O.V. WRIGHT: AT THE NUCLEUS OF SOUL


Sunset Travelers: On Jesus Program
From On Jesus Program (Peacock, 1965)

O.V. Wright: 8 Men and 4 Women
From 8 Men and 4 Women (Back Beat, 1968)

O.V. Wright: A Nickel and a Nail
From A Nickel and a Nail (Back Beat, 1971)

O.V. Wright: We’re Still Together
From We’re Still Together (Hi, 1979)

(Ed. The following post comes to us from Soul Sides reader Manu from France. Yeah, we continental like that.)

I can’t remember the very first time I heard about O.V. Wright but I guess it was either Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music or a Jay Owens’ interview (who played guitar and toured with O.V. Wright) that planted the idea that I should listen to some his music.

You couldn’t find his original albums as CDs then (you still can’t) but an excellent compilation of his songs on Back Beat had just came out, The Soul of O.V. Wright. It was nothing short of an illumination.

Overton Vertis Wright was born October the 9th, 1939 in Leno, Tennessee, right outside of Memphis. Like many of his peers, he honed his singing early in the church choir where his talent was soon noticed. During the 50s and early 60s, he sung with local gospel acts: the Memphis Five Harmonaires, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, the Luckett Brothers, the Highway QC’s and the Sunset Travelers (with whom he started recording for Peacock in 1964).

His first foray into secular music was the original 1964 version of “That’s How Strong My Love Is” for Goldwax (a song written by Roosevelt Jamison). The song was picked by local DJs and later got covered by Otis Redding. This success, instead of kickstarting his secular career, stalled it: Don Robey, Peacock Records’ boss, claimed O.V. Wright was still under contract and filed a lawsuit against Goldwax.

O.V. switched to Peacock records subsidiary Back Beat and in 1965 he released albums If It’s Only For Tonight and 8 Men and 4 Women. Each respective album featured 2 beautiful ballads, the kind he excelled at: “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” and the haunting “8 Men and 4 Women,” his 2 highest-charting songs.

On his his next album, 1969’s Nucleus of Soul, O.V. Wright started working with Memphis producer Willie Mitchell, the beginning of a long and successful collaboration. The next two albums on Backbeat, A Nickel and a Nail and Ace of Spades (1971) and Memphis Unlimited (1973), are arguably his best, finding O.V. on the brink of despair, singing with devastating power.

After leaving Back Beat in 1973, O.V. signed with Willie Mitchell’s Hi-Records and they released 4 LP’s, since reissued as The Complete O.V. Wright on Hi Records, Vol. 1: In the Studio.

However, after years of hard work, drug abuse, and personal problems, his health went into sharp decline. On his last album : We’re Still Together (1979), released not long before his death at only age 41 (heart attack), his voice sounds like a broken bell, but in a similar way to Billie Holiday’s last records, it is very moving despite the awful back-up vocals and bubble-gum-disco music.

Through all this, I was always smitten by his voice: gorgeous, sinuous and punchy. His singing WAS church (imagine Ira Tucker singing the blues). His performances were full of pathos, tension and drama – the epitome of soul music. Finally, I couldn’t escape feelings of sympathy. I mean, his life was built on great talent, great hopes, taken to the brink of success, then slide into hardship and problems, and ultimately, tragically, early death.

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