On the phone from his home in Providence, Rhode Island, Mr. William Gathright sets the ground rules. That's to be expected for one of the most intriguing and mysterious of all the mysterious soul artists, though he'd probably reject affiliation with even that open-ended genre. He developed his poignant, deeply felt version of soul music on his own terms. Some four decades later, those terms haven't changed.
"I don't want to waste your time or mine," he says. He has a newly reissued album, Telling the Truth, on the Numero Group label. He's happy to talk about it, but forget about discussing his roots in Mississippi or Arkansas — or his formative childhood years in East St. Louis. He won't discuss it, period. A previous interviewer made sure of that. "Where is your mother buried?" Wright was asked. In light of that question, at this point it's a relief that he's talking at all.
But as he opens up, Gathright — who recorded and performed in and around New York City and the Northeast coast through the '60s and '80s under the name Willie Wright — reveals as much as anyone needs to know about the remarkable fusion of folk music, jazz, soul and pop present on Truth. Originally released in 1977 through Hotel Records and Variety Sound, the album almost instantly became a legend — especially since only 1,000 vinyl copies were pressed, making the album known to only the most fanatical excavators of American music.
But now rescued from oblivion, Truth should restore Wright's reputation as one of the most gifted singers, songwriters and record makers of his era. Yes, just on the strength of one singular, expressive, eloquent album.
Whether Wright wishes to acknowledge it or not, the origin of his music can be traced to his Southern and Midwestern roots. Born in Bayland, Mississippi, in 1939, the child moved with his family to East St. Louis, where, according to his official biography, he was exposed to jazz and R&B in and around the soul-food kitchen his mother operated. But the music he most recalls is country, on records and on the radio, and the sound got into his blood.
"That was more my roots," he says. "That's what I grew up on in the South. It was mostly country music. I didn't know about rhythm and blues until I became an adult. I was brought up on country. That's all we listened to at the time."
Moving to New York at the age of twelve, Wright left the country behind. His first professional gig was with the Persuaders, a five-piece doo-wop group in Manhattan. The band covered the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and popular songs on the radio. But when he launched a solo career in the early '60s, he came into his own voice, a lithe and lyrical cross between Richie Havens and Tom Paxton, Bill Withers and Tim Buckley. Folk music was hot in New York, but Wright stresses that the evolution wasn't intentional.
"That sound came over the years of performing," he explains. "My thing was to perform anywhere for anybody. That's how my music became what it is. I didn't have a set audience. As I was performing I was learning all these different kinds of music. I was in Greenwich Village. That's where I picked up a lot of the folk music. Richie Havens, Bob Dylan, others I can't think of now. Peter, Paul and Mary. Sometimes there were problems [with audiences], but it depended on where I was performing. Sometimes they thought it was kind of odd; they hadn't seen anything like that before. It's still like that."
Wright worked steadily throughout the '60s and '70s. He developed a following and built a name but never found interest from labels or proper management. Opportunities for recording were fitful at best. And then came the spring of 1977 and the sessions for Telling the Truth. Backed by his friends George "Buzzy" Bragg on drums and Harry Jensen on guitar — and with Wright singing and playing guitar and flute — the album was cut in some eight hours, with just one or two takes of his original material. The songs are delicate and private, evocations of tranquility and beauty found deep in the night, remembrances of childhood and prayers for his children, all played and sung with the warmth and pacing of a long Missouri summer.
"I'd say 75 percent of it is personal," Wright says of his songwriting. "I tell a story. I'm more of a storyteller. Some of the stuff I have here at the house that I'm working on, it's mostly stories. When I write a song, I write it like I'm writing a movie. It's hard to explain. When I write a song, I don't just write it for me. I write it for the audience."
One of the most compelling tracks on Truth is "Indian Reservation," a homage to his mother's (and his own) Cherokee roots. It's also a semi-fictional tale of his boyhood in Missouri.
"'Indian Reservation' is a song I wrote for myself and for other people," he says. "I don't want people to take it the wrong way. It's not meant to be political. I know politics. I read and listen to politics, but as far as me being a politician, that's out of the question."
The tiny New York recording company of Variety Sound had no idea what they had in Telling the Truth. On the back of the album, the label printed a warning: "TEENAGERS, this album may be too lyrically heavy for you, especially if you're into fast music. YOU WILL, however, enjoy this record if you're into GUITARS!" Indeed, the lyrics are heavy, and the guitars are sparkling. The sound as a whole, however, is unprecedented.
Wright endeavors to explain: "My thing is, if it's not going to be something different, I don't want to use it. The only way I can get something different is through a natural sound. Then I know I have something original. Everything else has been done. That's what makes Telling the Truth stand out. I can't even do half the parts. If you ask me to sing one of those songs now, I'd have to go study it. You know what I'm saying?"
Thirty-four years after the release of Telling the Truth, Wright is considering a return to the studio with some friends from Vermont. That's his hope, at any rate, despite having been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2008. He wants to make one final album. At the age of 71, he knows how time and the disease work; he can feel it in slurred speech and halting guitar strums. "It's not a joke," he says.
"I can feel I'm losing it slowly, but I'm trying to hang on," he says. "That's why we're planning this session. That will be the last session I do. I'm not complaining. I'm just trying to speak the truth."