Written by: Latoya Coleman
Edited by: Daniela Gabb
Photos: Malik Daniels
Styled by: Fairfax Copenhagen
Benjamin Wright was sitting at home on the 28th day of his 30-day assignment when he realized that he should probably sit down and write that song, and, at the time, songwriting meant writing out the actual music notes by hand. “For 28 days I couldn’t write anything, but what do write for Quincy Jones? And, mind you, back then there weren’t any computers or synthesizer. It was all pen and paper,” says the American producer and composer, who was tasked with creating a song for Michael Jackson. Wright leans back in his candy-apple leather office chair and recounts going to the studio to present his work, “I passed out the music sheets and had everyone start playing. I saw Q fall to his knees in the control room and I thought, ‘Wow, I really must’ve fucked up.’ But then he[Jones] yelled, ‘This is a motherfucker!’” It was the string arrangement that did it.
“You possibly could have heard it before,” he states shrugging his shoulders. Wright clears his throat and sings, “Don’t stop til you get enough, keep on.” Wright swivels his chair in front of his 27-inch iMac, clicks his wireless mouse and plays “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” string arrangements off of YouTube.
Jones was so impressed with Wright’s strings on “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” that he gave him “Rock With You” to score on the very same day.
Wright is calm and cool in this space that has no AC. His salt and pepper cornrows lay down neatly on his neck coming from under his hat. In this bright, sunlit, soundproofed studio, time is elastic. And when you’re in the presence of Mr. Wright, and you’re getting an invitation into the world of music, you have no choice but to hold onto every word, hold your breath during every pause and pay attention to every song, usually his songs, that he pulls up on YouTube.
It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in Sun Valley, California, and Benjamin is sitting next to me in his office chair that sits between his 27-inch Mac desktop and his 160 piece soundboard in his at-home studio. Wright’s studio is beautiful and spacious, with at least six keyboards, numerous musical equipment I can’t name, wood paneling and a dramatic ceiling that sparkles like the night sky. Adjacent to the studio, there’s an area where he’s hung up all of his eight Grammys certificates, and endless frames of gold and platinum albums.
You may not have heard Benjamin Wright’s name before but you have definitely heard his music. Over the years, Mr. Wright has worn many hats in the music industry including producer, music arranger, composer, writer, conductor, and music director. This 8-time Grammy award winner left an indelible mark on the music industry, making hits for some of the greats like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Temptations, Barry White, Aretha Franklin, Outkast, Gladys Knight, Mary J Blige, Frank Ocean, Dru Hill and Justin Timberlake to name a few. He has arranged the strings and horns on your favorite songs that your favorite rappers and singers sampled. For example” Don’t Leave Me” by Blackstreet and “I Ain’t Mad Atcha” by Tupac sample the rhythm, strings, horns arranged by Wright in DeBarge’s song “A Dream” that was released in 1984.
A creative genius, throughout his career Wright exceeded expectations by achieving continued success all while defying the odds. Born in Greenville, Mississippi in 1946, Wright’s music career started right before he was kicked out of high school where he was a drum major in the school band. He recalls he and his friends telling the school band director, “We want to play what’s on the radio.” After the band director challenged them to pick the songs and write the music Wright recalls, “We played it for him and the shit sounded like shit. But writing music and playing, it affected me differently than the others.” After getting kicked out of high school in the 12th grade as an honor student, Wright went on tour with Ted Taylor and opened for James Brown, all the while teaching himself how to write music. It all started after he saw a printed advertisement for a course at music school called Berklee, in a magazine.
At the time the Berklee School of Music in Boston wasn’t the BERKLEE we know now. It had no campus. It was just a correspondence school, meaning students learned through distance learning. In the 50s and 60s, before computers, that meant students received and handed in their assignments through US postal mail. “So, I learned to read and write music through what they call correspondence,” says Wright. “I would write music compositions, send it to Berklee and two weeks later they would send it back graded with notes.” How he managed to learn and write sheet music for instruments like the violin, viola, trumpet and more while he toured with icons like James Brown, Otis Redding, Billy Stewart, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, speaks to his musical genius. He completed his courses at Berklee in 1968.
After touring, Wright’s musical career was almost derailed when he was called to the draft for the Vietnam War at 18 years old. “At the time the rule was that only children couldn’t be drafted but that was not the case if you were Black,” Wright says as he crosses his arms. He avoided getting drafted in the army by enlisting in the Air Force before the government came looking for him. After serving in the Air Force, he started his career in Chicago in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
It was in Chicago where he joined a funk and soul band called Pieces of Peace, attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music, received a Ph.D. from the Pentecostal Bible College in Tuskegee, Alabama and started working with various artists across the Chicago music scene. As he recalls being nervous for his first couple of “string dates” (a type of music session) because he hadn’t even seen some of the instruments he learned to write music for, Wright leans back resting his right index finger on the bridge of his nose, “No one in Greenville, Mississippi had a violin. We didn’t even have a TV, hello?! I heard them on the radio, but I’ve never seen them.”
Wright clearly became comfortable with string dates and studio sessions after he warmed up in the windy city of Chicago. “Now, when I go into studios, I’m like this is my house,” he chuckles. After the Chi, he moved to Los Angeles in 1975. It’s in Los Angeles where his music career really took off. And it started with a phone call from Quincy Jones. “I could’ve swore it was one of my bandmates or someone messing with me,” he says as he looks suspiciously at his phone shaped hand.
After doing “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You”, on Michael Jackson’s debut solo album, Wright continued to defy the odds with his musical talents this time working on Qunicy Jones album in 1981. Jones’s album The Dude was low on the charts until the release of Wright’s single “100 Ways,” which bumped the album to the top of all music charts in 1981.
“My mortgage is $3,500 a month. That song is still paying it,” said Wright. A year after it’s release, Wright and Jones received the Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance for “100 Ways.” It’s hard to believe that “100 Ways,” a song Wright passed onto Quincy Jones, was originally called trashed by a record executive at another record label.
It was only just 3 years ago Benjamin Wright was presenting to a large group of students at the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, Mississippi, 25 miles from his hometown. Wright is among the Mississippians who helps the state hold the title of having the most Grammy Award winners in the United States. At the museum, Wright had an intimate conversation and discussion of his extensive career, offering advice and industry insight to predominantly high school and college students.
“See, back then, they cross your name out and say ‘fail’,” he reflects on his own expulsion from high school. “But that day they had to introduce me as Dr. Wright.” And the title of “doctor” is perfectly fitting for a man who has nurtured numerous musical careers as well as styles.
Today, Wright is a music authority and some would say genius. “Look, I’ve never even been formally taught in class, never stepped on Berklee’s campus. But I got hit records and shit.”
In-person, Mr. Wright is funny (“Don’t question me. I’m always Wright. It has been written”), charismatic (“I don’t know when I make a hit, but I know my stuff is good”) and deeply connected to his family (“I have the privilege of helping take care of my 19 grandchildren and being the total support for my 89-year-old and 66-year-old sisters”).
At the ripe age of 73, Wright continues to make waves in the music industry. You need only listen to “Anniversary” by Tony, Toni, Tone, “I Love You” by Dru Hill, “Until the End of Time” with Beyonce and Justin Timberlake, “Pink +Blonde” by Frank Ocean. One musical style he is most proud of and found enjoyable was working on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience album and performing at the 2013 grammy music award show, with an orchestra for his arrangements on the song “Pusha Love.” “I remember making some bold statements when making music for that album. ‘We are going to change music.’ And today people still try and copy the sounds on that project.”
Over the next couple of months, Wright will prepare for a million-dollar budget performance as the entertainment for the Obama Presidential Library opening in Chicago set to happen January 2020. He is scheduled to perform outside on the Navy Pier in negative-below-degree weather with his 70-piece orchestra.
From a lucrative start in the country’s Jim Crow Capital, to a military detour followed by a pitstop in the Windy City, and finally putting down roots in the Music Mecca of Los Angeles, Benjamin Wright’s personal history brings to light the cultural, social, and political context of the country over a number of decades. His musical journey took him out of the segregated south and into the center of the story of R&B in the United States. Undeniably, his talent, resilience, and influence continue to impact the industry.
As much as his famous songs, Benjamin Wright’s story deserves to be heard and known.