Mitchell would most profitably realise this vision says of Mitchell :
"He was by inclination, a jazzman, given to a smooth uptown instrumental sound that made the most out of every note. By trade however he had become familiar with the stompin', shoutin' dance floor rattlin' style of cut loose R&B"
This is not to say that the records Mitchell cut with Wright were not a success. Commercially the sides Mitchell cut with Wright at Back Beat, such as Eight Men and Four Women and You're Gonna Make Me Cry, were hits. Artistically they and others like, say, Lets Straighten It Out or A Nickel and a Nail represent something of a high water mark in Southern Soul.
Wright recorded with Mitchell at Hi records for much of the seventies but drug abuse took its toll and in November 1980 aged just 41 Wright died of a heart attack.
Wright had never been careful with money as his brother Eddie Lewis said: "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 fast cars." (Sweet Soul Music Peter Guralnick)
Willie Mitchell paid for a funeral and the gravestone was supposed to be covered by insurance, but somehow it just never came through so O.V. Wright lay in an unmarked grave at New Park Cemetery.
On the 9th March this year Preston Lauterbach of the excellent Back Roads Of American Music blog posted to the Southern Soul Group that anonymous soul fans had placed a marker on James Carr's grave at the same cemetery.
Preston's comment: "Hopefully the same group has some love and a little more dough for O.V. Wright who still lies in an unmarked grave nearly 30 years after his premature death." spurred the group into action with people asking how they can help mark the resting place of this great artist.
So Preston, Red Kelly (of the awesome B -Side blog ) and Southern Soul Group member Ricky Stevens joined forces to make this dream a reality by establishing The O.V. Wright Memorial Fund.
You can donate to this fund via PayPal (or any credit card) by visiting either The B- side, Backroads or clicking the image in the sidebar here.
UPDATE (from Red Kelly and the O.V. Wright Memorial Fund)
Just a note to let you know that we have set up a home page for The O.V. Wright Memorial Fund: http://www.ovwright.org/
Hopefully it will provide all of us with a central location for news and updates on our joint project, as well as an easier URL
to direct potential contributors to in the future.
We would also like to acknowledge thodse who have donated already (that would be you) on the site, however we didn't want
to do it without your permission. If you'd rather we didn't print your name, please let us know.
Those of you with 'blogs' and websites, we will be linking to you as well... so if you have any cool sidebar images or anything to send us, we'll definitely use them...
Together we can do anything.