One of the key figures in bringing an intense gospelish vocal delivery to rock ‘n’ roll on a succession of hits in the late 1940’s and early 50’s who has become far more renown in the years since for being the primary influence on Little Richard.

Wright was born in 1932 in Atlanta, Georgia and by his teens had received his primary education through watching shows at Bailey’s 81 Theater in town. It wouldn’t be long before the openly gay youth was on stage himself, as both a dancer and a female impersonator, a role that was so common in this era of black theater that it was one of the first examples of a societal acceptance of homosexuality in America. During the warmer months the “Tent Shows” that featured this brand of entertainment traveled everywhere east of the Mississippi River, from the Canadian border to the deepest south, then each winter they would take up residencies in the local clubs.

It was there that he found himself propelled to stardom when performing on a bill with Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown and Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, who was so impressed with Wright that he called his record label, Savoy, and recommended they sign him. Producer Teddy Reig inked him to a contract almost immediately and his first release in the summer of 1949 became a national hit.

With his gospel infused tenor voice, songwriting skills and highly dramatic delivery Wright added yet another prototype to the growing rock field and during this time met Richard Penniman who quickly emulated the rising star’s look, complete with pompadour and make-up, as well as his vocal technique. A few years later it was Wright who got Richard his first recording contract in 1952 thereby launching the career of one of rock’s greatest artists.

The hits on Savoy kept coming through 1951 as Wright also became one of the most reliably explosive live acts in rock, his flashy looks (complete with gold teeth), and emotive testifying bringing down the house on the chiltin’ circuit. His effect on audiences at the time was captured on a rare recording of him performing at The Apollo Theater in 1952, one of the few existing live documents of that era of rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet by that time his hits had dried up and in 1954 he and Savoy parted company. He wound up at Peacock Records run by the notorious Don Robey out of Houston, which ironically is where Little Richard was recording at the time. Neither was able to get hits, but Wright’s records were just as powerful as ever while some of his best sides never saw the light of day. When Richard became a star in 1955 on Specialty his mentor’s career as a recording artist was all but over, save for a few sides issued on increasingly minor labels towards the end of the decade.

That’s when Wright resumed his club career, primarily as a performing MC in Atlanta. He was slowed by a series of strokes in the 1980’s and died in 1991 at the age of 59.

For a brief time Billy Wright was rock’s most notoriously flamboyant star, the vital link back to a style of showmanship yet to be corrupted by white America, one which helped to shape rock ‘n’ roll. But it was his protégé who had better timing, ironically by coming into his own just as white kids were picking up on the sounds of black rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950’s, leaving Wright a mere footnote in the career of a much bigger star.
BILLY WRIGHT DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Savoy 710; August, 1949)
A dynamic debut masterfully performed to draw out maximum suspense and emotion, delivered with an unrivaled dramatic flair well beyond his years. (9)

(Savoy 710; August, 1949)
Stylistically very similar to the top side, and a bigger hit for that matter, but it’s lacking the lyrical insight as well as being a little less varied musically… still quite good, but not quite AS good. (6)

(Savoy 715; November, 1949)
A thrilling change of pace from his initial balladry, this finds Wright tearing through an uptempo romp with an endearing boastful charm that shows him to have few rivals when it comes to vocal ability no matter what style of rock he chooses. (8)

(Savoy 715; November, 1949)
Wright’s first misstep, not because he doesn’t sell this well vocally – he does – but rather because the song itself is rather one dimensional and not helped by a somewhat uninspired arrangement. (4)

(Savoy 733; February, 1950)
An interesting record more than a great one, another song from Wright which eschews typical structure to present an intriguing parable which allows him to showcase his dramatic vocal style that might’ve rivaled some of his earlier work if it’d had better musical support. (6)

(Savoy 733; February, 1950)
Though stylistically repetitive to much of his previous work Wright delivers on his vocal and lyrical responsibilities here fine, but the accompaniment is too unambitious for it to make it stand out in any way. (5)

(Savoy 741; April, 1950)
A wild performance that’s the perfect showcase for the flamboyant singer and showman who cuts loose on the studio floor with musicians who are joyously hanging on for dear life, the results of which lay the groundwork for much of what followed in the ensuing years. (9)

(Savoy 741; April, 1950)
As with all of Wright’s material this is very well sung, utilizing his dramatic abilities at every turn, but the song itself is old hat by now, both thematically and in terms of the musical support which makes this seem stagnant compared to the more adventurish sides he was laying down. (5)

(Atlanta 6000; June, 1950)
A beer commercial done as a favor to a popular disc jockey which was then marketed as a record and scored big across the South, yet it works well as both a song and a look into Wright’s persona most fans didn’t get to see on more traditional releases. (6)

(Atlanta 6000; June, 1950)
A well-conceived if fairly standard B-side allowing Wright to wring the pathos from a song about being treated badly by those around him and while the arrangement is a little sparse it doesn’t sound out of place with the content. (4)

(Savoy 761; September, 1950)
Updating a 1920’s blues record by a woman into a rock song in 1950 for a male turns out not to be too difficult for Wright, who emphasizes the humor in the lyrics with his delivery which was played straight by Ida Cox, giving this a nice modern twist. (6)