By William McCray Sutherlin
Louisiana Music Hall-of-Famer Gregg Wright made a stop in Baton Rouge last week while on a tour of the state he’s loved for so long.
Between shows at Phil Brady’s in Baton Rouge and Sam’s in Crowley, Wright caught up with DIG for an insightful one-on-one interview to discuss his move to Los Angeles, his work with Michael Jackson, and playing behind the Soviet Iron Curtain
DIG: How has Louisiana affected you as a musician? It seems you spent a lot of time here early on in your life.
Gregg Wright: The whole Louisiana cultural thing affected and influenced me to far greater degree than I’d ever imagined. I’m from the Washington, D.C. area and came to Louisiana back in the mid-70s on the invitation of a friend. I ended up working and living here for nearly five years and as a result, Louisiana shows up everywhere in my music!
DIG: What was it like to go from touring in the South to performing out West in the Los Angeles area? Must have been a big transition, both professionally and personally.
Wright: Whew! It was a huge mind-blowing challenge! Our band consisted of Eddie Smith, Steve Houk, Terry Granier and myself. We were pretty much the Kings of the I-10 circuit back in the late 70s-early 80s. We’d built quite a fan base from New Orleans to Lake Charles and everything in between. We moved to Los Angeles during the height of the West Coast Punk movement, which put us at odds right away with that scene. We played Southern Blues-Rock and wore blue jeans, not safety pins, so we didn’t fit in at all. We could actually play our instruments as where the punks could only bash & scream. They were awful and we were completely disoriented! Eventually, the guys became discouraged and returned to Louisiana. But I wasn’t gonna let anybody or anything stop my Rock & Roll dream, so I stayed in L.A. I came to realize that I still had quite a bit to learn as a professional musician and was fortunate to eventually work with and learn from a lot of the music artists I had always admired.
DIG: The videos of you and Michael Jackson on tour are incredible. Could you tell me a little about that experience?
Wright: Working with Michael and the Jackson Brothers was a complete game changer for me, professionally and personally. They were true professionals in every way. Working with them raised my game a hundred fold. It was with the Jacksons that I became a true professional and learned things about music, making records and performing that I had been completely unaware of. People have a hard time understanding this, but musicians that play mostly in bars and those that make records are two completely different animals. Imagine my surprise when I realized that up until this point, I’d been mostly a bar musician. The Jacksons taught me everything about performance, playing in time and grooving. I also learned to always come prepared and always be on time. Despite all their fame, wealth and success, they were all extremely nice, humble people. They made it very clear that you can be successful and nice.
DIG: We were so happy to see you inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. What did that mean to you as a life-long musician and performer?
Wright: Being inducted into the Louisiana Hall of Fame was one of the greatest honors of my career. It means more to me than a Grammy or anything like that. Because Louisiana, its culture and people are so close to my heart. Man, I’m a Northeastern Yankee boy by birth, but nobody ever held that against me. Folks here embraced me with open hearts and arms from the very beginning. I found Louisiana people to be very welcoming and I am eternally grateful. Louisiana is the true birthplace of Rock & Roll. So, it’s a real honor to stand beside some of America’s greatest music artists in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame!
DIG: Most memorable moment of your career?
Wright: Oh man, there’s been so many of them it’d take up 20 pages, so I’ll tell you just one. Getting front row tickets to the Jackson’s concert at RFK Stadium in D.C. for my high school buddies was pretty cool. Ten years before, we’d all gone to RFK to see the Allman Brothers. I wasn’t even good on guitar yet, but watching that show, I had an epiphany of seeing myself onstage. I blurted out to no one in particular, “Man, I’m gonna be playing right up there in this stadium one day!” My buddies just kinda looked over at me like “Yeah, right!” One of ‘em blurted out “Don’t give Wright anything else to drink or smoke, cause he’s trippin’!” Fast-forward to RFK a decade later and it was the biggest “I told you so!” moment of my life. I think they got an even bigger kick out of it than I did. We partied pretty hard afterwards.
DIG: Where do you get your material from? Life experiences? Stories from others? Both?
Wright: Some of my stuff is autobiographical, some songs are just stories I tell to make a point. Sometimes things come to me as if there’s a cosmic radio playing in the air. I’ll hear it and immediately have to find a guitar to capture it because the cosmic radio comes and goes as if somebody up there is turning the cosmic dial!
DIG: You’ve spoken before about “diplomacy through music.” I know you are passionate about the topic. Tell us a little about this.
Wright: Well, over the course of my career I’ve seen the way music can be a healer and bring people together. I’ve seen it overcome national, racial, cultural and even religious barriers. I’ve also felt the total joy people get from it. I played several music festivals in countries that were once behind the old Soviet Iron Curtain. One in Serbia really stands out in my mind because after our concert the crowd broke through the barrier and gave me about a thousand-person group hug. They all had tears of joy in their eyes along with their smiles, shouting in broken English “Serbia love you geetar!” I began to weep as well because I realized at that exact moment how powerful music really is. My guitar and I had just accomplished something that fifty years of political antagonism and billions of lost dollars in world-ending weaponry failed to do . . . communicate and make people happy. So, music bringing us all together is diplomacy through music. Still gives me chills to think about it. I’m sure many other musicians have experienced this to some degree. That’s the true calling of a musician. We are doctors of the human soul.
Guitar(s): Fret- King “GWR” Signature Guitar and a Fender Stratocaster
Pedal(s): Vox wah wah & Fulltone OCD Drive pedal
Strings: GHS Boomers (10-046)