|I'm finding it hard to believe that it has been 5 years since I posted this! You can't call yourself a Soul fan if you don't have this!|
by Bill Pollak (Originally published in MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Gary Graff, Josh Freedom du Lac, and Jim McFarlin (eds.); Visible Ink Press (Detroit, MI): 1998.)
Born Overton Vertis Wright, October 9, 1939, in Leno, TN. Died November 16, 1980, in Mobile, AL.
"Let's not mince words: O.V. Wright was the greatest deep-soul singer ever. By the time he cut his first secular recording, "That's How Strong My Love Is" for Goldwax Records of Memphis, Tennessee (1964), Wright was already a well-known and successful gospel singer, having sung and recorded with gospel groups such as the Spirit of Memphis Quartet and the Sunset Travelers. Wright is by no means the only artist to abandon the sanctuary of the church in search of the rewards and temptations of the secular world. The pop recordings of Sam Cooke, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, and Johnnie Taylor all make overt or oblique reference to the trauma of this self-imposed exile. But in the work of no other artist, with the possible exception of Green, does this exile play so central a role. Wright's recordings are unmistakably the work of a spiritually troubled man. As if to underscore the gravity of his choice, Wright's secular recordings, more than those of any of his peers, cleave faithfully to the style, structure, and most importantly the feeling and fervor of the deepest and most heartfelt gospel music. The presence of this theme in all of his strongest performances--"You're Gonna Make Me Cry," "Eight Men, Four Women," "Everybody Knows (The River Song)," "Born All Over," "Heartaches, Heartaches," "Memory Blues"--give them a timeless universality that places them on a par with the hymns of Mahalia Jackson, the blues of Robert Johnson, or the country music of Hank Williams.
There were two distinct periods in Wright's 15-year secular career, delineated by the demise of his first record label, Back Beat, which had been owned and operated by the don of Houston rhythm and blues, Don Robey. Midway in his career, Wright migrated to Hi Records, where his longtime producer Willie Mitchell was the principal talent director. (Somehow he fails to mention that Wright went to prison for narcotics, his label was sold to ABC and Don Robey died so his hold on OV was gone. ABC was not interested in him when he was released from prison so he was a free agent picked up by old friend Willie Mitchell who was now producer and AR guy for Hi Records! Surprising in what is otherwise a nice piece.) Few artists in any medium exhibit so huge a gap between artistic quality and commercial success as O.V. Wright. Wright's two most successful records, "You're Gonna Make Me Cry" and "Eight Men, Four Women," came early in his career at Back Beat, and neither recording received any airplay outside the circumscribed world of 1960s R&B radio. In fact, R&B radio in the late 1960s, the heyday of southern gospel-inflected soul music, is the only radio format during the years spanned by Wright's career in which it is possible to imagine Wright's chilling statements from the spiritual void finding a home. Wright is an artist whose reputation is destined to grow with the historical perspective afforded by time.
Willie Mitchell's production values and house musicians (the Hi Rhythm Section, among others) were essential elements in the brilliance of Wright's recordings. Mitchell had achieved great commercial and artistic success helping Al Green craft a new kind of Memphis soul music in the 1970s. Undoubtedly motivated by the desire to help Wright achieve more of the success and recognition that he so deserved, Mitchell attempted to adapt this softer, more melodic sound to Wright's recordings during Wright's later period at Hi Records. That this sound was not entirely suited to Wright's unique gifts provides one explanation for the relative superiority of the Back Beat recordings. Another factor is that, by all accounts, the O.V. Wright who recorded for Hi was deteriorating from a drug habit that ultimately claimed his life. A comparison of the photographs from the BackBeat albums and the later Hi albums provides stark evidence of his physical deterioration. He died in an ambulance, en route to the hospital, at the age of 41, consumed by the music that haunted him and the life that went with it."