TRUTH TELLER Willie Wright

A long-forgotten, soulful
near-masterpiece from 1977 offers both power and poignancy.

 

BY STEVEN
ROSEN

Willie
Wright’s Telling the Truth, the
latest reissue/rediscovery from the archivists at Chicago’s Numero
Group, gets off to one strange start. A jivey voice, which
sounds like it’s introducing a live-radio broadcast from a glittery nightclub,
cheerily says, “Hello, music people of the world. Hotel Records and Variety
Recording at 130 West 42nd St. in New
York City, we proudly present Mr. Willie Wright.”
There’s a slight New York
accent to the voice and you wonder what kind of dated, hipsterish hokum you’re
in for. But then Wright starts to sing a laid-back, introspective, lilting
jazzy-folk number – ” Nantucket Woman” – pushed gently forward by the
expansive, Allman Brother guitar licks of the fine Harry Jensen, and you’re
taken aback. This sounds intimate, personal, real. What gives?

 

That’s
all part of Wright’s unusual story – this album was originally (and barely)
released in 1977, when Wright was just shy of 40. An African-American born in
the South who moved early to New York, discovered his relaxed, mellifluous,
honeyed voice (with a touch of Lou Rawls) and spent a peripatetic career
traveling between New York, Boston and points between.

 

He could
have had a career in the 1970s to match Bill Withers, O.C. Smith or Terry
Callier. And he seems to have tried. But he also seems to have been infused
with quite a bit of the countercultural spirit. According to the copiously
detailed liner notes accompanying this reissue, he and a partner once ran a
head shop in Allston, Mass., but broke up when he wanted to shift
all the contents vertically by 90 degrees. That meant the counter and clerks
would have to be suspended from the ceiling, which struck the partner as a bit
impractical.

 

Maybe
that kind of spirit is why Telling the
Truth
was released on Wright’s own barebones Hotel Records. And in order to
afford its production, he cut a deal with Variety Recording, a studio. It
halved its rate and got a plug on the album’s first cut. Wright pressed just
1,000 copies, selling them himself in Nantucket
where he was a popular club draw.

 

All this
makes Wright seem like a total eccentric, a flake, but he doesn’t sound like
that at all. True, the production limits the dimensionality of the recording,
so his voice isn’t as dynamic as it could be. But nevertheless, it is friendly
and unpretentious, romantic but never melodramatic – it finds the groove and
works intuitively with the limited accompaniment (he, himself, plays rhythm
guitar and flute). At times, the songs have a solid Southern rock-and-soul
dimension. These are tunes Van Morrison would love – quietly trying to push the
romantic into the mystic. Greg Allman, too, would have admired the funky-rock
fatalism of “It’s Only Life, That’s All.”

 

The songs
are often quite touching lyrically. Wright seems to know his dreams of musical
success are slipping from him, and he expresses it with wise resignation. He
seems badly to want love – a good relationship – and to need it to get by.
(Apparently he found it on occasion. the photo above depicts Wright with his
“one-time muse” Susan Hayes.) In “Dressing for the Occasion,” he finds solace
from job-hunting frustrations in his woman’s love. On “In the Beauty of the
Night,” a ballad that Wright prefaces with flute and some dreamy “la la las,”
he sings, “Searching through our sounds, for
our favorite LPs/There isn’t anywhere on earth I’d rather be.”

 

According
to the liner notes, Wright had a troubled family life. And that seems to bother
him. The ballad, “Son, Don’t Let Life Pass You By,” which has some gorgeous
minor-key chord changes to highlight its generous lyrics, is directed toward a
resentful offspring. The piano wisely plays off of Jensen’s guitar – at key
moments the voice is double-tracked. On the carefully pulsating groove of the
celebratory “I’m So Happy Now,” Wright is joined by a daughter on back-up
vocals: “Finally decided, we can’t be divided.”

 

The
reissue includes three extra cuts, two of which are also included on a CD-45.
One is a version of Curtis Mayfield’s powerful “Right On for the Darkness.”

 

Wright,
now just over 70, lives in Providence
and fights  Parkinson’s disease. Numero Group doesn’t dwell on this, but the liner
notes do have a recent quote from him: “I’m trying to do something comfortable
with my life. It’s not really about the money. I want to contribute
something…something timeless.”

 

He’s a
little late getting discovered, but with Telling
the Truth
he just might have done that.

 

Listen to tracks from the Wright
album at the Numero site.

 

Leave a Reply