Nov 24, 2017
by Robert Feuer
As a young woman living in Dayton, Ohio, Cleveland-born Nancy Wright sat in with John Lee Hooker at the venue Gilly’s, leading to an invitation to join his band on the road. She went on to perform with him at Carnegie Hall, with a TV appearance after the show. “It was an amazing experience to be a young person getting her toes wet among all those legendary people,” Wright says during an October interview. Also on that tour were Willie Dixon, Big Mama Thornton, John Hammond, and Robert Cray. An appearance with Hooker at the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival followed.
Wright had been classically trained on multiple instruments, but felt limited, calling the music “scripted.” She left classical music behind for the blues world, which allowed her more improvisation and a greater opportunity for self-expression, she says. “Improvisation is when you play whatever you really feel.”
Wright names guitar wizard and fellow Midwesterner, Lonnie Mack, as her mentor. She recalls joining him regularly onstage and sitting around his kitchen in Dayton listening to demos. Before the Hooker tour, Mack had taken her on the road to New York and Nashville.
In 1984, due to a recommendation from a member of Hooker’s band, Wright landed in San Francisco with the critically acclaimed New Orleans R&B band, Hot Links, which included top San Francisco musicians. Wright’s motive for the move, she says, was to pursue her career in a larger urban environment with exposure to more musicians.
Following that, opportunities rolled in. Wright connected with classic blues/R&B pianist Katie Webster, and performed with her at the Chicago Blues Festival. They recorded together, including on a Grammy-winning B.B King album. Others she’s performed with include Stevie Ray Vaughn, Albert King, Albert Collins, and Ike Turner (at Sweet Jimmie’s in Oakland.)
During the 1990’s, Wright’s career slowed during a failed marriage. She still lives in the Bay Area, touring and doing mix and match gigs with local musicians. “I’m blessed to be where all this great talent is.”
The fact that she’s “self-driven,” has led to much success. In 2013, the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame named her Blues Saxophone Player of the Year, an event she calls “a total surprise.” This year she received her first Blues Music Award nomination as Best Instrumentalist – Horns, a national award leading her to greater renown. “I penetrated that consciousness,” she says.
Wright, has two of her own bands, choosing players from a “roster” of locals. “It morphs over time,” she says. Her predominant styles are blues, R&B, New Orleans, funk, and gospel, referring to herself as “old school.” “I tend to be more melodic,” she adds. In 2009, she started adding vocals, which were “well-received.” “People like to be sung to.” Also, she’s writing more songs. “It’s a real special joy to play that music.”
Wright is currently on the road with Tommy Castro’s band, with whom she’s playing New Year’s Eve at the Mystic Theater. “Tommy has been so supportive,” Wright says.
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