For his extensive, award-winning career as a producer, musician, composer, and arranger, the 2021 Governor’s Arts Awards Lifetime Achievement Award will go to Benjamin Wright. This particular award always goes to an artist who has amassed a body of work that will stand the test of time. The work of musician, composer, producer, and arranger Benjamin Wright could fill multiple lifetimes.
Benjamin Wright Jr. was born in the Delta town of Greenville in 1946 and has been professionally active in the music business for more than 50 years.
In high school, Wright was a drum major and sang Doo Wop with a local group. Soon he was on the road playing piano with rhythm and blues icon Ted Taylor.
Reluctant to let young Benjamin tour, Wright’s father said, “This music is not of the Lord.”
Nevertheless, his father allowed him to go. While on the road, Mr. Wright enrolled in the Berkelee College of Music to formally learn how to write orchestrations.
“I was turned on to what was called Downbeat Magazine, which was a bimonthly jazz magazine, and in that magazine, they had a lot of ads,” said Wright. “One of the ads back in the early 60s was the Berklee School of Music, and that was a correspondence school at that time. Berkelee didn’t have a campus. I finally got enough money to take that course, and that was my life savings.”
Eventually settling in Chicago, he joined leading soul and funk session band, Pieces of Peace, playing on countless records by the likes of Jerry Butler, Jackie Wilson, and Curtis Mayfield. At the same time, he worked tirelessly as a copyist for an array of legendary arrangers including Donny Hathaway, Gene Barge and Charles Stepney, while also attending The Chicago Conservatory of Music.
Wright also gained renown for his masterful skills at producing and arranging, becoming one of the leading string arrangers in the business.
Requests for his orchestral arrangements continued to grow, so he followed the industry as it expanded in Los Angeles, where he has worked on hundreds of hit records by artists including Aretha Franklin, Rance Allen, James Ingram and The Temptations.
“I pray and God gives me the notes and that’s the bottom line,” said Wright. “I’m extremely confident because God has written my charts. I don’t start on a chart until I pray on it.”
In 1979, superproducer Quincy Jones brought Benjamin Wright in to arrange strings for Michael Jackson’s debut solo album Off the Wall. Wright’s arrangements were featured on several songs, including number one hits “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”
Benjamin Wright went on to become a GRAMMY award-winning songwriter, producer, and arranger. His work spanned generations of GRAMMY winning songs including his contributions to 2003’s FUTURE SEX LOVE SOUNDS by Justin Timberlake and Speakerboxx/The Love Below by hip hop duo OutKast.
A half century into his prolific career, Mr. Wright shows no signs of slowing down. He recently worked on recordings with Mary J. Blige, Ty Dolla $ign, and Frank Ocean. In 2019, Benjamin Wright embarked on his first tour of solo shows.
He also acts as a musical mentor to Mississippi resident and graduate of Tougaloo College, Maximus Wright.
Benjamin Wright has some advice for young, aspiring musicians.
“Learn some music. If you can learn some music, things will flow. You can tell all the young cats this: There’s not but 12 notes in the whole universe. Some of it is blues, opera, classical, rock n’ roll, jazz, whatever. It’s the same 12 notes. I’ll be more than happy to explain that to anybody.”
Watch Benjamin Wright accept his award with the other 2021 recipients on Friday, February 19 at 8 p.m. CST on MPB TV.
Photo and video content courtesy of Benjamin Wright.