By the end of 1983 work with SOLAR Records was winding down, so Benjamin concentrated instead on the links that he had built up with Motown, working with the Temptations and DeBarge in particular.
In 1982 the Temptations had released their “Reunion” album, which was issued during the Reunion tour, for which David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks rejoined the group after a ten-year gap. The album charted at number thirty-seven on the Pop chart and reached number two on the R&B chart. The single “Standing On the Top – Pt. 1” that was drawn from the album also did well, reaching number six on the R&B chart. Benjamin arranged the horn parts and played synthesizer on the album.
The Temptations’ follow-up 1983 albums “Surface Thrills” and “Back To Basics” also feature horn arrangements, vocal and rhythm section arrangements by Benjamin. “Touch Me” was released in 1985, with Benjamin playing synthesizer and arranging the horn parts. None of these albums achieved the old level of success but singles from the albums did enter the top twenty of the R&B Singles chart.
The DeBarge albums that feature Benjamin’s input were “All This Love” (1982), “In a Special Way” (1983) and “Rhythm of the Night” (1985). The song “Rhythm of the Night” was recorded for the soundtrack to the Motown film “The Last Dragon” which helped the single to the top five in several countries, including the US and the UK. It was the band’s biggest-selling release. Benjamin also worked with individual members of the group, El and Bunny DeBarge, on their single releases.
The 1990s saw Benjamin moving with the times, successfully working with a wider range of artists, including Destiny’s Child and Tony, Toni, Toné. Benjamin worked on Tony, Toni, Toné’s third album “Sons of Soul” (1993) and on the follow-up “House of Music” (1996), providing string arrangements. The first of these brought the group wider success, reaching number twenty-four on the US Pop Chart and number three on the R&B chart. The second also sold well, reaching number thirty-two on the Billboard 200 chart and number ten on the R&B chart.
D’wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné went on to produce several songs for Destiny’s Child in Oakland (California), which probably brought the up-and-coming girl group to Benjamin’s attention. Wiggins co-wrote three of the songs on the group’s debut album “Destiny’s Child” (1998), with Benjamin arranging and conducting the horn parts. One of these three songs, “Killing Time”, was included on the soundtrack of the film “Men In Black” in 1997.
The new century brought more opportunities for Benjamin to work with a new generation of R&B artists. It is an interesting list: Toni Braxton, Justin Timberlake, Jamiroquai, Mary J. Blige, Joss Stone, Brandy and Outkast are the names that stand out. Benjamin also did all the arrangements for the controversial Michael Jackson 2010 release “Breaking News”.
Benjamin contributed string arrangements for track 10 on Toni Braxton’s 2000 “The Heat” album. He also conducted strings for the recording. The song, “Maybe”, was released as a single in 2001. It shows Braxton moving away from traditional ballads, such as her number one hit “Unbreak My Heart” (1996), and embracing a more modern hip-hop style. Benjamin’s rhythmic strings keep the song warm and romantic. “The Heat” was Braxton’s third solo album, which sold over two million copies in the USA, achieving double platinum status.
In 2002 Benjamin began working with Justin Timberlake, arranging string parts for two tracks (and conducting during the recording) on Timberlake’s first solo album “Justified”. The tracks were “Take It from Here” and “Last Night”, two of the seven tracks on the album that were produced by the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo). In a discussion on MTV News before the album’s release Chad Hugo described how Timberlake and the production duo drove around listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson songs, in order to get that feel into the new album. Given Benjamin’s work with both of these, it is perhaps not surprising that he got the call to arrange and conduct the strings. The album was a major hit, selling 439,000 copies in its first week. It was later certified three-times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, selling almost four million copies in America and over ten million copies worldwide. It reached number one in the UK and number two on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts. “Justified” went on to win a string of awards, including the 2003 Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album.
Also in 2002, Benjamin added the string parts to Brandy’s beautiful ballad “He Is” from her “Full Moon” album. With a startling change of style in 2003, Benjamin contributed the string arrangements to the song “Pink & Blue” for André 3000. This became track 13 on the album “The Love Below”, which is part of a major project by the hip-hop duo Outkast, which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The double album “Speakerboxx/The Love Below” was certified double platinum in the UK and eleven times platinum in America.
The year 2004 is a special one for Mr Benjamin Wright Jr. He was invited to conduct the Norwegian Radio Symphony at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert is Oslo, Norway. Even better, he was invited back the following year to conduct for Gladys Knight’s performance. What an honour!
In 2005 two further names were added to the list of artists/groups whose music has benefitted from Benjamin’s input: Jamiroquai and Mary J. Blige.
“Dynamite” was Jamiroquai’s sixth studio album, which features Benjamin’s arrangements on five of the twelve tracks. “Starchild”, “Tallulah”, “(Don’t) Give Hate a Chance”, and “World That He Wants” showcase Benjamin’s arrangements for strings. He also led the string section. The final track “Time Won’t Wait” gives Benjamin the chance to switch to horn arrangements and lead the brass section. The album sold well all over Europe, as well as reaching number three on the UK Album chart and achieving platinum certification from the BPI.
Towards the end of 2005, Benjamin wrote, arranged and conducted the string parts for Mary J. Blige’s seventh studio album “The Breakthrough”. This was a major undertaking, as the album contains sixteen tracks, with various international editions featuring up to three bonus tracks. On its release in December, the album went straight to number one on the Billboard 200 chart. It has been certified triple-platinum by the RIAA, with US sales of over three million copies. At the 49th Grammy Awards in 2006, “The Breakthrough” and the single “Be Without You” attracted eight nominations, winning three: Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song for “Be Without You” (which she sang at the ceremony) and Best R&B Album for “The Breakthrough”.
This pattern of success continued for Benjamin, as he was asked to add strings to one track on Justin’s Timberlake’s 2006 album “FutureSex/LoveSounds”. The track was “Until the End of Time”, a slow ballad that was less innovative than most of the tracks on the album but which recalled some of Prince’s work. The pizzicato harmony is extremely effective, augmented by the lush vocal harmonies and the romantic swirling strings later in the track. An interesting version of the song was issued in 2007, featuring Timberlake duetting with Beyonce. The song is a skilful blend of old and new. Benjamin’s work is a strength of the song, featuring twenty-six string players performing as the Benjamin Wright Orchestra!
The following year Benjamin cast his net a little wider, when he and his string orchestra were called upon by Joss Stone to add strings to twelve of the fourteen tracks on her third album “Introducing Joss Stone”. For the last track Benjamin went one stage further, adding eleven horn players to the orchestra, which consisted of 20 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos and 4 double bass. The album was clearly aimed at the American market, which probably explains why it did less well in the UK than Stone’s earlier releases. In the USA it reached number two on the Billboard 200 and went on to achieve gold certification.
The next major landmark in Benjamin’s work is his contribution to the posthumous album “Michael”, released in 2010. Benjamin wrote the string arrangements for track 7 on the album, “Breaking News”. He conducted his string orchestra for the recording. Unfortunately, three of the tracks on the album, including “Breaking News”, were rumoured to be sung by someone other than Michael Jackson and a court case ensued. Despite the negative accusations, the album sold well enough to be certified platinum in many countries including the US and the UK.
Into the century’s second decade, there is no sign of Benjamin slowing down! He has added Ty Dolla $ign, Usher and Giselle to his roster of artists, whilst continuing to work with Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton.
2013 saw Benjamin working on Justin Timberlake’s album “The 20/20 Experience”, creating string arrangements on tracks 1, 6, 9, 10 and 11, whilst writing the horn arrangements for tracks 6 and 8. Benjamin once again led his orchestra for the recordings. The album went to number one in eleven countries, including the UK’s Pop and R&B charts and the USA’s Billboard 200 and R&B charts. Benjamin’s arrangements are restrained, soft and warm, adding to the rhythm and flow of the songs’ vocal lines, which are longer than usual and feature strange, unexpected elements. There are elements of sixties soul set against sudden changes of key and the odd guitar solo, with echoes of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.
The next significant contribution by Benjamin and his orchestra (20 string players on this occasion) was in 2015. The orchestra played on Ty Dolla $ign’s debut album “Free TC” and Benjamin wrote string arrangements for six of the album’s sixteen tracks.
The following year gave Benjamin the opportunity to work with Usher on his “Hard ll Love” album, for which Benjamin contributed strings arrangements to track 14 “Stronger”, and then with Giselle on four songs that she made available as downloads. Unusually Benjamin was part of the backing band, on bass.
Mary J Blige called on Benjamin again in 2017, to work on her “Strength of a Woman” album. He co-wrote two of the songs and wrote horn and string arrangements. The title track has a romantic final section, played by the string orchestra, that gives a good indication of Benjamin’s talent.
The last entry on Benjamin’s list of credits is for work on Toni Braxton’s single “Dance”, written for the 2020 album “Spell My Name”, which was completed and released during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many of the artists that Benjamin has worked with in the twenty-first century have paid tribute to the Soul and R&B artists who came before them. They have drawn on Benjamin’s experience to give their songs a sense of rhythm and flow, a softening, that adds a romantic edge to the dance beat and provides an echo of music from an earlier era.
The above account of Benjamin’s later career is by no means exhaustive, but it serves to highlight the range of his work and the continuing quality of his arrangements.
Benjamin’s first credits were as a vocalist or performer in 1965. Six years later he received his first credit as a song-writer/arranger, then in 1973 he turned his hand to production. By 1979 he had taken on the task of leading and conducting the strings and horns for which he was writing arrangements and one year later he earned his first credit as a sound engineer.
Altogether Discogs records 442 credits for Benjamin, an amazing number that stretches over fifty-five years. The body of work on which he has left his mark encompasses a range of genres and styles which illustrate the special nature of his genius.
The unfinished career of Benjamin Wright Jr. tells the story of American R&B over more than half a century. It is a wonderful story!
Photos of Benjamin Wright Jr. : Courtesy of Randy Fuchs ArtistRelations.com