Album cover

Willie Wright: The Timeless Truth

Manhattan's Wurlitzer Building, Floor #8, Room 551. Spring, 1977. The cheapest custom studio in New York City has cut their hourly rate in half to accommodate a middle-aged black folk singer and his ten original songs. In the 36’x45’ Studio A sits rhythm guitarist, vocalist, and flautist Willie Wright, guitarist Harry Jensen, and drummer George “Buzzy” Bragg. Beyond a double-pane of glass, engineer Vinny Leary lords over the NCI console, watching 1” tape roll through the Scully deck as Wright counts off. Over the next eight hours, the band will track the bulk of Wright’s second and final album in one or two takes. In exchange for dropping their fees, Variety Recording Studio will tack a 14-second advertisement onto the front of the resulting long player:

Hello, Music People of the World! Hotel Records and Variety Recording at 130 West 42nd Street in New York City proudly present Mr. Willie Wright!

Six weeks later, and at a cost of roughly $2700.00, all 1000 copies of Telling The Truth are shipped via Greyhound bus to Boston. Sold from the trunk of a car and from a handful of resort stages, the humble album disappears into the collections and garages of Nantucket tourists, taking what was left of a near-30-year career along with it.

Bayland, Mississippi, July 7th, 1939. William Gathright is born an only child in the heart of the Deep South, his family on the move from hamlet to hamlet. William's mother is a gypsy of part-Cherokee descent; it may be her itinerant sensibilities that point Willie toward his life as an adaptable and wandering musician, a man who’d later become comfortable making a home of every hotel room. At the age of three, Willie resides in Osceola, Arkansas; two years later, his family settles in St. Louis, Missouri. Despite Willie’s constant exposure to a then-thriving St. Louis music scene swarming around his mother Mary’s soul food kitchen—situated next door to a lively bar at which local St. Louis jazz and blues musicians caroused until the wee hours—it isn’t until the Gathrights relocate to New York City that Willie sets himself on the path of a performer.


In 1951, the Gathrights took up residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, renting modestly at 101st Street and 1st Ave. Street corners were bustling with Harlem doo-woppers, and Willie wasted no time, lending his tenor to local acappella ensemble the Persuaders. For nearly a decade, the teenage Gathright and his ghetto barbershop gaggle appeared at amateur shows and talent contests, amassing a solid local following among uptown R&B circles. In 1962, the Persuaders added their first instrumentalist: guitarist Harry Jensen. An immediate connection formed between Jensen and Gathright, and soon the two were holding their own secret rehearsals with drummer George “Buzzy” Bragg. As soul was just starting to crown, Willie bailed out of the Persuaders and formed what he hoped would be a more commercially viable trio.

Willie Wright and Combo—with Jensen on lead guitar, Bragg on drums, and a Gath-less Wright on electric piano and vocals—divorced themselves from the 50s entirely, developing a set of contemporary covers that incorporated both hip rock and smash R&B. Between select gigs at Harlem’s Baby Grand and Renaissance clubs, the combo made its nut performing in the community centers of uptown housing projects for the NYC Youth Board. George Bragg, tired of treading water with the Combo after three years, left in 1966 to join Ervan Waters and Sam Culley as the Soul Three. The remaining Wright/Jensen duo expanded its domain, gigging amid Greenwich Village’s booming downtown folk scene. Wright’s repertoire was fanning outward from jazz, R&B, and soul to embrace folk, rock, and even country & western if the situation called for it. As Jensen remembers, “Willie would never really let you know what to do—he’d just say ‘Play, Harry!’” before allowing a new song to settle naturally into its own style and key.

Wright’s unpredictable set list and versatility on stage swiftly landed him a regular spot at Brandy’s, an Upper Eastside nightclub on 84th Street. Jensen recalls Brandy’s as a typical hole-in-the-wall saloon, replete with peanut shells scattered across its grimy floor. What it did have was a regular clientele that fixated instantly on Wright’s no-frills charisma, his impeccable presentation, and his earthy stage presence, peppered with audience interaction. As a performer—even during these early years—he tested the boundaries imposed by genre and racial stereotyping to play a music that was ultimately universal. Wright stresses to this day, “If I don’t get a feeling about the music I won’t play it at all….I only play what I feel.”

A handful of early demos were cut at Variety Recording’s original location just off Broadway at 225 West 46th Street, captained by longtime Wright acquaintance Fred Vargas. But the energy of the live show went uncaptured. Harry Jensen took Uncle Sam’s call in early 1967, turning the duo into a one-man show. Sticking to his mainstay gig at Brandy’s, Wright added another regular set at The Cellar on Manhattan’s west side. When Brandy’s opened a second club in Boston, Wright alternated weekends between the two clubs, braving the I-95 corridor on a regular basis. His five-year marriage was beginning to show signs of strain, with all but one year producing another child. In the fall of 1967, Brandy’s offered a more permanent slot at their burgeoning spinoff. In a decision he would later describe as “the most difficult moment of my young life,” Willie Wright left his four children—Willie Jr., Sheila, Lisa, and Babeta—and got back on I-95.

An outsider the moment he relocated to Boston’s Allston area, Wright brought with him a heritage that set him apart from his predominantly Irish and Italian neighbors. His attempt at starting a record shop two doors down from his home at 1309 Commonwealth Avenue led to a mysterious fire, but Wright regrouped, finding a new business partner in local hippy artist Bob Green. They opened The Cellar, a 24-hour curio shop trading in incense, oils, art, records, and clothing. The Cellar quickly established itself as an epicenter of countercultural activity within Allston, bringing together elements of the Nation of Islam, radical hippies, Timothy Leary chemists, and a cross-section of Boston musicians including Eden’s Children, Orpheus, and the Bagatelle. Wright’s involvement with The Cellar further revealed his constant joust with conventionality: Green reports that Wright would close the store once a month and, quite literally and without explanation, shift the entire contents of the store by 90 degrees. After Wright casually announced his plans for shifting The Cellar a quarter turn vertically—thereby suspending both counter and clerks from the ceiling above—Green had no choice but to end the experiment following the lease’s expiration. 

Willie Wright’s children kept him familiar with I-95. Divorced, he became accustomed to extended stints at several of New York’s seediest hotels, including the notorious Hotel Albert, a poor man’s Chelsea Hotel in Greenwich Village and a hangout for local musicians. George Bragg and Harry Jensen, though making steady money with the Skull Snaps and Jimmy Castor Bunch respectively, would often sit in on his gigs, looking positively disheveled against Wright’s be-suited persona. Afternoons were spent making the record label rounds, cutting a circuit through mid-town Manhattan and feasting on meager frankfurter-and-soda lunches. Despite promises of brand new Cadillacs and suits of gold, Wright was uncompromising as regards his musical output and ownership. Besides that, record labels rarely knew what to make of Wright and his demos anyway. Interested parties lobbied hard for him to choose soul or choose folk, while Atlantic and RCA rejected him outright over uncertainty about how to market and label a Willie Wright product.

Frustration for Wright was kindled by the industry’s inability to accept his music for the intuitive genre-hopping that it was. Wright didn’t care much for studio rehearsals or for pre-selecting the tunes he’d record. If a song didn’t come naturally by the third take, Wright scrapped it completely and moved on to something new, often with minimal instruction to studio musicians in the room with him. Staunch devotion to artistic freedom, a mistrust of the industry, and an unwillingness to compromise his creative process culminated in the formation of Wright’s own Hotel Records in 1970. Mirroring Willie’s tale of two cities, Lack Of Education—the first of Hotel Records’ three releases—paired studio tracks recorded with Jensen in New York City with live cuts taped at Boston’s Tea Party club with bassist Paul Robinson and Roland Hazard on congas. The 1971 album, intended to satisfy the Willie Wright fan base with recorded material, collected much of Wright’s then-current club set list and sold well at New York appearances. At the time, Wright couldn’t escape a stage before offering his take on James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” or George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” Despite Willie’s initial plan for Lack Of Education to showcase it, original material was scant outside of an adapted Gordon Lightfoot track that Wright called “Too Soon To Know”; the bombastic “South Africa” instrumental; and the title cut. Although Wright’s propensity was to keep the bulk of his private life away from his fans and off the stage, he chose pictures of his four children to adorn the album cover along with two shots of his long-time girlfriend Susan Haynes. Why Wright failed to deliver a similarly personal experience for Hotel’s debut LP remains obscured.

With Wright settling into a new pad on Wilton Terrace in Brighton, and after a three-year lull following Lack Of Education, Hotel unveiled its second offering, a 45 RPM single containing a fiery version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Right On For The Darkness” and Willie Wright original “Africa” on the flip. Amid the extreme racial violence that erupted in Boston following Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s Supreme Court decision calling for the forced de-segregation of the city’s school system, Curtis Mayfield’s lyrics became Willie Wright’s weaponry. "Right On For The Darkness" would remain Wright’s most overtly political recording, expressive of the moment’s tense climate. Perhaps the most personal piece of recorded work in Wright’s career to that point, “Africa” finds him coming to terms with his heritage, inviting listeners into a process of self-revelation regarding his African roots. The 45, issued in a pressing of 500 copies, was a dog in New England, especially after most of Wright’s attempts to put the disc in the hands of local DJs were rebuffed. Even those copies that reached the right jock shot Willie Wright in the foot: a typo on the label specified a 619 number, sending any callbacks meant for Willie to some confused soul in San Diego, California.

Willie & Susan

1975 found Wright signed with a Boston booking agent and traveling regularly to Nantucket Island, where he performed for restaurant, private party, and yachting clientele, and made at least one local television appearance. Island serenity calmed Wright toward a new focus on songwriting, as Nantucket crowds evolved into a safe haven for showcasing more original material in a live setting than Willie had ever considered before. With bookings on the rise in 1976, Wright settled permanently on the windswept island free of even a single stoplight, then or now. A quiet home by nature, Nantucket also became an artistic stronghold for Wright—the nest for his career’s golden period. The brittle North Eastern winter provided a backdrop for the material that would comprise Telling The Truth. Wright intended album opener “Nantucket” as a tribute and dedication to his newfound home and the greatest fans he’d ever known. And “Jackie’s Song” was written for a girlfriend—one of dozens, according to Wright, a man who’d never truly settle down until his early 60s—who wanted more commitment than the always-packed-bag of Willie Wright’s life. As he succinctly explained, “All I had for her was this song.”

On “Indian Reservation” Wright continued to explore the heritage first discussed in “Africa.” “I knew for sure I wasn’t an African,” Wright recalls. “I figured that out real quick and then I started doing research about my family. I wasn’t only thinking about myself but was writing to others who didn’t necessarily know who they were. I was walking around the country not knowing who I was—it was embarrassing.” Perhaps the album's most personal moment is “Son, Don’t Let Life Pass You By,” a lament for Willie Jr., Wright's oldest child, who at 13 was confused and angry about his father’s transient lifestyle. “I wrote it for my son. I wanted him to understand me better at the time. We don’t talk but I still feel the same way. I can’t change the fact that he’s my son. He’ll be my son until I die, and after. I guess we’re stuck with that.”

As the winter thaw gave way to the spring of 1977, Wright ferried to Boston to lay down vocals and guitar sketches for the ten songs that would make up Telling The Truth. Tape under one arm, he made the trek down I-95 to New York City one more time, reuniting with Bragg and Jensen to add drums and electric guitar at Variety Recording Studio on 42nd Street. Engineer Vinny Leary recalled the session as rather painless, save for the drums being “tricky because of slight tempo changes.” Wright had called in a favor from his old pal Fred Vargas, who—after the original Variety burned down in 1968—set up new digs beneath Mastertone Studios in the Wurlitzer Building. Wright recalls nailing the session unrehearsed: “We just went in and did it.” On “I’m So Happy Now,” Wright invited his daughter Sheila in to sing backups, mending a few slats of the familial fence in the process. 

The manufacture of the album itself was a straightforward custom arrangement, with Variety handling layout, typesetting, printing, and LP pressing duties. Mario Astorga, the Apollo Theater’s house photographer—likely brought in as a favor to Vargas—shot the cover, though he has no recollection of doing so. Surviving evidence of that shoot was lost in a 2005 flood. The master tapes, true to Wright’s fly-by-night nature, were left behind for “safekeeping”…and were subsequently tossed in the trash, when Variety shuttered in 1989 following Fred Vargas’ AIDS related death. Hewing to a somewhat noble but career-crushing tack, Wright deliberately kept his music a cottage industry; he focused not on fame but on his own vested respect for the process of creating the music itself. Beneath every folk- and Americana-inflected tune, Wright’s deep soul influences lurked. “I play the way I feel,” Wright says. Like the two Hotel Records releases before it, Telling The Truth went largely undistributed, passing mainly through the hands of a meager Nantucket, New York, and Boston fan base.

Willie Wright played to Nantucket crowds for three more years, gradually gathering disillusionment with live performance and with the music business altogether. He moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1980, and has ducked the radar continuously in the 30 years since. Harry Jensen recalls arranging for studio rehearsal time with Wright in 1981, planning to produce an album as a duo, but Wright neither showed in New York nor ever reestablished contact with Jensen again. Wright performed for a spell under the Brother Bill moniker and opened a record store under the same name for as brief a spell. In time, he ceased live performance completely and made rent by selling jewelry on the street. Far as he strayed from the public eye, Wright never stopped writing or composing. Not even Parkinson’s disease—the diagnosis Wright received in 2008—has separated Wright from songwriting. “I’m trying to do something comfortable with my life,” Wright remarks. “It’s not really about the money. I want to contribute something… something timeless.”

He’s already achieved what amounts to a perpetual encore. To quote Variety Recording’s in-house announcer and his 35-year-old welcome to Telling The Truth, Side B: 

“Once again, here’s Willie Wright.”

- Ari Leichtman & Ken Shipley, 2010