The year 1980 was a very good one for Benjamin Wright, starting with an important recognition of work that he had done in 1979. Benjamin’s string arrangement on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” contributed to the award of a Grammy to Michael Jackson for Best Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance, Male, at the 22nd Annual Grammy Awards, which were held on February 27th 1980 at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. At the same ceremony, Earth, Wind, & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”, which they had performed with the Emotions, won the Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance. Benjamin was responsible for all the musical arrangements for the recording. What a great start to the year!
Each of the songs illustrates a key aspect of Benjamin’s work. “Boogie Wonderland” has a driving disco beat, but the horns are soft and smooth, filling in the gaps. The interplay of male and female voices is particularly effective. “Don’t Stop….” has a similar disco beat, with a really strong percussion input and powerful horns. Benjamin finds his space at the start of the track, with a swirling string arrangement that makes the song immediately recognisable. The motif is repeated later in the song. Apart from these two sections, the strings are very much in the background, just adding warmth.
During the rest of 1980, Benjamin was involved with twenty-seven projects, as song-writer or arranger. The range of work is impressive, including albums and seven-inch singles, with artists including Edmund Sylvers, Aretha Franklin, Shalamar, Tavares, Dynasty, Manhattans, Otis Clay and Martha Reeves. Benjamin’s contribution varied between song-writing, playing, string and horn arrangements and producing.
Tavares’ album “Supercharged” reached number twenty on the Billboard R&B Chart, with the follow-up album “Love Uprising” less successful. However two singles taken from the second album did well: “Love Uprising” made it to number seventeen on the R&B chart, “Bad Times” reaching number ten.
Benjamin arranged the horns and strings for Aretha Franklin’s 1980 hit “United Together”, which climbed to number three on the US R&B chart and crossed over to number fifty-six on Billboard’s Hot 100. The single was taken from the album “Aretha”. Benjamin subsequently joined Aretha on the road as her music director.
1980 was also the year that Benjamin started working with artists from Solar Records in Los Angeles. Solar Records was formed in 1977, growing out of Soul Train Records, which closed when partners Dick Griffey and Soul Train creator Don Cornelius split up. Benjamin’s work with Edmund Sylvers led to Solar, where Edmund’s brother Leon was A&R director and in-house producer. Benjamin’s first input into the Solar Sound was his contribution of two tracks to the fourth Shalamar album “Three For Love”. Then his horn and string arrangements for Dynasty, a group created by Griffey and Leon Sylvers, on their second album “Adventures In The Land Of Music”, showed his ability to add magic to the popular Soul/Funk dance tracks that Solar specialised in.
The following year was a little more relaxing for Benjamin, with only fifteen projects, including further work with Solar artists, plus collaborations with Quincy Jones and Booker T Jones. He really liked working with the best!
He also liked playing from time to time. In 1981 he played on Victor Tavares album “Victor Tavares” and on Frederick Knight’s “Knight Time”. But most of his contributions involved song-writing, string and horn arrangements and production. He continued to work with Shalamar and added two more Solar artists to his roster, Midnight Star and Whispers.
He worked on the Shalamar single “Sweeter As The Days Go By” and on their album “Go For It”, which featured violins, cello, congas and clavinet. For Midnight Star, he contributed to four songs on their “Standing Together” album. Finally, for Whispers, he arranged the opening track “In the Raw” on their “Love Is Where You Find It” album. The single reached number eight on the R&B chart. These are all dance tracks, with a strong funky beat, but Benjamin’s trademark arrangements for horns and strings soften all the edges.
On Booker T’s 1981 album “I Want You”, Benjamin returns to his pre-Solar days, with a series of horn and string arrangements adding warmth to Booker T’s voice and organ.
But the softening effect is very much in evidence on Benjamin’s contribution to Quincy Jones’ 1981 album “Dude”. Track seven on the album is a wonderful romantic ballad co-written by Benjamin, Kathy Wakefield and Tony Coleman, entitled “One Hundred Ways”. It is one of three songs on the album sung by vocalist James Ingram and it is altogether a very accomplished production. Ingram’s impressive vocal range is used to good effect, backed by some wonderful musicians. The highlights are the synth solo by Greg Phillinganes and the classy saxophone solo by Ernie Watts. Benjamin must have been delighted to hear the finished song and was probably not in the least surprised when the song entered the charts. It reached number fourteen on the Billboard Hot 100, number five on the Adult Contemporary chart and received the 1982 Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance. Thanks to the success of this single, the album also sold well, reaching number ten on the Billboard 200 chart and number three on the Top R&B Albums chart, receiving gold and platinum certification from the RIAA.
Benjamin worked on at least twenty recording projects in 1982, mainly for Solar Records artists and for some high-profile acts from the Motown labels.
Klymaxx’s album “Girls Will Be Girls”, their first for Solar Records, is notable in several ways. The all-female group is one of very few African American bands in which nearly every member plays an instrument and sings. This was also the first time that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis worked on rhythm and vocal arrangements together. Benjamin’s input was as string arranger.
Midnight Star called on the services of Benjamin Wright once more in 1982 for horn and string arrangements on their album “Victory”, with its strong electro-funk sound.
Shalamar released their sixth album “Friends” in the same year, with Benjamin contributing string arrangements to three of the tracks and horn arrangements to five. The album, which features the ‘classic’ Shalamar line-up of Jeffrey Daniel, Howard Hewett and Jody Watley, reached number one on the R&B chart and number thirty-five on the Billboard Pop chart. It was certified gold and then eventually platinum by the RIAA. In the UK an appearance by the group on the TV show Top of the Pops boosted sales of the album, probably helped enormously by a demonstration of body-popping by Jeffrey Daniel during their performance of the song “A Night to Remember”. The album reached number six on the UK Pop chart and four singles from the album broke into the top twenty on the Singles chart.
Benjamin’s work with Motown artists in 1982 was more extensive. The list includes Jean Carn (two songs on the “Trust Me” album), Gene Van Buren (“What’s Your Pleasure”), High Inergy (“Journey To Love” on the album “So Right”), Jermaine Jackson (“Let Me Tickle Your Fancy”), the Temptations (“Reunion”) and De Barge (four songs on the album “All This Love”).
To complete the story of the year there are two more projects: Benjamin worked on the Tavares RCA album “New Directions” and Janet Jackson’s “Young Love” album on A&M Records.
In the three years covered in this article Benjamin Wright worked with artists across a range of genres. He has shown himself to be equally at home working with disco as with traditional ballads, Soul, R&B, Blues, Funk, Jazz fusion and Pop. He has added his sprinkling of magic to the work of solo artists, female groups, male groups, instrumental tracks, dance tracks and more. Record companies, artists and producers have become accustomed to his style. They appreciate the quality of his work, his versatility, his ability to enhance vocal lines with his string and horn arrangements. They like too the speed at which he is able to work and the drive he injects into studio recordings. When you add to all this Benjamin’s skills as a musical director out on the road, it is obvious that his talent is very special indeed.
To be continued…
Headline Photo: courtesy of Randy Fuchs ArtistRelations.com
Shalamar Photo: AvidMusicInc 1983 (Wikimedia Commons)