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SAVOY 710; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

We’re now entering a stretch in rock ‘n’ roll where we’re regularly seeing more enduring big name artists appearing on the scene, in many cases already displaying the full breadth of their ability even as they were decidedly lacking in experience.

Contrast this to rock’s first year in which the assemblage of talent ran the gamut from fading names from older styles who saw in this new music a chance to be reborn commercially and artistically but who were still known quantities not prone to offering much in the way of surprises, and on the other side of the ledger a wide array of novices who had the inspiration and overall ability to shape this music but no reasonable assurance of its ultimate destination.

Not so today. The artists coming into the picture for the first time now are those who’ve come of age with rock as a fact of life, a proven commodity and fertile ground for self-expression. The roll call of major names we’ve met lately is as impressive as they get: Stick McGhee and LaVern Baker in March, The Robins and Goree Carter in April, Floyd Dixon in May, Freddie Mitchell in June and Ruth Brown in July.

Meanwhile others whose earlier efforts had been tentative and somewhat unfocused were coming into their own now as well, those like Dave Bartholomew, The Five Scamps and Little Willie Littlefield, all of whom had taken huge leaps with their recent output.

Not all of these names would go on to become legends but most would have long rewarding careers and not be in danger of being completely forgotten even now, two decades into the next century.

Add to that list Billy Wright, a consistent hit maker over the next few years whose legacy goes well beyond the handful of Top Ten smashes he released, as his vocal style would be appropriated in due time by one of the defining acts in rock history.

This is where that all began.
 

 

Make You Do Things That You Know Are Wrong
Billy Wright was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1932 and had just turned 17 years old this past May. It shouldn’t need to be said how important this last fact was when it came to rock ‘n’ roll, as it was increasingly the younger artists who were using their own experiences and worldview to shape its sound and perspectives.

But the perspective of Billy Wright was an unusual one, even for those coming of age during the same period.

Wright was one of the many young gay males who found their first opportunities in music performing in drag as female impersonators on the many Tent Shows that toured the south during the first half of the 20th Century. These traveling revues consisted of anything and everything to draw attention to their shows which were exceedingly popular throughout the rural south. In an era before television popularized Milton Berle mincing about the stage in drag for laughs the novelty of seeing men dressed as women singing on these stages was considered a better draw than having men singing AS men.

It also of course afforded homosexuals one place where they might be accepted, even celebrated, in a world that otherwise discriminated against them at every turn.

It was in one of these Minstrel Shows, Snake Anthony’s Hot Harlem Revue, where Wright met Richard Penniman, another talented effeminate teen with singing aspirations.

Though hailed as an absolute original upon bursting onto the scene in the mid-1950’s Little Richard borrowed heavily from three distinct artists which he then molded into one dynamic persona. One was Esquerita, who’d go on to his own short-lived notoriety as a flamboyant rock act of the late 1950’s and early 60’s and was the one who he most resembled at a glance and who taught Richard the finer points on piano. Another was Marion Williams from the gospel group The Clara Ward Singers which is where Richard got his distinctive shriek – “Wooo!” – that would grace nearly all of his records during his heyday.

But it was Billy Wright who had the most profound influence on Richard, as the younger man took not just his overall vocal delivery from Wright, something which is most evident on ballads, but who also gave him his look – the loud clothes, high conk hairdo and makeup (Pancake #5 in case you’re interested). When he wasn’t heaping praise on himself, Little Richard always went out of his way to credit Wright even long after most of those doing the asking, not to mention those doing the reading, had no idea who Billy Wright was.

If being an influence on the self-proclaimed Architect Of Rock ‘n’ Roll was all Billy Wright’s legacy boiled down to it’d still be enough to get him plenty of recognition in the big scheme of things but Wright was hardly without a ton of credentials in his own right.

After enduring the grind of the minstrel show life, which in spring and summer would take him everywhere east of the Mississippi River from the Canadian border down to the Gulf Of Mexico, before settling into Atlanta club scene in the winters, Wright got his break when a show came into town featuring Wynonie Harris and Paul Williams.

Williams was suitably impressed with the young singer and recommended him to Savoy Records, where he was recording himself, and producer Teddy Reig promptly signed Wright in the spring of 1949, cutting his initial sides right in Atlanta at a radio station. The rags to riches, or in this case rouge to riches, story of Billy Wright was about to take place.
 


 
 

Stay Out All Night Long
There almost couldn’t have been a more apt title for his debut than You Satisfy, because far from being a performer who still needed to find his own voice and work out the kinks of his delivery and polish his on record persona, Wright had all of that down to a T, making this among the most satisfying records of the season.

The elongated intro sounds anticipatory of something big. Slow paced to emphasize the build up that reaches multiple crescendos with emphatic drums along the way, a strip-tease performance captured on wax if there ever was one, the bump and grind progression is wonderfully evocative. Even the trumpet that takes a significant role here can’t dampen things and in fact heralds his eventual arrival with the proper fanfare.

Wright’s voice when it finally comes in is strong and supple, a sinewy tenor that seems coiled and ready to strike. As he eases off following his first few notes you get an immediate sense as to his experience on stage, the way he heightens the drama with breathy pauses and releases the tension with sudden explosions of power that had been held in reserve.

Throughout all this he’s backed primarily by a bluesy piano working the treble keys at a stuttering pace, keeping you slightly off balance while the horns moan with measured assurance to keep you grounded.

It’s an alluring sound, an addictive one even, pulling you in without revealing much, seductive in its methodical precision. Wright for his part doesn’t break this mood but embellishes it with his voice, its tone complimenting the instruments rather than fighting to be noticed above them.

It helps that the story-line is evocative as well even though it doesn’t break any new ground thematically or impart any new insight on the struggles of love. Wright’s perspective is that he knows he’s just like all of those other fools who’ve lost their heart to someone and is counting on you to share in his wounded despair. It’s also perfectly fitting that he’s not making any distinction between genders either with the lyrics. There’s no specific pronouns to cloak his own interests and unless you’d actually SEEN Wright performing in drag somewhere and knew it was the same singer you’d never assume that he was talking about anything other than a girl in the song.

He may be at that, which is another indication of how universal the theme is and how expertly he carries it off. The emotional turmoil of love, regardless of gender, is the subject here and Wright sounds as if he’s been through the ringer with it plenty himself and yet like most everybody else he’s more than willing to endure it for the potential payoff if and when it works out in the end.
 


 

There’s Others Who Want Me
A lot of the great songs – and great artists for that matter – we’ve come across so far seemed to have captured lightning in a bottle with a record flirting with, or even achieving, perfection. There are those songs which just immediately SOUND like hits, either due to the explosiveness of the arrangement and playing which announces itself in no uncertain terms, or the declaratory power and charisma of of the singers whose mere presence on wax leaves no doubt as to their star potential.

Some of them never reach that level again and those who do are often merely refining their most notable attributes in future performances. Many of them are certainly capable of a more nuanced approach and will use that versatility to great effect, but upon hearing them for the first time, at least on their breakout disc, you first recognize the magnitude of the total package in the way it hits you in the face, or the gut, or the groin. Little Richard, as versatile as any artist under the surface veneer actually, was someone who typified this – grabbing you by the throat and demanding a visceral response from anyone within earshot.

Not so with Billy Wright and You Satisfy. This is a record that definitely makes you sit up and take notice but you still need to focus on each and every aspect of it for it to have maximum impact, yet when you DO study it then its quality shines all the more bright.

Take how the title is never revealed, not once until the closing line, a final word on the subject which wraps up the entire premise of somebody remaining devoted to a person who no longer has earned that right… something which is inexplicable when judged from a position of neutrality or common sense, but in the moment is all too understandable.

Wright teases and suggests and hints at this throughout, raking himself over the coals for his weakness until he admits just why he, and all the rest of humanity, are so powerless at times. As a capper to a song by a teenage novice in the studio for the first time this is jaw-dropping in its effect.
 

 
You can see why the record was a hit, you can hear why Little Richard was so profoundly affected by his style and delivery and you certainly can understand why no other form of music available at the time had the potency that rock ‘n’ roll did when it came to satisfying a generation of listeners who required this type of emotional honesty to feel connected to an artist.

What you may have trouble comprehending is why Billy Wright in the years since needed the endorsement of somebody else, even somebody as revered as Little Richard, to remain a marginally recognizable name in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll when what he himself left behind was its own greatest testament.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Billy Wright for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)