ASMAC Masters Series: Benjamin Wright Event Summary

4 April 2024

Event: ASMAC Masters Series with Benjamin Wright

Date: Saturday, 23 March 2024

Location: Online via Zoom Platform
ASMAC members can re-watch the 2.5-hour event video.

Esteemed Guests: Benjamin Wright, Sylvester Rivers (host)

During the event, we had a chance to meet Sylvester Rivers, who gave us insights on the life and works of Benjamin Wright, a remarkable arranger, composer, and producer, boasting a rich legacy filled with monumental hit records. With luminaries spanning from Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind & Fire to Justin Timberlake and OutKast, Wright graciously unveils his arsenal of exceptional techniques in arranging, orchestrating, and crafting records with enduring, widespread appeal. He shared his personal story and the mechanics behind his creative process, unraveling the secrets that transform a mere recording into an undeniable smash hit.

Sylvester Rivers is a composer, producer, arranger, and pianist. He has worked with many successful musicians, such as Diana Ross, The Jacksons, Dionne Warwick, Nancy Wilson, Kenny Rogers, New Edition, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Shalamar, Gloria Gaynor, Candi Staton, Marc Bolan & T. Rex, Ray Parker, Jr. & Raydio, Deniece Williams, Johnny Mathis, Billy Preston, Syreeta Wright, Michael Henderson, Earl Klugh, Stanley Turrentine, Najee, Maxine Nightingale, Aretha Franklin, The Fifth Dimension, and many more. Sylvester Rivers  supervised the world tour of Soul II Soul (Back to Life) and occasionally toured as music director for musicians such as Ray Parker, Jr. (Ghostbusters), with whom he also recorded. Rivers was also composing and arranging television soundtracks in the studio, such as scores for the sports show The Other Side of Victory, initially hosted by James Brown and later by Arthur Ashe. Additionally, he wrote and produced the score for MLK: A Dream Deferred and composed and orchestrated the music for the ABC series The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour.

Benjamin Wright Jr., sometimes known as Benny Wright, was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on 11 July 1946. He grew up in a culturally diverse setting filled with the sounds of gospel, blues, and jazz. His innate appetite for music was evident from a young age, so his father bought him a small keyboard. Benny started in a high school band. He turned out to be a gifted pianist and arranger. Later, thanks to blues singer Ted Taylor, he moved to Chicago. As he developed his trumpeting and piano abilities in his early years, his musical career started to emerge. His love of music inspired him to pursue a formal music education. Despite lacking a high school diploma, he enrolled in the Chicago Conservatory of Music to study composition, arrangement, and music theory. Wright’s natural musical sense and commitment to his art rapidly drew the interest of his peers and professors, laying the groundwork for an incredible career in the music industry.

In the late 1960s, people began to notice Wright’s talents, and soon he was in demand as a session musician and arranger. His early work with neighborhood bands and artists helped him hone his craft and find his own musical voice. After joining the band Pieces of Peace, he became a key part of Chicago’s soul and funk scene. Backed up by Syl Johnson, they played on his 1970 album, Is It Because I’m Black? Pieces of Peace also recorded music for other big names like Jackie Wilson, The Chi-Lites, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, and The Impressions. At the same time, he worked with and learned from famous producers, which helped him build connections with major record labels like Chess Records and Mercury Records. It didn’t take long for experienced musicians and producers to take notice of Wright’s reputation as an arranger, which had already begun to grow outside of his hometown.

After the band disbanded and the music industry migrated from Chicago to Los Angeles, Wright settled there to pursue his career as a music producer. He joined The Temptations as their producer and music director in 1975, and he played a key role in their transition from Motown Records to Atlantic Records. On their 1976 album, The Temptations Do The Temptations, he composed several of the songs, such as I’m on Fire or Is There Anybody Else?

In the early 1970s, Wright met Maurice White, the founder of the band Earth, Wind and Fire. Seeing Wright’s extraordinary ability and inventive vision, White asked him to work with the group on their next song, called Boogie Wonderland. Wright and Earth, Wind & Fire had a long and fruitful connection that began with this collaboration. Wright’s involvement resulted in the band’s unique sound and long-lasting career. His creative orchestrations and arrangements can also be seen in songs like Shining Star, Fantasy, and September, garnering both critical and commercial success. In 1979, Wright received the Grammy Award for Instrumental Performance on the smash song Boogie Wonderland by Earth, Wind, and Fire. We had the pleasure of seeing the video clip of the song during the event.

Apart from his involvement with Earth, Wind, and Fire, Wright’s abilities as a conductor and arranger were highly sought after in the music business. After traveling to Los Angeles, California, in 1975, Wright took on the role of musical director for renowned performers such as Barry White and The Love Unlimited Orchestra, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and The Pips, and The Temptations. He worked with a wide range of musicians from several genres, such as pop, jazz, rock, and R&B. Because of his flexibility and adaptability, Wright was able to oscillate between several musical genres with ease, adding his own inventiveness to every endeavor. During the event, we were introduced to one of his collaborations with Aretha Franklin, United Together, where he wrote an arrangement for strings and horns, recorded by amazing sound engineer Reggie Dozier.

One of the most illustrious partnerships was with the great pop star Michael Jackson. In 1979, Wright was contacted by Quincy Jones, who requested that Wright work on Michael Jackson’s album Off the Wall. Wright went on to arrange the strings for Rock with You, Get on the Floor, and the Grammy Award-winning song Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough. Due to the album’s extraordinary success, Wright became one of the music industry’s most in-demand arrangers and conductors. Over the course of his storied career, his songs and arrangements were praised for their originality, nuance, and emotional impact.

Wright made a lasting impression on the music industry when he opened the Ritesonian Recording Studio in 1982. In 1987, he returned to the stage as the musical director for Gladys Knight and The Pips. He worked with a wide range of legendary musicians and artists, such as OutKast, Diana Ross, El DeBarge, Justin Timberlake, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, and Jamiroquai. Wright’s collaboration with Timberlake resulted in further Grammy-nominated albums, such as FutureSex/LoveSounds and the 20/20 Experience, further solidifying his position as a key figure in the development of contemporary music. During the event, we had a chance to listen to All This Love by DeBarge as well as Justified by Justin Timberlake. The interesting story regarding his collaboration with OutKast during the writing of the song The Love Below (Intro). He was given a simple theme inspired by Frank Sinatra, “Some say Atlanta, some say New York,” and very little time to write music ready for the recording session, which turned out to have an extraordinary string arrangement presented at the event.

In addition to his career as a musician and arranger, Wright is a fervent supporter of mentorship programs and music education. Through workshops, masterclasses, and educational programs, he shared his expertise, experience, and wisdom with young musicians and arrangers, dedicating a significant portion of his time and energy to developing the next generation of talent.

“I pray, and God gives me the notes, and that’s the bottom line,” said Wright, while not having any particular advice on how to achieve his level of skill. “Write from the heart, and let God use you” is his main directive on how to write music. He also appreciates clarity when creating music without needless overthinking.

The entirety of the event was incredibly inspiring, entertaining, and educational. We were able to hear a number of his songs presented with written scores, including Rock with You and Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough by Michael Jackson, in which Ben Wright elaborated on the inspirations and recording process. In addition, we were granted access to Pensando’s Place’s 278th episode Arranger/Producer Benjamin Wright and the YouTube short video Creative Process With The Great Teddy Riley, who co-produced half of Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous, featuring Benjamin Wright.

Benjamin Wright Jr.’s legacy of musician, arranger, and educator continues to influence and inspire musicians and music enthusiasts worldwide. His unmatched contributions to the music business have permanently altered the popular music scene, and his timeless tunes and inventive arrangements continue to move listeners of all ages. One of the most innovative and significant individuals in the history of modern music, Wright’s influence will persist for many years to come.

Barbara Król

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