Benjamin F. Wright Jr. was born on July 11th 1946, in Greenville, Mississippi. He demonstrated his musical talent at Coleman High School, performing as a drum major in the marching band and singing doo-wop in a group he and his friends set up. He also played timpani in the school orchestra and sang in his school and church choirs. When he heard Handel’s “Messiah”, he realised that music could be complex and powerful, and that put him on the road to a career in music. He started writing music, transcribing songs that he heard and then arranging them, for him and his friends to sing and play. He grew up in an area where Blues music was predominant and he took every opportunity he could to listen to the musicians play, to talk to them and to join in the performance, if they let him!
Soon after Benjamin left school, he joined the touring band of Rhythm and Blues singer Ted Taylor. During the tour, he played piano and sang backup vocals and saw at first hand how the music was organised and arranged. Later he toured with major performers, including James Brown, Otis Redding, Billy Stewart and Gladys Knight & the Pips. What a fantastic apprenticeship!
Then in the mid-sixties came a stint in the United States Air Force, which gave Benjamin the opportunity to pursue further musical studies via a correspondence course with the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Around this time Wright met Fats Ford, a trumpet player who played with Duke Ellington, who introduced Benjamin to the great jazz icon. The freedom and creativity of jazz was added to Benjamin Wright’s inspiration, as he continued to develop his career by working with Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces.
Benjamin Wright had a good ear; he heard the detail in whatever music he listened to. But he also had a determination to make the most of his musical ability by listening to a wide range of music and learning to play a variety of instruments. He wanted to learn how music worked and he wanted to play as often as he could. The ideal was to become a session musician, and that chance soon came along. Wright was invited to play with Pieces of Peace in Chicago, a session band that was formed in 1968 out of a group of musicians working at Brunswick Records, backing most of Carl Davis’ acts. Benjamin joined the new group as keyboardist, as they moved to Twinight Records to work with Syl Johnson. Although they were essentially a session band, they did issue one single, “Pass It On”, in 1970 and they also recorded an album that was not released, until the masters were unearthed by DJ Shadow and Quannum Records in 2007. Benjamin played organ, piano and vibraphone, as well as singing on and producing the album, which features a love ballad “I Still Care” and a Bar-Kays-inspired strut “Flunky for Your Love”.
The best tracks are those with extended jams, such as “Pollution”, with its funky rhythm, false stops and clever interplay of organ and horns. “Peace and Blessings” showcases African-style percussion and “Yesterday’s Visions”, just under 11 minutes long, owes a debt to Isaac Hayes. All these tracks show the high level of skill of the members of the group and their virtuosity.
In addition to playing with Pieces of Peace, Benjamin worked as a copyist and arranger. Unsurprisingly, given the opportunities for furthering his musical education that the Windy City offered, he also attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music.
Benjamin enjoyed working as a copyist for several local arrangers and producers, such as Charles Stepney, Donny Hathaway, Gene Barge and Richard Evans. He must have worked extremely fast, as the work came pouring in from Chess Records, Brunswick Records, Curtom Records and Mercury Records. Benjamin has described this time, in his own inimitable way, in an interview with Jeff ‘Chairman’ Mao: “So I was a copyist, man, I was making it that way and I was just learning, learning, learning. So all of a sudden I started arranging. I didn’t have the big record artist like everybody has had. I was dealing with the local stuff, but it was piling up. Oh my God! I was as busy as a one-legged man in a kicking contest.” One of his last roles in Chicago was as musical director for The Dells, which involved being on the road, supervising all the vocal performances, organising all the parts for all the instruments and conducting the horns and strings. A musical director makes everything happen as it should. Benjamin was in his element.
Sadly, Pieces of Peace disbanded in 1972 and Chicago began to lose its appeal, as the music industry started to switch its focus to the West Coast. Berry Gordy Jr. completed the move to Los Angeles for Motown Records that same year. Three years later Benjamin Wright also moved to Los Angeles, to enter the defining phase of his career.
Just a few days after arriving in LA, Benjamin bumped into William “Mickey” Stevenson, the old Motown A&R man, who offered him a job as musical director for the Temptations. At last, he had arrived in the big league! Over the next few years he became musical director for Gladys Knight and The Pips, Aretha Franklin, and Barry White and The Love Unlimited Orchestra. In 1978 Benjamin also worked with Gospel artist Rance Allen, arranging and orchestrating his Top 30 R&B hit on Stax Records, “I Belong to You”. It was rare for a Gospel song to cross over into the mainstream and enter the charts, but Benjamin’s work gave the track wide appeal.
Then in 1979, his career moved up another notch. He got a call from Quincy Jones, who was looking for a string arranger for a new project. Jones, who had worked in Chicago as Vice-President of Mercury Records, knew Benjamin’s work well and wanted him on board. The project was Michael Jackson’s first album as a solo artist for Epic Records, “Off the Wall”. The engineer on the project was Bruce Swedien, another Chicago stalwart from his days at Brunswick Records. Jones gave Benjamin one song, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, and gave him a month to complete the string parts. When that worked out well, Jones gave him “Rock With You”, and then a third song “Get on the Floor”. All three were initially recorded at the end of 1978 and completed in 1979, with key input from Benjamin Wright. In the Jeff Mao interview mentioned above, Benjamin speaks of his admiration for Michael Jackson’s work ethic: “… it’s the attitude and willingness to have it perfect. As perfect as it can be.” It is Benjamin’s attitude too. The “Off the Wall” album, recorded at Westlake Recording Studios, was hugely successful, peaking at number three on the Billboard Top LPs & Tapes chart and number one on the Top Black Albums chart for 16 weeks. It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. In August 2009, it was certified 8× platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). At the 1980 Grammy Awards, it was nominated for two Grammy Awards. Five singles were released from the album, three of which were written by Jackson. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was Jackson’s first solo number-one single since “Ben”, seven years earlier. The second single from the album, “Rock with You” also topped the chart, followed by the title track and “She’s Out of My Life” which both entered the top ten. Jackson was the first solo artist to have four singles from the same album reach the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. In 2008, the album “Off the Wall” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
1980 was an important year for Benjamin, as he once again found work flooding in. The rest of the story will be told in a future article.
So what makes Benjamin Wright such a successful arranger?
Firstly, he has spoken of his work being based on a sense of rhythm: “I think most of my work is kind of rhythmic. That’s because I was a rhythmic organ player. I had no dexterity and the whole bit like all the cats, man. I was playing like a guitar player, and I hear stuff like that, stuff has to move.”
Secondly, he has learned to “let the music breathe”. He describes himself as a young arranger, forty years ago, packing in as many notes as possible, forgetting that horn players have to breathe and violinists have to rest their fingers. He realised that he had to: “Get out of the singers’ way, just accompany them.”
Thirdly, he has developed techniques to use strings to add warmth to the songs he arranges. He has described this as “wrapping the vocal line in a blanket”. It would be easy to smother the simplicity of the vocal line, so Benjamin is always ready to separate and interweave the inputs from violins, violas, cellos and bass in ways that enhance and lift the singer’s voice. He has spoken of “filling in the cracks”, so that the final sound is as smooth as he can make it.
And the last factor is faith.
The last words must be Benjamin’s:
“Arrangers create magic. Most times when we get a track, it’s bare, and you have to be, in my opinion, like a great A&R person. You hear something, and you determine what it can be versus what it is. As for me, I get a track, as old as I am, my mind is still wandering. It’s like stuff is in my head, so I get a track and, man, I start moving, “Yeah, I want to do this, and I want to do that,” and all of a sudden I start writing. I always have this thing, and please forgive me, but I always pray and it’s God who gives me the notes, man.” (interview with Jeff ‘Chairman’ Mao)
Headline Photo: courtesy of Randy Fuchs ArtistRelations.com
Photo 2: Angela George 2013 (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 3: Gorup de Besanez 1989 (Wikimedia Commons)