BIG JIM WRIGHT INTERVIEW
Around the mid-nineties, at the Flyte Tyme building in Minneapolis, whenever owner Jimmy Jam - one half of mega-platinum production duo Jam & Lewis – would take a new superstar client on a tour of the studio he would make the following introduction.
“And in here we have Big Jim Wright, he’s one of our writer/producers here at Flyte Tyme and he also sings.” Jam would then nod his trademark trilby towards the young vocalist.
“Say Big Jim … just give ‘em a little something.”
It would be at that point that he’d mosey over to the nearest keyboard. Telling me the story it just so happens Big Jim Wright (Jimmy to his Facebook friends) is sat right by a piano in his Los Angeles home. He starts to play.
“And when the cupboards bare, I’ll still find something there with my love." He sings whilst tinkering on the keys, "It’s understood, it’s everywhere with my love, my love does it gooood.”
The Paul McCartney classic My Love never sounded so good. Head of state Johnny Gill's version on Still Winning sounds pretty close, which (as it turns out) is more than just mere coincidence. Gill singing over the unused track originally produced by Big Jim with Jam & Lewis and intended for a "Big Jim Wright solo project. Scheduled for release around '97/98, until Flyte Tyme’s deal with Universal Records went south. Like so many artists that were signed during the neo-sonic-soul boom of the late nineties, Big Jim's debut vanished. For his part, he wasn’t too bothered.
“I never aspired to be an artist. The only reason I used to sing on some of those Sounds Of Blackness songs is because Terry Lewis preferred my vocals within the group. That’s how I ended up singing lead.”
The Sounds Of Blackness seminal 3rd studio album, Africa To America: The Journey Of The Drum features two largely unheralded Big Jim Wright fronted soul killers. The uptempo social commentary The Harder They Are, The Bigger They Fall and 5 minutes of soul brilliance - the unofficial Big Jim Wright solo cut (which he co-wrote, co-produced, played organ and sings lead on) – The Lord Will Make A Way.
“I’m a Hammond B3 Organ player, which is my favourite instrument. The Lord Will Make A Way started with me plucking around on the organ one day in the studio and that’s how it developed. Then Terry & I wrote it with a heavy Al Green influence changing the sound to feature the Hammond B3.” You can almost hear Al Green’s Hi Records labelmate OV Wright in there too.
“Wow, OV Wright – that’s a blast from the past,” says Big Jim. “I had an aunt that lived in our house that used to play all that stuff. OV Wright, Bobby Blue Bland & Johnnie Taylor. Whereas my mother and grandparents, they sang in church - very religious people.”
Knowing how nasty the blues can be, certainly when compared to the salvation and saintliness of gospel, was Big Jim’s aunt the black sheep of the family?
“Ah, I don’t know if she was the black sheep. But she was different from her siblings – that’s ALL I’ll say!” Wright laughs. Anyone hailing from Rockford, Illinois at that time would have been no stranger to the blues but it was gospel that dominated a young Jimmy Wright’s musical education.
“Like so many artists I started singing in church. My grandparents and my mother sang at the Allen Chapel AME Church and I started singing when I was five years old. Then around ten/eleven I learned to play drums, guitar, bass, piano and finally organ. I got so popular within the community that I appeared as a special guest for a lot of different pastors - I couldn’t even drive myself, because I didn’t have a driver’s licence, so my grandparents would chaperone me.”
Whenever he returns to his hometown, Big Jim is always called out of the congregation to perform.
“Every time I go to get my worship on, I’m expected to perform the Andrea Crouch song The Blood. They still think I’m that little kid, Jimmy, 10 years old with a high whiny voice.” says Wright.
Being a gospel-soul-wunderkind is not as glamourous as you’d imagine.
“Honestly, I got bored with it – the same routine, every Sunday, sitting in front of the same instrument in the same four church walls. I just felt I had more to give and so I made a pact with Ann Nesby, who I had accompanied on keyboards ever since I was a kid, that whichever one of us made it first we would take the other along with us. Ann made it, becoming lead singer of the Sounds Of Blackness, so I followed her out to Minneapolis.”
1991 was the year Big Jim slung the keyboard over his back and headed out to the Twin Cities, just after the SOB’s had already hit with the Grammy award winning Evolution Of Gospel album via Jam & Lewis’s Perspective Records.
“They fired their keyboard player and so Gary Hines (the director of the Sounds Of Blackness choir) remembering a time when I jammed with the band (whilst visiting Nesby) called and said he needed someone to tour with them urgently and offered me the job. I moved to Minneapolis the next day.”
Once Big Jim got his foot in the door, he wasn’t gonna let it close again.
“I could never figure out why the rest of the Sounds Of Blackness would only go to the studio when they had scheduled rehearsals. ‘Cause Jam & Lewis used to tell everyone on their label that ‘this studio is open to you all the time.’ So I would go up there every day! Whenever I could, and that’s how I got to work with LoKey.”
LoKey’s 2nd album on Perspective, the explicitly seventies-era-funky-soul inspired Back 2 Da Howse album (think Ohio Players/Isley Brothers), may not have achieved legendary sales figures, but it was a legendary album in the Soul Jones house, and with the soul music connoisseurs here in the UK.
“I just hit it off with the producers and group members Tony ‘Prof T’ Tolbert and Lance Alexander, because we all had that interest in the great music of the ‘70s. They heard me play and it was a match made in heaven, so we just started jamming together. I became like the 5th member of the group.”
Big Jim had a hand in writing five of the album’s songs, including the songs Tasty & Play With Me. Not the kind of lyrics Wright’s grandmother was likely to hear him singing in church.
“Well you know what –I think Tasty flew under my grandmother’s radar,” Big Jim laughs. “I didn’t play it for her, but you know in the music industry, your family or the layman, doesn’t understand the behind the scenes aspect – writing and producing. All they understand are the songs you put right in front of their face, so that definitely helped me out!”
There would have been no qualms telling Granny Wright about his work on best friend Ann Nesby’s solo project I’m Here For You (including penning the title song, the excellent In The Spirit & stomping This Weekend) or his writing credit on vocal harmony group Solo’s debut single Heaven. And surely it would be damn near impossible, resisting name dropping his involvement in Jam & Lewis’s productions outside of their Perspective Records work, with soul’s finest; Barry White (Come On), Luther Vandross (I Won’t Let You Do That To Me), Gladys Knight (Next Time) & Karyn White (One Minute & Thinkin’ Bout Love). It was during Jam & Lewis’s 3rd dynasty – helping vintage artists return to soul glory – the mid-nineties era that Big Jim made sure he was in the right place, at the right time.
“The first thing I’d have to do is wait until Ann Nesby and her manager had gone to bed, because we all shared the same car. I would then drive to the studio at 11 o’clock at night. That’s when Jam & Lewis’s creative juices would really be flowing. I would just go sit in the kitchen, watch TV with the remote control in one hand and a snickers bar in the other. And Jimmy Jam or Terry Lewis would be working in one of the studios and they’d walk out and say:
‘Hey man, come in here and play on this!’ And that’s how it happened – day in/day out. I got the chance to showcase my skill on a regular basis and became woven into the Flyte Tyme fabric.”
So it was like ‘Mom, pass me the gravy. Oh, and did I mention that I worked with Patti Labelle last week?’
“Patti Labelle was the most memorable session at Flyte Tyme,” recalls Big Jim. Even now, after all of Wright’s success, you can sense a hint of disbelief. “Both Ann and myself were prepping for Patti to come. And Patti walked in wearing a full mink coat, looking beautiful - a superstar. And I was like ‘Oh my god! We’re doing a song for Patti Labelle!’ That’s when we did The Right Kinda Lover (from the Gems album). Patti came to work with Jam & Lewis but Terry set the stage. ‘This is Big Jim, a talented young man.’ And when Patti heard me play and sing, well, we just fell in love.”
Jam & Lewis left A&M, leaving behind Perspective Records and started the new label venture Flyte Tyme Records with Universal. The release schedule read: 1) Angel Grant 2) Kevin Ford & 3) Big Jim Wright. Unfortunately the subsequent albums were cancelled. But for the first project on the slate, Album by Angel Grant, Jam & Lewis entrusted co-production and co-writing on the entire set to Big Jim (including the catchy, shouldabeenasmash, Desreé-esque Knockin’ & the Billboard charting lullaby Lil’ Red Boat.)
“Angel was and still is a beautiful woman, and Terry Lewis liked the demo she did with another guy as part of a duo based in Atlanta. But the other guy was already signed, I think, to LaFace (the label owned by production duo LA Reid & Babyface). But, still we got Angel and she came up to Minneapolis and we just fell in love with her. When we got into the studio we thought a little to the left – you know Lennon & McCartney, different influences to the R&B style.”
When arch super-production-rivals LA & Babyface are mentioned, in a conversation with someone from the Jam & Lewis camp, it’s perfectly alright to boo. Big Jim laughs, “I think it was a friendly rivalry, fuelled more by the individual camps than the producers. You know I think our camp was more like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll take them out – because we have Mint Condition, LoKey, Sounds Of Blackness and of course we had Solo too.’
The latter group, arguably the greatest ‘90s vocal harmony group there was, were swiped right from underneath Babyface’s cute little babynose. Terry Lewis beating him to nail the boys’ signature; spotting the group busking in the same spot at the World Trade Centre that Babyface would stroll past only days later.
“Our angle was, look at our singers compared to theirs (LaFace) sure they had TLC, Toni Braxton – but we just felt like we had stronger singers. They definitely had more commercial success than our label. But we always felt like we had stronger talent.” Have some of that, in your (La)face.
“I would say Jam & Lewis won, but then I’m a Jam & Lewis fan. I can’t help it.”
Big Jim’s new millennium resolution would see Big Jim, transform into a, not quite so big Jim.
“I wanted to get help, because after I experienced so much success, by just eating and sitting in a studio, writing with no exercise I got to a size where I just felt it wasn’t healthy. So I ended up having gastric bypass surgery. The legend that is DJ Rogers was my role model; he walked me through the whole process because he had already had the surgery. He helped with portion control, exercising, and getting all the nutrients because you can only eat so much after that surgery. I’m probably 250 pounds lighter now – I’m healthy and always ready to write some hits!”
It was a lean Big Jim Wright that stepped out from under Jam & Lewis’s shadow in the noughties – with the mainstream recognizing his contribution to Mariah Carey’s monster comeback album The Emancipation Of Mimi.
“Mariah had a villa over in the Virgin Islands, so she called one day and asked me to fly over and write. She was just, relaxing, collecting her thoughts. When I arrived we set up a keyboard over at the house. And that’s how Fly Like A Bird and the rest of the music (Big Jim co-wrote 3 songs on the album) came about. It was quite the motivator that weather, that ocean – it was just beautiful.”
“Big Jim Wright was Flyte Tyme’s best kept secret,” says former Flyte Tyme A&R executive Desmarie Guyton.“In the studio Chaka Khan shared with Big Jim an entry from her journal about a troubled person, and out came the song Angel.” The second single lifted from the Grammy winning Funk This album, is a modern soul killer, allowing Chaka the space to really let rip with the full range of her voice. The 2007 number was released during Jam & Lewis’s 4th great production dynasty/era, with Big Jim vital to the effort - a key contributor along with musicians and co-production hotshots the Avila Bros (Bobby Ross & Iz). A duo also anointed into Flyte Tyme’s arsenal of back room talent. The Avila’s are all over the Chaka album and Earth Wind & Fire’s return to form with Illumination. The Flyte Tyme dream team created some of their finest work with cuts such as the rousing Beyonce & The O’Jays He Still Loves Me (from the Fighting Temptations soundtrack), the glorious steppers classic Imagination also for the O’Jays and they returned the Isley Brother’s to the ‘70s golden era with I’m In Love. Big Jim would also contribute to the Avila’s The Mood: Soundsational album, taking centre stage with the Fender Rhodes on the sublime Big Jim’s Sonata.
As the noughties moves into the teens, it’s the next Chaka, Patti or Luther that Big Jim is searching for. “I’m really on a mission to promote and produce real artistry,” states Wright. “With the onslaught of pro tools and computer generated music, the art has been compromised. Where is that new Aretha Franklin? Where is the new Donny Hathaway? Stevie Wonder? We just lost Whitney Houston – who’s going to fill that void?” As the band leader on hit BET show Sunday Best (think American Gospel Idol) Big Jim is ideally placed to sniff out the talent early. They might even be right under his nose.
“I have a keyboard player who I call the boy wonder, “I Am” Daniel Moore. Hopefully I can hold onto him – because he’s in such demand these days. Everybody’s been trying to get at him from the Jacksons to NeYo and he’s been touring the world playing so I’m like ‘Hey buddy remember me?!’”
Wright and Moore have collaborated on an entire album, titled Scared (as yet unreleased). Moore gets a spot in Big Jim’s dream band, which unashamedly features many of the current Sunday Best Penthouse Players. “Yeah it’s got Debra Killings on bass, an incredible songwriter, background singer who also contributed to LaFace (Boooo!), Doc Powell aka Mr Guitar Virtuoso who worked for years with Luther Vandross and Lil’ John Roberts and the only drummer Janet Jackson would take on tour.” But Big Jim saves the final spot for a legend. “The singer’s got to be Aretha.” He says.
Man imagine that. Big Jim and Aretha … what a duet that would be.
Originally published in Summer 2012.