The Soul of O.V. Wright
One day at work about 20 years ago, I was listening to a cassette tape I
had made of soul music from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. A fellow worker
and soul music enthusiast walked up and listened to it for a while and
asked, “What about O. V. Wright? You got anything by him on there?” I
told him that I wasn’t familiar with O. V. Wright and the guy
just shook his head. “These guys are okay,” he said, “but…man, O. V.
Wright feels it when he sings.” Of course, back in the ’80s, prior to
the CD revolution, a lot of great music was out of print, including most
of Wright’s incredible catalog, so a lot of people didn’t know who O. V.
Overton Verdis Wright got his start, like many soul singers, on the
gospel circuit with several groups, including the Five Harmonaires, The
Spirit of Memphis Quartet, the Luckett Brothers, the Highway QC’s, and
most notably the Sunset Travelers, with whom he recorded several singles
and an album for the Peacock label.
While working the gospel circuit, Wright met songwriter Roosevelt
Jamison. Jamison, who later played a big role in singer James Carr’s
career, wrote “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and eventually persuaded
Goldwax Records to sign Wright, who recorded him singing the song as a
B-side (the A-side was “There Goes My Used To Be”) in 1964. DJ’s flipped
the record over and started playing the B-side. Unfortunately for
Wright, Otis Redding heard it and almost immediately put out a cover
version that quickly buried Wright’s. The Rolling Stones subsequently
covered it as well. This was followed by Peacock label owner Don Robey
suing Goldwax, claiming Wright was still under contract to Peacock as a
member of the Sunset Travelers.
Robey won the lawsuit, and Wright found his way back to Peacock’s Back
Beat subsidiary, where he teamed up with Memphis producer Willie
Mitchell to record some of the sweetest, and most underrated, soul music
of any era. Fortunately, several years ago, MCA Records resurrected much
of the old Duke/Peacock catalog in the early ’90s for the CD collectors.
Among the best of their efforts was a single disc retrospective of
Wright’s Back Beat recordings, The Soul of O. V. Wright, which
captures 18 of his most memorable songs from 1965 to 1972.
The opening cut from 1965, “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry,” is a stunner.
Though often covered by future artists, none of them come close to the
spine-chilling intensity of the original. “I’d Rather Be Blind,
Crippled, and Crazy,” from 1972, is a more upbeat, lighthearted affair
which was written by Wright, future Hi Rhythm section keyboardist
Charles Hodges, and Darryl Carter. The magnificent “Eight Men, Four
Women” ended up being one of his highest charting records, going to #4
on the Billboard R&B chart.
Other lesser known, but equally powerful tracks include “Born All Over,”
a smooth blend of soul and gospel co-written by Johnny Clyde Copeland,
“Drowning On Dry Land,” and the energetic “Ace Of Spades.”
There are also a couple of gospel selections: an updated version of the
old favorite, “Motherless Child,” and “I’m Going Home (To Live With
God)”, Wright’s last song on his final Back Beat album.
However, if O. V. Wright had not recorded anything but “A Nickel And A
Nail,” his place in soul history would have been secure. Wright wrenches
every ounce of emotion from the song. A parable of loss, love, and
despair, this song more than any other is the embodiment of soul music.
After leaving Back Beat in 1972, he joined Mitchell at Hi Records, where
he kept recording album after album of deep soul, with only the
slightest concessions to the arrival (and departure) of disco. While
there were some fine performances, such as “Into Something (Can’t Shake
Loose)” and “I Don’t Do Windows,” among others, none of it was on a
consistent level with his earlier recordings. He passed away in 1980 at
41 from a heart attack many believed was caused by years of excess and
Long underappreciated, O. V. Wright joined the grace and beauty of
gospel with the grit and passion of deep southern soul. It was an
arrangement few performers have equaled since his passing. The Soul
of O. V. Wright is essential listening for fans of soul music. As my
friend said, he felt it when he sang…..and so will you.
--- Graham Clarke