Johnnie Wright: Member of the celebrated country duo Johnnie and Jack
Saturday 01 October 2011
For nearly 25 years Johnnie Wright was one half of one of the most popular duos in country music, Johnnie & Jack, and played an important role in the career of his wife, Kitty Wells.
He and Jack Anglin performed together, enjoying a string of hits including the rhumba-flavoured "Poison Love" (1951) and a cover of the Four Knights' "Oh Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely)" (1954), from 1938 until the latter's death in 1963; his careful nurturing of his wife's talent would see her crowned "The Queen of Country Music".
Johnnie Wright was born on a farm a few miles east of Nashville, and as a youngster learned to play fiddle, banjo and guitar. In 1933 he headed for the city, landing a job at the Davis Cabinet Company and continuing to play whenever he could. He eventually gained a spot on the Dixie Early Birds show on WSIX radio and there met Muriel Deason, who, when she wasn't pressing shirts for $9 a week, performed with her cousin Bessie as the Deason Sisters. In 1937, she and Wright wed. It was while at WSIX that Wright also met his future partner (and brother-in-law) Jack Anglin who at the time was in a trio with his brothers Jim and Van Buren (Red).
Their pairing, first as Johnny Wright and the Happy Roving Cowboys with Jack Anglin, then as Johnnie & Jack and the Tennessee Hillbillies and finally as Johnnie & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys, quickly proved popular. They enjoyed stints on WBIG, Greensboro, North Carolina and more importantly on WNOX, Knoxville's influential Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round where they played alongside a young fiddler (and future guitar great) named Chet Atkins. In 1948 they briefly joined the cast of the famous Grand Ole Opry before defecting to Shreveport's rival Louisiana Hayride, and then, in 1952, returning to the Opry, where they remained a fixture until Anglin's tragic death.
Johnnie & Jack made their recording debut in 1947 for Ike and Bess Berman's gospel/R&B label Apollo, later that same year cutting half a dozen numbers for Syd Nathan's King label as members, with Clyde Moody and Ray Atkins, of the King Sacred Quartet. In 1948 their old friend Chet Atkins signed them to RCA Victor, kick-starting a run of hits that included not only their breakthrough success, "Poison Love", but also "Beware Of It" (1954), "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" (1954) and "Sailor Man" (1959). These were characterised not only by their distinctive harmony work, which owed something to bluegrass music, but also by the superb dobro playing of Shot Jackson.
A switch to Decca saw them chart with "Slow Poison" in 1962. A year later Anglin was killed in a car accident as he drove to a memorial service for country stars Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins following their deaths in a plane crash. Wright pursued a solo recording career, as Johnny Wright, charting in 1964 with "Walkin', Talkin', Cryin', Barely Beatin' Broken Heart" and hitting the top in 1965 with the Tom T Hall-penned "Hello Vietnam", a song whose overtly patriotic sentiments today seem somewhat anachronistic.
All the while he had watched his wife's career develop. He, his sister Louise and Muriel had worked together in the WSIX days as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls. In 1942, while Johnnie and Jack were appearing on WNOX, Muriel acquired the stage name "Kitty Wells" after a popular folk tune and, although she performed as a trio with Wright and Anglin, had a subsidiary role. It was her husband who eventually took the initiative in sending a demo of his wife singing her classic "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" to Decca's Paul Cohen, launching a career that would see her elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 1968 husband and wife charted with a duet "We'll Stick Together". Much of their later work came as part of a family unit, the Kitty Wells-Johnny Wright Family Show, with their children, in which capacity they regularly appeared on American television and several times visited Britain. Their final public performance together was in December 2000.
John Robert Wright, country musician: born Mount Juliet, Tennessee 13 May 1914; married 1937 Muriel Deason (one son, two daughters); died Madison, Tennessee 27 September 2011.
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