Billy Wright was a purveyor of the style of rhythm and blues that reached it’s ultimate crystallization with the rise to stardom of Little Richard via the earth shattering sides issued by Specialty starting with Tutti Frutti 1955. Wright was gay and flamboyant, he had worked the tent shows in drag, a great southern, show biz tradition in itself and an important influence on rock’n’roll–hence the term “tent show queen”. He sang the repertoire of said tradition, many of the same tunes Little Richard would clean up and take to the bank– Tutti Frutti ( original lyrics– “Tutti Frutti/Good bootie/if it don’t fit/don’t force it/just grease it/make it easy”), Busy Bootin’ aka Keep A Knockin’, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me, etc. Other well known recording artists that came out what was a true underground movement of it’s time include Frankie “Half Pint” Jackson, who recorded with Tampa Red in the 1930’s, Esquerita, who taught Little Richard his piano style, Larry Darnell, and of course Little Richard, himself a protege of Billy Wright’s back in Atlanta at the start of his career. A career that began with Richard performing in drag, balancing a chair on his chin while he sang.
Billy Wright is mostly forgotten today, if he’s remembered at all it’s because of his influence on Little Richard who has never been shy about recognizing Wright’s importance, but in the years 1949-51 he had four top ten R&B hits, he was a good draw in nearly every city with a significant black population, and was a sizable star in his hometown of Atlanta.
Everything starts somewhere, Billy Wright popped out of his mother in Atlanta, May 21, 1932. He began singing in church, but he started his show biz career as a dancer, working at the 81 Theater in Atlanta as a young teenager. The 81 had its own traveling tent show, and Billy joined it a teenager, signing on as a dancer. He traveled with the show which toured all over the mid-west and south from Minnesota to Arkansas, and everyplace in between. Billy danced in a chorus line of female impersonators. Eventually he began singing– “I did whatever was popular on the jukeboxes at the time: Wynonie Harris, Dinah Washington, Joe Turner, Buddy and Ella Johnson”*. In the winter the show would be back in Atlanta at the 81 Theater. Atlanta was hopping back in the late 40’s, and Auburn Avenue, the main drag in the black section of town had dozens of clubs– the Poinciana, the Congo, the Zanzibar, the Peacock as well as rhythm and blues and jazz shows at the Piedmont Theater and the VFW hall. Billy played them all. After a few seasons learning the ropes with the folks in the 81 Club show, Billy went solo and got his big break while appearing on a bill at the Auditorium in Atlanta that included Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown and Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams. It was Williams, a honking tenor sax player who had once been with Duke Ellington, then riding high with “The Hucklebuck”, the best selling R&B disc of 1949, who brought Billy Wright to Savoy Records.
Savoy signed Billy Wright in 1949 and recorded him at two sessions at a radio station in Atlanta. Teddy Reig came on as his manager and producer, putting his name as co-author on most of Billy’s original tunes. Wright’s first record: Blues For My Baby b/w You Satisfy was a double sided hit, the a-side rising to #3 on Billboard’s R&B chart in early ’49, the flipside made #9 in October of that year. Billy Wright took on the sobriquet ‘Prince Of The Blues’, and so he was. Wright recorded over thirty tunes for Savoy (some issued on the Regent subsidiary), including two more hits– Stacked Deck (#9 in June of ’51) and Hey Little Girl, a re-write of the Professor Longhair number which rose to #10 in October of ’51, his last chart showing.
His Savoy output includes some truly great records, rockers like Billy’s Boogie Blues, When The Wagon Comes and Mean Old Wine, the sexual nod and wink innuendo of A New Way Of Lovin’,
his sublime reading of St. Louis Jimmy’s Goin’ Down Slow, an updated re-write of Baby Please Don’t Go retitled Turn Your Lamp Down Low, the latin inflected If I Didn’t Love You, and we can hear the emerging sound of rock’n’roll with Live The Life and After Awhile. He also managed to work in a great, rockin’, Beer commercial that was issued on the Atlanta label in 1950– Man’s Brand Boogie.
Billy worked all over the country appearing at the Apollo in Harlem, the Howard in Washington D.C., the Bronze Peacock in Houston, the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, the Regal in Chicago, these were all the best paying places an R&B singer could play in those days. He was known as a great performer and could always be counted on to draw a crowd.
It was also Billy Wright who recommended Little Richard to RCA records, Richard’s first label. Richard’s earliest sides– Taxi Blues, Every Hour, Get Rich Quick are basically impersonations of Billy Wright. So were his second group of recordings for Peacock in ’54– Little Richard’s Boogie, Directly From My Heart, Fool At The Wheel, and Red Beans, Rice and Turnip Greens (some of these weren’t issued until after he hit big with Tutti Frutti on Specialty).
Billy Wright parted ways with Savoy in ’54, he cut one session for Don Robey’s Peacock label in Houston in 1955, which resulted in one killer single– Bad Luck and Trouble b/w The Question, both sides featuring Roy Gaines’ stinging guitar, but the two songs left in the vault were even better, the old drag show standard Don’t You Want A Man Like Me and Let’s Be Friends which are probably the best recordings he ever made. You can really hear how much Little Richard took from Wright on Don’t You Want A Man Like Me, a tune Richard himself would record (there’s also a great version by Jay Nelson on Excello). Wright didn’t record again for four years when he made his final disc for the tiny Carrollton label out of Atlanta, a cover of the Dominos’ Have Mercy Baby. He also cut a session in New Orleans in 1959 with Bobby Robinson for Fire Records but it was never issued (do the tapes still exist?).
In 1981 eight sides by Billy Wright were released by the reactivated Savoy label on an LP called Southern Blues, followed in ’84 by a full LP of his 1949-54 sides titled- Goin’ Down Slow while the Swedish re-issue label Route 66 issued fourteen more sides on the album Stacked Deck around the same time (although two cuts are repeated from the Savoy LP). The final cut on Stacked Deck is this amazing rendition of the Dominos’ Do Something, recorded live at the Harlem Theater in Atlanta in ’52. Despite the scratchy acetate it was taken from, one can hear what an incredible live performer Wright was. Listen to the way he shrieks at the crowd and the way the crowd responds in kind, screaming right back. It’s a shame there’s so few live recordings from this era. Nowadays every time some idiot plugs in a guitar there’s eleven people with video phones to document it, but when American popular music was at it’s zenith, live recordings of blues, R&B and early rock’n’roll are mighty hard to come by. This old acetate was something Billy had saved over the years, not realizing its importance until Route 66’s Jonas Bernholm contacted him while compiling the Stacked Deck LP in the early eighties.
Despite the end of his recording career Billy Wright found steady work in Atlanta through the seventies, although Atlanta was no longer the jumping R&B central it had once been. Eventually he gave up singing and took up emceeing shows, such as the one advertised in the above poster. In this manner he was able to support himself until dying at the age of 59 in 1991. A series of strokes in the eighties left him in considerably diminished health in his final decade, but at least he lived to see the better part of his catalog re-issued. Of Billy Wright, Little Richard said: “I thought he was the most fantastic performer I’ve ever seen”, and listening to Wright’s recordings it’s not hard to hear just how much Richard’s singing style was based on Wright’s (just throw in Clara Ward’s “wooo” and Esquerita’s pounding piano and you’ve got the entire recipe). The tent show queen tradition that produced performers like Billy Wright and Little Richard is a chapter of rock’n’roll’s history that has been edited out by the stupid and misinformed people who have deemed themselves keeper of said history. Them and their idiotic Hall Of Fame. Kind of like the way the Catholic Church edited the Book Of Paradise and other parts of the Bible out in the Middle Ages. Well, I guess it’s my job to set things straight…
* Billy Wright quote comes from an interview with Jonas Bernholm done in 1977 and printed in the liner notes to the LP Billy Wright-Stacked Deck (Route 66 Kix 13)