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’s intense and vocally flamboyant style 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 chitlin’ 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 colorful 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)

(Savoy 761; September, 1950)
Though clearly the prototype for Big John Greer’s 1952 hit “Got You On My Mind”, this song, while providing the melody, theme and despondency that later song borrowed, comes up a little short due to a sparse arrangement and conversational, rather than pointed, lyrics. (4)

(Savoy 776; December, 1950)
An epochal vocal performance by Wright who ramps up the intensity to unbearable levels on this emotional powerhouse of a song, in the process providing the model for so many of rock’s over-the-top singers that followed in his wake. (9)

(Savoy 776; December, 1950)
As songs go this is nothing special as written… a fairly rote look at the love of drink… but with its catchy melody, riffing horns, a great sax solo and Wright’s investment in the shallow characterization this becomes something that’s hard to resist. (7)

(Savoy 781; March, 1951)
Constructed like a one-act play, Wright is in his element here ratcheting up the tension during the slow methodical mid-section until springing the dramatic outcome on you and though musically sparse, the arrangement gives the lyrics the platform they need to make an impact. (9)

(Savoy 781; March, 1951)
More traditionally structured than the top side but this too has a darker psychological bent to it which Wright explores with his usual expert vocal judgement and while musically it’s got the usual trappings to let you enjoy it for that alone the story packs the biggest punch. (7)

(Savoy 810; July, 1951)
A re-worked take on a Paul Gayten song from 1948 finds Wright having changed the lyrics, though not the thematic intent, while bringing a much more frantic pace whose musical assault includes pounding piano and riffing horns that match his crude but effective intensity. (7)

(Savoy 810; July, 1951)
Though he’s hampered by having to fight the alto sax attempting to water this track down, Wright has given himself a good song to work with and it’s his vocal commitment which turns the tide and keeps his hot streak alive with a solid B-side. (6)

(Savoy 819; October, 1951)
Wright didn’t give himself much of a song to work with here and so he’s reduced to trying to hype up weak material through vocal pyrotechnics alone since the band isn’t putting out much themselves making this a good title in search of a story. (4)

(Savoy 819; October, 1951)
The slightly experimental nature of this song in terms of structure isn’t emphasized enough by the band who are going through the motions, undercutting a theatrical semi-spoken vocal performance by Wright with some alluring lyrics along the way. (5)

(December, 1951)
A brilliant – and radical – re-working of a blues classic, complete with new title and a haunting atmospheric backing featuring a saxophone in place of guitar, over which Wright manages to wring out every drop of emotion from his soul in another bravura performance. (9)

(Savoy 827; December, 1951)
A song that sounds ad-libbed with a choppy delivery, unfocused lyrics and no real drama, tension or explosive payoffs. After a decent opening and a promising subject for Wright to examine it is little more than a throwaway track hauled out of mothballs for a rush-release B-side. (3)

(Savoy 837; February, 1952)
One of the more interesting singles of Wright’s career as he covers Little Richard, the kid who was a slavish imitator of him to begin with, as here Wright adopts a more intense style than Richard’s sadder original, while the upfront horns aid him in that cause. (6)

(Savoy 837; February, 1952)
With its rolling boogie and recycled lyrics from countless similarly constructed songs over the years, Wright rides the rhythm with casual confidence while the band lends the perfect support, all churning with the same understated goal in mind. (7)

(Savoy 870; October, 1952)
As bad a choice as a blues classic was for a rock single Wright’s got the emotive vocal style to make something different of this but with an arrangement that sticks too close to the original he’s never given the opportunity to make it more suited for his style. (4)

(Savoy 870; October, 1952)
While he wrote a very interesting song with snarling lyrics delivered with a truly funky delivery that was ahead of its time, the arrangement once again drags him down by giving too much responsibility to the brass section which undercuts the record’s obvious strengths. (5)