O.V. Wright spent his entire career as a regional phenomenon. His gritty, emotive vocals, drenched thoroughly in the black church and in the urbanized blues, pretty much relegated his American following to the Southern US and, surprisingly, Japan. Hip-hop producers found themselves digging through the O.V. Wright playlist in their eternal search for the perfect beat. The Wu Tang Clan sampled two Wright tunes, “Let’s Straighten It Out” and “Motherless Child.” Slim Thug and the Boss Hogg Outlawz sampled Wright’s Top 20 hit “Ace of Spades,” a Top 20 hit in 1970.
Wright died in 1980 at the age of 41, so it’s unlikely that most Wu Tang fans ever heard Wright sing or studied the humor and earthy wisdom contained in the lyrics of his songs. Fortunately, Wright has his champions among the surviving blues and Southern Soul singers such as Johnny Rawls and Otis Clay. Rawls played in Wright’s band starting the 1970s and he kept the group together after Wright’s death. Rawls owes a deep debt of gratitude to Wright and he worked to keep his mentor’s legacy alive by covering songs on recent recordings such as Soul Survivor and Memphis Still Got Soul. Rawls doubles down on his latest project – the tribute album titled Remembering O.V.
Rawls, along with Clay, who lent his voice to three of the album 10 tracks (“Into Something,” “A Nickel and a Nail, and “Blaze of Glory”), are the ideal vocalists to make a record that honors the music and the voice of O.V. Wright. Vocally, Wright was a force of nature, and few can call down the power of the pulpit and fuse it the Beale Street club like Wright could. The way Wright moaned and wailed and the way he held a note compels the listener to say “he ain’t never lied” after reading Wright’s statement that gospel singing was always his first love.
Clay and Rawls hail from similar backgrounds in the south. Clay, like Wright, started out singing in gospel quartets. Rawls learned guitar from his blind grandfather and then spent the years backing up the blues and Southern Soul performers who rode the “Chitlin Circuit” to Hattiesburg, MS.
Rawls and Clay display their Southern Soul chops as the make their way through O.V. Wright’s songbook. Both men approach the material with the trademark gravely baritone. Rawls’ vocals are softer and more melodic than those of either his mentor or Clay. That can be heard on “Blind, Crippled and Crazy.” Wright transforms his voice into a buzz saw that cuts through the lyrics in a way that lays bare the pain that this woman is bringing to his life.
Biographies will tell readers about Wright’s struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, and the role those substances played in ending the singer’s life. But the personal recollections of colleagues and friends turn Wright into a three dimensional person. Rawls held Wright in high regard as a musician and a person and that esteem comes through on a project that is equal parts art, history lesson and labor of love. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes