ARTS / Neglected Classics: Robert Cray continues our occasional series with a hymn to soul singer O V Wright

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The Independent Culture
I WAS turned on to O V Wright by Sonny Rhodes, a Bay Area singer, in the mid-Seventies. The first album I heard was A Nickel and A Nail, but then came Nucleus of Soul - a great album. It basically contained ballads, done in a Southern style - that lazy Memphis groove, just this side of the church, with the background singers giving the gospel flavour. There were only two up-tempo songs in the whole thing. I was also interested because he did 'Blowin' in the Wind'. I thought when I saw the title that he must have listened to Sam Cooke's version, but it turned out to be his own treatment. And there's also my all-time favourite O V Wright song: 'I Want Everyone to Know'. We did another of the songs, 'I'm Going to Forget About You', on my band's first album - not because it was the best song on the album but because it was the easiest.

His voice had a simplicity and a sincerity that came from gospel, although he could also go to the outer limits with the screams and the squawks. What I really liked best was how, in his ballads, he took time with his diction. And I loved the way he'd ad lib a phrase at the end of a line: 'Now you know what I'm talkin' about?'

He was born in Memphis in 1939 and died there in 1980 - of a heart attack, I believe, although I was told he'd had some problems. When he was about 13, he joined a gospel group called the Sunset Travellers. Then he made soul records for the Goldwax and Backbeat labels in the Sixties and Seventies. He did the original version of 'That's How Strong My Love Is', which became one of Otis Redding's biggest hits. Not for O V, though - he didn't really have any hits.

When I was a boy my father had gospel records in the house - the Soul Stirrers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and Mississippi. And we lived in the south, in Virginia, in the Sixties, so I heard a lot of Southern soul music. My family attended Baptist church, but I didn't really get into the music too much then, I just wasn't into going to church that often. But gospel music is still a factor today - there are still a whole lot of singers who are schooled in it. The difference is that it's done in a more modern style now.

I was living in Eugene, Oregon, when I heard that O V Wright was dead. You know what? The news made the front page of the Eugene Register-Guard. I was amazed. I still love the way he took his time to tell his story. And every record we make, there's a ballad in that Memphis style.

Robert Cray is a guitarist and singer whose seventh album, 'I Was Warned', is released on Tuesday (Mercury 5127212/4). He was talking to Richard Williams.