“Billy Wright: Prince of the Blues”

Guest Writer: Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley

In nature, we often hear the thunder before the lightning strikes, yet both can be powerful–and even frightening. Such was the case with Little Richard, the iconic and influential figure in popular music and culture for seven decades.  The forerunner to that very well-known entertainer was the “thunder and lightning” that was William (Billy) Wright.  Both entertainers hailed from Georgia, one from Macon and the other from Atlanta, respectively.

Billy Wright was born May 21, 1918, or May 21, 1928. The doubt of the year of his birth is something he fostered for reasons unknown; however, two researchers– Eric LeBlanc and Bob Eagle–have verified through newspaper obituary and official records that the correct year was 1918.  Wright turned out to be quite the singer and dancer as a youth. He learned his singing in church, and his phrasing was very gospel infused. By the time Wright was in his teens, he was dancing in vaudeville shows, traveling shows, and sometimes performing as a female impersonator. African American scholars Mark Anthony Neal and L.H. Stallings noted that the Chitlin’ circuit seemed to accommodate Black gay artists and even allowed them to make a decent living. It was a chance meeting at the 81 Theatre, a vaudeville circuit venue in Atlanta located on Decatur Street.  It was the second largest theater of its kind, and where Billy’s life would change.

As the entertainer’s shows began to impact the community, he began opening for acts including Wynonie Harris, Charles Brown, and saxophonist Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams.  So impressed by Wright, Williams recommended him to Herman Lubinsky of Savoy Records.

Right off the bat, Savoy’s newest talent struck gold with his first release.  “Blues for My Baby,” which Wright recorded in 1949 with Holland Collander’s orchestra, shot up to number three on the R & B chart.  His second song, “You Satisfy,climbed to number nine, while two more pieces made the top ten as well. And in 1951, “Stacked Deck” hit number nine; that same year, “Hey Little Girl” rose to number ten.

Wright–being a notably flamboyant performer–garnered the title, “Prince of the Blues,”  and became a central figure in Atlanta after World War II.  It was sometime around 1950 and 1951 that he met Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard. The two were great friends, having performed in some of the same places in Georgia’s Chitlin’ circuit.

Little Richard had a great admiration for Billy. He’s quoted as saying that the Prince of Blues wore “very loud-colored clothin’ and shoethin’ to match his clothin’.”  The “Architect of Rock and Roll” began dressing a lot like Wright,   also wearing his hair in his trademark pompadour.

Wright even introduced Little Richard to the brand of pancake makeup he wore. The two were so close and admired each other’s talent so much that the Prince of the Blues introduced the Architect of Rock and Roll to his good friend, DJ ‘Daddy” Sears, who in turn helped Little Richard get his first recording contract, which was with RCA Records.  The newly signed artist based a lot of his early recordings on Wright’s style of singing and used the same musicians that worked with Wright.

(The 81 Theater on Decatur Street, Atlanta)

For the next several years, Wright continued recording for Savoy Records, releasing six more songs, including “New Kind of Lovin”, “Drinkin and Thinkin”, “Married Woman’s Boogie”, “If I Didn’t Love You”,” Four Cold Cold Walls”, and the highly acclaimed “Live the Life”,  where it is said that the artist really “rocked out.” Unfortunately, his recording career took a turn in 1954 when he signed with Peacock Records based in Houston, Texas, and owned by Don Robey. One noted single release from that time, “Bad Luck, Heartaches, and Trouble” made a little rumble on the charts.  Leaving Peacock, Wright recorded for the Carrollton and Fire record companies in the late ‘50s, but none of the releases from those labels had the success of his earlier records. His recording career ended before he was 30 years old.

The performer reinvented himself and became a very successful MC (master of ceremonies) in Atlanta while still performing from time to time.  He MC’d in many of the places he’d once been a big draw as a performer until 1971 when he suffered a stroke. Wright died of a pulmonary embolism in 1991, just before his Halloween show at the historic Atlanta club, The Royal Peacock.

Oftentimes, the deck is stacked against Black gay performers, with cultural norms being fickle. The talent may open the door, but it is our true grit that makes us the stuff of legends. Billy Wright has proven that…

“Blues For My Baby,” by Billy Wright. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL-gTaF1dWA

Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley is an author, writer, singer/songwriter, and bishop from Waterloo, Iowa. He received his master’s degree in business from the International Business Management Institute based in Berlin, Germany.

Currently residing in Atlanta, Mr. Shirley is a bishop of National and International Social Action, part of New Direction Overcomers’ International Fellowship (based in Richmond, Virginia).

A multi-faceted talent, Hartsel is a writer, author, and singer/songwriter.  A bronze prize winner of the International Society of Poets, he has penned editorials for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier. His best-selling novel is entitled Three Words, Four Letters, published by Ishai Books.  Additionally, Hartsel has charted at #1 several times on the ReverbNation pop music charts.  

Inspired by Langston Hughes, Bishop Shirley states, “I write what moves me.  There is nothing I can’t write. I just have to care about it so I can write truthfully.”

According to Hartsel, his current book, The Night Eddie Sallis Died, is based on factual information he uncovered in 2002 about a 1966 jail cell “suicide” in Waterloo, Iowa (his place of birth).  This revealing and riveting book pulls back the curtain on racism and police brutality. The author emphasizes, “These truths make Iowa a state not to be taken lightly–nor forget.”