On Jesus’ Program – The Gospel Soul of O.V. Wright

By Opal Louis Nations

Overton Vertis Wright was perhaps one of the finest gospel and soul-blues singers to emerge from out of the Volunteer State.

He was born to Emanuel and Helen Wright on October 9, 1939, in Lens, some thirty miles west of Memphis, Tennessee. His first public appearance was made atop a soap box in 1945 at the Temple of Eads. Even then Wright seemed to possess perfect pitch and total control over his voice.

By the age of twelve Wright was singing in the choir of the Golden Leaf Baptist Church, pastored by Rev. Hamblin who recognized his talent and encouraged the youngster to pursue a career in gospel music. With older brother Eddie Lewis, Wright joined a local gospel group called the 5 Harmoneers. The 5 Harmoneers sang around Memphis and developed a strong local reputation.

In early 1957, they caught the ear of Grover Blake, manager of the Sunset Travelers who ventured out to Mt. Pisgah High School, where Wright was a student, to get him in his group. The Sunset Travelers at this point were composed of Sylvester Ward and Tommy Tucker, tenors; Grover Blake, baritone; and Elijah “Jr.” Franklin, bass; with McKinney Jones on guitar. Back in 1953, with Sammy Lee Dortch as lead, the group had recorded two singles releases for Don Robey’s Duke label in Houston. Their second release sold well and generated multiple engagements across the South, dates the group could not fill as Dortch had too many commitments at home.

Blake wanted to take Wright out of school and onto the road where they could fulfill out of state engagements. Blake then proceeded to train Wright away from singing in the style of Sam Cooke. He encouraged Wright to sing in an emotional vein similar to Rev.  Morgan Babb of the Philco Singers. He gave Wright Philco Singlrs records to listen to. Soon, Wright developed a style which used melismatic falsetto with sforzando vocal techniques to heighten the emotive effect of his delivery.

Blake and the group took Wright down to WDIA on Union Avenue, where the Sunsets had recorded earlier for Duke, and taped a test pressing of “Sit down and rest.” Wright’s anguished rendering conveyed how well the fresh recruit was blending with the longer-standing members of the group. After the Sunset road gigs petered out, Wright went with the Spirit of Memphis for a few months, but this was only when they needed a substitute soldier to fill out-of-town gigs. Wright, always outgoing, enjoyed being out on the road.

Toward the close of the 1950s, Wright sang briefly with the Highway QCs out of Chicago, all this while he divided his time between attending S.A. Owens Junior College in Memphis and performing with local gospel quartets like the Harmony Echoes (who had started out as the Southern Wonder Juniors, a “training” outfit for the Southern Wonders themselves) and Rev. E.L. Whitaker and the Jubilee Hummingbirds, alongside fellow soul-soldier and friend James Carr. (Carr recorded with the Jubilee Hummingbirds as late as 1995.)

Around Christmas 1959, Wright recorded the spiritual ballad “Lazarus” with the Sunset Travelers for Peacock Records. This was truly an impressive debut for Wright as he laid on every “trickeration” in the gospel soloist’s handbook. At this point, the Sunsets had switched personnel quite a bit. Ward, Tucker, Franklin and Jones were gone. Clyde Beyers (or Johnny Frierson), Robert Lewis, Daniel Scott and lead soloist Rev. Jeff Brown had replaced them. “Lazarus” was followed by “You are blessed” in early 1962. The poignant “Nobody knows (the trouble I see)” and “Glory is coming” were released later that same year.

Just before the release of his soul-gospel classic, “Blind Bartemaeus,” during the spring of 1964, Wright befriended Roosevelt Jamison. Jamison worked for the City of Memphis Hospital and doubled at the Interstate blood bank unit at Beale and Fourth. Jamison had taken on management of the Redemption Harmonizers, Harmony Echoes, and Sunset Travelers. He rehearsed his quartets at the back of the blood bank. Wright, who was working during the week on a garbage truck, would toil on his gospel songs at the blood bank while Jamison carried out his lab work.The pair got to know each other really well.

Then Roosevelt and Wright decided to make a bid for commercial success and came up (with Steve Cropper’s help), a deep-soul ballad entitled “That’s how strong my love is” which surfaced on Gold Wax Records later in 1964. Unfortunately, Wright’s version was eclipsed by Otis Redding’s better marketed cover which shot up the charts the following January.

When Wright and the Sunsets recorded their only album, “On Jesus’ Program” (PLP 122) for Peacock in Houston in late 1964, Wright was persuaded by Don Robey to try his hand at making a more lucrative living singing Rhythm & Blues. A contract was drawn up, and Wright signed with Robey’s Back Beat subsidiary, whereon he enjoyed a dozen or so charted releases before signing with Hi Records in 1976 where he continued to make best-sellers. Wright sang lead on two of the cuts included on the Sunset’s 1964 Peacock album, the movingly beautiful “On Jesus’ Program” and the upbeat “Another day lost.” Rev. Jeff Brown took the spotlight on most of the remaining charts.

There is a fine line between “soul-inspired gospel” and so-called “deep soul music.” Sometimes this line is blurred. In work by artists such as James Carr and O.V. Wright, only the interpretation of the lyrics makes the distinction between the supposed crying for your baby and the assumed crying out for the Lord. These lyrics sound so thinly disguised you can sometimes feel they were written to be taken both in the earthly and divine streams of music.

Sometime during O.V. Wright’s deep-soul period he crossed back entirely into gospel. Here are a few examples. In 1967, O.V. recorded his interpretation of the traditional folk song “Motherless child,” giving it all the anguish and despair once rendered by the great Mahalia Jackson. In 1974 he waxed another traditional gospel song, “I’m going home to live with God,” using Willie Mitchell’s funky, upbeat arrangement. One can only imagine disco dancers working out on this one.

O.V.’s most perfect marriage of both deep-soul and soul gospel was executed on D. Crawford and J. Moore’s 1977 Hi Records hit release of “Precious, precious,” whereon every drop of spiritual anguish is squeezed out of O.V.’s tortured soul.

Just over a year after Wright’s last soul best-seller slipped off the R&B charts, he was charged with stealing a woman’s purse and cashing a forged check at a nearby Safeway store. Wright drove the getaway car. All of his associates were habitual criminals. Wright was eventually put on probation. By now he had become addicted to heroin and his life was out of control. Suffering from a heart condition (he had had major heart surgery), Wright was forced to choose between singing and the rigors of the chitlin’ circuit or drugs and certain death. Feeling he could no longer go out and meet the demands put on an increasingly visible soul singer, he chose the less lucrative path of singing the gospel.

After hearing the Luckett Brothers of Milwaukee at a local concert, Wright decided to again cut religious recordings and have the group background him. The Luckett Brothers were James, lead; Eddie, Aaron and William; and L.C. who doubled on guitar. In October 1980, Wright and the Lucketts recorded their “Four & Twenty Elders” album at the Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville for Creed Records (3104), a subsidiary of Nashboro. The collection contained nine songs, four of which were lead by Wright.

With Shannon Williams

With Shannon Williams at the controls, Wright delivered on “Give an account,” “He’ll understand,” “Four & Twenty Elders” and “Stand up and testify.” These were his last recordings. Just one month after the session on Sunday, November 16, 1980, Wright died of heart failure at Providence Hospital in Mobile. He was only forty-one. “Four & 20 Elders” was released two months later.

The Sunset Travelers still sing around Memphis now and again, although membership has changed drastically. The Luckett Brothers disbanded in 1988, after James suffered a serious accident which resulted in his being unable to travel. Back in the early Memphis gospel days, Jamison recalls, Wright was devoted to singing. He was a perfectionist and always made sure each note was absolutely right. O.V. Wright never lost sight of the church.

— Opal Louis Nations
March, 2000 and June 2017

For further information, see Ray Ellis’ article in Juke Blues #46, 2000

Sources of Information:
1. Lost in the Shuffle, The O.V. Wright Story – Jeff Colburn, Goldmine Magazine, October 16, 1992
2. Liner notes to The Essential James Carr – Colin Escott, Razor & Tie CD 2060 (1995)
3. Liner notes to Raisin’ the Roof by Ray Funk – Mobile Fidelity double CD 2-760 (1992)
4. Sweet Soul Music – Peter Guralnick – Harper & Row (1986)
5. Happy in the Service of the Lord – Kip Lornell – Univ. of Illinois Press (1988)
6. Duke/Peacock Records – Galen Gart / Roy C. Ames – Big Nickel Publications (1990)

O.V. Wright’s Gospel Recordings:

With The Sunset Travelers:
1. Sit down and rest WDIA – Test (1957)
(other songs may exist?)
2. Lazarus – Peacock 1816 (1962)
3. You are blessed – Peacock 1848 (1963)
4. Nobody knows (the trouble I see) – Peacock 1888 (1963)
5. Glory is coming – Peacock 1888 (1963)
6. Blind Bartemaeus – Peacock 3014 (1964)
7. On Jesus’ program – PLP 122 & Peacock 3039 (1964)
8. Another day lost – PLP 122 & Peacock 3039 (1964)

Solo sides:
9. Motherless child – Back Beat LP 66 (1967)
10. I’m going home (to live with God) – Back Beat 631 (1974)

Gospel soul:
11. Precious, precious – Hi 77506 (1977)

With The Luckett Brothers:
12. Give an account – Creed LP 3104 (1981)
13. He’ll understand – Creed LP 3104 (1981)
14. Four & twenty elders – Creed LP 3104 (1981)
15. Stand up and testify – Creed LP 3104 (1981)

About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.

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