Charles Wright Expresses Himself

Hidden Influences” is our series in which notable names give us a peek behind their work to see what goes into the mix. Today we’re graced with Charles Wright, whose Watts 103rd Street Band crafted some of the most memorable sounds of the ’70s and beyond. His music is familiar not only to fans of soul and funk, but the many iterations of N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself,” which sampled liberally from his hit of the same name. (You might have also heard his original version as you drove around Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a.k.a. N.W.A.: The Unofficial Video Game). 

But now you can add author to his credits. He’s created a video book, called Up: From Where We’ve Come, detailing his boyhood amid the socially unjust deep south, and life and career beyond. Take it away, Charles!

What actually influenced me from the very beginning here was harmony, pure and simple. Harmony. Something that apparently has become less of a factor in the music industry recently. But I always tell the story about the first day I went to high school and I heard a vocal group on campus singing behind one of the bungalows in the distance and I didn’t know where it was. But all I know is I heard something beautiful so I followed my ears back to the back of that bungalow, which was at least two or 300 yards away from where I had started from. And lo and behold, there were four guys singing harmony. And there were at least four groups on that campus that practiced harmony. And they were all competing to try to make hit records because in those days young black groups were making hit records, constantly singing four-part harmony and writing romantic songs. That’s another thing… romantic songs. Because that seems to be something that’s quite a thing of the past in some genre’s of music today.

And there was this one guy who actually turned out to be my mentor, and he was a great man. His name was Jesse Belvin. Jesse Belvin, if anybody remembers some of his hit records, he had many. And I know he had many local hit records in so many different ways because he sang with other groups, he just did all kinds of stuff and he wrote some beautiful songs. Two of his hit records are “Good Night My Love,” I think is 1955 and “Guess Who,” I think is 1960. And he was killed in 1961 in an automobile accident because some children were dissatisfied because they didn’t make it to the concert in time, they wanted him to do another concert, so they cut his tires with razor blades. And he and his beautiful wife Jo Anne were killed on the highway in the middle of the night.

But Jesse Belvin, when I first heard him sing… WHOA! I heard him sing a song called “One Little Blessing.” So I was so enthralled, that I had to look this man up if there was any way possible. I had no musical talent as far as I knew or anything to do with music hardly, except for just a little banging on the piano at home thanks to my sister who taught me four chords. So then I heard him sing this song “One Little Blessing.” There was only one Belvin in the phone book in Los Angeles at the time. So I called it and lucky for me it was his number but he wasn’t home. So I called several times, his mother he was doing something else in Hollywood or something, that to call him back later. So I kept calling him until I got him. And that’s another story I tell often… I told Mr. Belvin I wanted to sing and I wanted to sound just like him, at which point he gave me some great advice. Probably some of the greatest advice I’d ever received. He told me to get my own style and leave his alone. And from that day forward, I worked on trying to be me and nobody else.

And he was probably the greatest influence in my life because before we got off the phone I asked him to please just give me some pointers. He threatened to hang up the phone but I said please don’t hang up just give me some pointers and just let me know what I should do to get started in this because I love it so much and I know nothing about it. So he invited me to his house to hear him and a great Los Angeles group named The Turks, rehearse. Among some of the most talented people, about four of the most talented guys in Los Angeles, because he and The Turks did the background for practically every record recorded in the ’50s in Los Angeles. And so that’s how I got started.

And after that I formed my own group with two of my cousins and another guy. And then I went on to record a song by myself under the name of Little Cholly Wright for a man named Charles Williams. And it sat on the floor about seven or eight months. Now this is about a year after I talked to Mr. Belvin and then about seven or eight months after that it was setting on the floor gathering dust in boxes. And I had given up basically on the record industry already since this was my first recording and I thought it was going to be a flop. Then a disc jockey named Huggy Boy came by one day and he picked that out of the whole lot of stuff that Mr. Williams had and he told him that he was going to play it on the radio that night. And they did… And it became a huge, local smash in Los Angeles! It’s still revered by the Hispanic population, a song called “Eternally,” which was my first hit record.

And after that I didn’t do anything for a while. And then Jesse Belvin again, he put me in a group called The Shields who had a #12 pop record called “You Cheated.” And so I went on the road with that group and I ended up having to lead that group, but it didn’t last. And I got finally got involved with another group called The Galahads who had a hit record in the top ’50s and ’60s and I wrote a couple of songs for them, “I’m Without a Girlfriend” and “Be Fair” that we recorded for Delphi Records. And when that group disbanded, the owner of Delphi Records Mr. Bob King, he asked me to stay on as his A&R Director. I’d never thought of doing anything like that before. But I thought about it and thought about it, and I accepted the job.

So I became Delphi’s A&R Director. And Delphi at the time was probably Los Angeles’s biggest independent record company. So I went scouting for talent. And while I was scouting for talent, I ran into a band called the La La Wilson Band. Oh man, were they having fun! They were dancing a routine on the stage and playing at the same time and singing… and I thought, my God this is what I really want to do! I mean I had been with three successful to some degree vocal groups. But this way I had control of my music and everything so I decided I would start a band. But before I left that situation at Delphi Records, a guy named Paul Politi came in with a song he had written called, “Those Oldies but Goodies Reminds Me of You.” And so we recorded it the next day after he came in with it. And I co-produced it and played two instruments on it, there are only about four instruments on it. And it became a smash! “Those Oldies but Goodies Remind Me of You” went down in history.

And then after I left that company is when I decided to start my band. And so I started a band with only three people at first other than myself. And some of the people that played in that band was: Daryl Dragon, who was the captain of Captain & Tennille; Barry White; Al McKay who ended up playing guitar for Earth Wind & Fire; James Gadson, probably the best recording drummer in Los Angeles today; Clora Bryant, great trumpet player; and the horn section of my band consisted of: John Rayford, we called him Big John; Bill Cannon, who was another fine saxophone player; Ray Jackson on trombone; and Gabriel Flemings on trumpet. And we had a tight horn section after awhile because we played in one club in Hollywood for almost three years, at least two and a half years where we really honed our craft.

So I would say that I was influenced by La La Wilson, but I actually learned to play the guitar just watching La La Wilson’s guitar player a guy named Adolph Jacobs. If anybody knows anything about Adolph, he also was the guitar player for The Coasters one of the hottest groups that ever recorded and performed in the early to mid ’60s… many, many, many hits mostly written by Leiber & Stoller.

And I was also influenced by another guy who used to sing with me for a while in The Shields, his name was Chuck Jackson, and he turned out to be a great solo artist in the mid ’60s. And so I became a fan of his and recorded a couple of his songs as well. And Otis Redding… oh the man who could stomp a hole in the stage that was my man there. Anything he did, I did it while playing as a top 40 band. And James Brown the same thing. I was a fan of both of those gentlemen and they were great influences on me.

There are quite a few other people who influenced me. Some of them are just local musicians. And some of them taught me a lot just sitting down talking. Out of all the guys that used to play with me when I first started out, I would spend hours after the gig sitting in their car until the sun come up sometimes while they run down the history of music in Los Angeles on Central Avenue, stuff that happened before I got involved. And I learned quite a bit of the history of the musicians and the music that come from Los Angeles, because a lot of great music came from here. A lot of great talent recorded here… lots of it.

And I also during the mid ’60s, I became a studio musician. And I was getting so much work. In the first place, I had taught myself to play the guitar because I played the guitar backwards; I played a right-handed guitar, left-handed. And I went to a teacher and was going to learn what I was doing from him hopefully. But he was so strict. I sit down for about 30 minutes consultation with him. And then I had my guitar with me so he asked me to show him what I know. So I picked up my guitar and so naturally I’m holding the guitar backwards and upside down and he wanted to know what the hell is this. I said, “Well you know this is how I play.” So he said, “Not in here you don’t.” I just sit there, “Well let me at least show you what I know.” “You not going to show me anything,” he said. “You either turn those strings around or turn the guitar around or get out.” And he ended up kicking me out by the seat of my pants. I went home and cried about it and tried to figure out what was the next best thing to do. And I talked to the guy who was playing drums with me named Paul Lagos. Paul told me man why don’t you go to City College and take some Theory. And that’s what I did. And after being there about a year and a half, I’d learned enough that I became like I say a studio musician in demand and I had to actually quit school to keep up with the work that I was offered. And so I also did that.

I was influenced by rangers like Don Costa, James Carmichael, Arthur Wright, Jean Page and so many others. And I played with some of the greatest people on the planet and I’m proud of it. And I’m thankful that God gave me that privilege.

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