RIP Johnnie Wright: 1914-2011

Wednesday, 28 September 2011 06:10 AM Written by 

Johnnie Wright, half of the respected vocal duo of Johnnie and Jack and husband and singing \partner of country legend Kitty Wells, died Tuesday at his home in Madison, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. He was 97 and had been in failing health. Wright and Wells had retired from active touring after performing together over 60 years.  Funeral services will be held Friday in Madison.

Kitty of course, was better-known, having made the first real breakthrough for women in country music with her 1952 hit ballad "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." 

That may have left a perception Wright was more or less in her shadow, the country music cognoscenti, of course know that Wright achieved his own stardom, albeit on a different level than his wife.  As half of the successful duet team of Johnnie and Jack, with Jack Anglin, they had a number of country hits in the 50's, the best known being 1951's "Poison Love," with its distinctive and at the time unconventional, Latin beat.

Johnnie Robert Wright was born east of Nashville in the hamlet of Mount Juliet and knew some of the earliest performers on the WSM Barn Dance, the Opry's original title, including pioneer fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson, the first performer on the first Barn Dance broadcast, who often stopped by a local feed store to jam. 

In 1937 Wright, who worked in a Nashville cabinet shop at the time, married singer and Nashville native Muriel Deason, a neighbor of Wright's sister Bessie, who eventually took the stage name of Kitty Wells. They formed Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls with Wright's sister Louise, and started performing on WSIX radio in Nashville.  Louise Wright married singer Jack Anglin and in 1938, Wright and Jack Anglin, brothers-in-law, sang together for the first time, Anglin's high tenor and Wright's baritone created a powerful vocal blend.

Wright and Anglin called the act the Tennessee Hillbillies and continued working (with Wells part of the act) until Anglin was drafted during World War II.  Wells and Wright kept going until Anglin returned  in 1946. At that point the group joined the Grand Ole Opry as Johnnie and Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys, altering the name in deference to Opry attempts to downplay the term "hillbilly," then considered derisive.

They made their first records in 1947 for New York-based Apollo Records, known mainly for jazz and R&B. Later that year the duo made a series of gospel recordings with two other singers for Cincinnati-based King Records, issued under the name King's Sacred Quartet (to skirt the fact they were contracted to Apollo).

Wright, Anglin and Wells left the Opry in 1948 for the new, Opry-like Louisiana Hayride stage and radio show in Shreveport when they began recording for RCA Victor in 1949.  Kitty had her own solo RCA contract but found no success. The group's sound was heavily acoustic, including a Dobro, not unlike the style of Roy Acuff, their repertoire blending old and new country, sacred material with pop, R&B and novelty fare.

"Poison Love," Johnnie and Jack's first hit, introduced the distinctive Latin beat they applied to some material. The idea came from Nashville studio bass player Ernie Newton, a former member of the Les Paul Trio, who suggested the rhythm would set them apart. The single's success brought them back to the Opry in 1952.  Wells joined them after "Honky Tonk Angels" hit that year. During their eleven years (1949-1960) at RCA they had other hits, "Cryin' Heart Blues," (1951) and "Three Ways of Knowing" (1952).

Traditional as they were, the Wright-Anglin repertoire included surprises. One, a cover of the Four Knights' 1954 pop hit "Oh Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely)," became their biggest hit, spending two weeks at # 1.  It's no small irony that "Ashes of Love," their most enduring number, never charted for them, but gained popularity when others covered it, among them Don Gibson, the Desert Rose Band and the Jerry Garcia Band.

This is the original recording of "Poison Love."

This 1956 performance of "I Get So Lonely" is introduced by Roy Acuff. Fiddler Ray Crisp joins them.

Wright and Anglin did other unconventional recordings, one a cover of the Spaniels' doo-wop hit "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight." They had a final Top Ten in 1957 with "Stop the World and Let Me Off" before joining Wells's label, Decca in 1960.  

Tragedy ended Wright and Anglin's partnership, the result of another Nashville tragedy.  In March of 1963, Patsy Cline and fellow Opry stars Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas died in a plane crash. Anglin, enroute to their funeral service in Nashville, died in an auto accident, a loss that further devastated an already bereaved Opry cast. 

Wright persevered, launching his own solo recording career at Decca, with middling success. His biggest hit was the 1965 flagwaver "Hello Vietnam," a Tom T. Hall ballad and one of the early country songs written about the war, which hadn't yet become controversial.  It was his only major solo hit.

Wright and Kitty, who quit the Opry in 1964 in a dispute over booking fees, weren't the only successful singers in the family. Their son Bobby had 21 chart singles, but only one, 1971's "Here I Go Again," broke the Top Twenty. He's best known today to classic sitcom fans. In the 60's sitcom McHale's Navy,  Wright portrayed down-home PT-73 crew member Willy Moss.   His sister Ruby Wright had just one Top 20, "Dern Ya," an "answer" to Roger Miller's 1964 hit "Dang Me."  Ruby Wright died in 2004.

This is Wright performing  "Is Love Worth All the Heartaches" from a 1966 Porter Wagoner Show with Ruby, backed by Wagoner's band the Wagonmasters.  This particular show dates from a time just before Dolly Parton joined Porter's organization.

The Kitty Wells-Johnny Wright Show continued touring until 2000, performing at carnivals, as guests at the Opry, at county fairs and other smaller venues, beloved by young and old who retained a love of traditional country.

This performance of the gospel tune "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire" includes Johnny, Kitty and at far left in the brown jacket, Bobby.  The voices were worn by then; the desire remained.




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