“We’re here together / just you and me / searching through our sound for our favorite LP.”
I recently returned from a short trip to Connecticut, and even after living in rural Maine myself I still think of that corner of the country as a predominately white, affluent place. I wasn’t wrong on all counts, but it seemed like a good time to check assumptions. I mean, it still seems improbable that forty years ago an African American soul musician would call the Northeast home and make the region a subject of his songs. (And sheesh, the past weeks of these posts of mine have been pretty white.)
Apart from the voice of a Hotel Records representative introducing “Variety Recording artist Mr. Willie Wright,” from the first acoustic guitar notes I’d think this was a David Crosby record. No, it’s a blissed-out (but not a burnout’s) love letter to the idyll of “Nantucket Island” (“Ride a bike in the morning, what a way to spend the day”). In addition to Wright on rhythm guitar, only a drummer and a lead guitarist are credited, so no way to know where the bass, flute and piano come from (though further research reveals Wright to be the likely flautist). After a sleepy “Lady Of The Year” the first thing remotely like a soul groove is apparent in the rollicking but still relaxed “I’m So Happy Now,” wherein Willie comes to terms with a shaky relationship (“finally decided – we can’t be divided.”) One can imagine the clanking of dinnerware over the mellow “In The Beauty Of The Night,” as restaurants were a typical venue for Wright, and you can almost see the vacationers nodding, mouths full, when he softly intones “There ain’t anywhere else on earth I’d rather be.” Even if it’s not fair to pin the “soul” category on him, it’s a music slightly more demanding than merely pleasant, and on record you wish he’d be a bit more assertive in connecting with the listener. A striking guitar motif and the more uptempo “Love Is Expensive” helps, and no, it’s not about street hustlers or materialistic women, but rather the universal gamble with the possible outcome of “losing your heart.”
The intimacy of a club performance continues when he tells us “This one is Jackie’s Song,” and “Son, Don’t Let Life Pass You By” has all the delicacy of—and a piano reminiscent of—Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece.” It might be the deepest thing here, and oddly arresting for its very softness. And despite the “What’s Going On” turmoil of the decade, Wright is a man utterly devoid of cynicism or despair, singing “Today didn’t go as I planned it, but I can’t let it get me down.” And doing the best you can is all there is—“It’s Only Life, After All”—which happens to be the name of the upbeat closer, with its harmonica and steel guitar, still more folkish than soul. But Wright is not preoccupied with giving you the expected, and manages to avoid getting political even in the album’s “Indian Reservation” where he speculates about his heritage and fondly recollects his childhood in Missouri. Apparently it takes a Curtis Mayfield tune to summon any outrage, and this reissue comes with a 45 of “Right On For The Darkness”—the only time in this set Wright seems troubled in the slightest about “living in a messed-up world of tears.” The flip, “Africa” sounds more like the LP in general agreeableness, and while the continent is “home sweet home” one can’t help but wonder how we ended up on Nantucket Island.
A disclaimer on the back cover reads in part:
TEENAGERS, this album may be too lyrically heavy for you, especially if you’re into fast music. YOU WILL, however, enjoy this record if you’re into GUITARS!
I am, and I do, though I’m impressed with myself that the runaway favorite track is the introspective “Son, Don’t Let Life Pass You By.” This white, rock heathen emotional teenager may have a little bit o’ soul after all.