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Gary Wright Q&A: ‘Dream Weaver,’ ‘Ring of Changes’ and Friendship with George Harrison
Talk about better late than never.
44 years since it was recorded, Gary Wright‘s 1972 album, Ring of Changes, finally saw release a few months back.
And upon listening to the album, one is puzzled why Wright’s label, A&M Records, buried such a strong commercial release which had sat in the archives for more than four decades.
Consummate musicianship and arrangements, powerful, emotive vocals and songs primed for heavy AOR airplay, fans of Wright can rejoice that this lost treasure is now being made available for the very first time.
Best known for the smash ’70s hits “Dream Weaver” and “Love Is Alive” and as a member of Spooky Tooth alongside future Foreigner mastermind Mick Jones, the gifted singer/songwriter/keyboardist has worked with a who’s who of famous luminaries numbering George Harrison, Ringo Starr, BB King, Harry Nilsson, Ronnie Spector and others, Ring of Changes offers unassailable proof that Wright’s musical muse has never failed him.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you realize you had first made it in America?
Gary Wright: When did I feel like I first made it? I guess when “Dream Weaver” went to number one. I was on tour with Peter Frampton at the time I heard the news; it was in January of 1976. That song wasn’t released as the first single from my album, instead the record company released “Love Is Alive” and it didn’t happen.
It stiffed but “Dream Weaver” kept getting a huge amount of FM radio airplay so Warner Brothers at the time decided they might as well release this song as a single. It went up the charts to number one and then the label re-released “Love Is Alive” and that went to number two.
So you had no sense that “Dream Weaver” was a potential hit single?
Gary Wright: No, not at all. I never thought that song would have been a single. It was kind of an experimental track where I was using all kind of electronic sounds which I was very much into at that time in my life.
Ring of Changes is being released 44 years after it was recorded, why was it scrapped?
Gary Wright: I’d done two albums for my label already. They were kind of like radio hits but they didn’t sell huge quantities of records. They had suggested I do something more with a band rather than a solo album, which I had done on my first two albums, Extraction and Footprint. So I agreed and that’s when I got Mick Jones into the band; he was working with Johnny Hallyday in France and I asked if he wanted to join up and form this band called Wonderwheel and he agreed and I got two other guys, Bryson Graham on drums and Tom Duffey from Lindisfarne on bass.
So we did the album; I wrote most of it but Mick and I collaborated on a couple of songs and I turned it in. I got a letter from the label saying, “Sorry but we’re not going to accept this album; we’re gonna shelve it.”
What was the reasoning behind it?
Gary Wright: Well, they thought it wasn’t the way they had seen my career going. So they made that decision and I got the famous letter from their lawyer telling me they weren’t picking up my option and so I was set free from the label.
Listening with fresh ears, how do you rank that album in the arc of your career?
Gary Wright: I think I would put this album in the top five. It’s hard for me to be objective because I’m close to it but the interesting thing is I hadn’t heard it in 40 years. I only had a 15 IPS tape copy, which was the safety copy for the album; that’s all I had. I didn’t even have a cassette of it. Then when I mastered it and I got the first CD and played it I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “Wow, this is really a good piece of my art” and I really liked it.
It’s a diverse album navigating a myriad of styles; “Set On You” brings to mind the sonics and songwriting of The Band.
Gary Wright: Yeah, that’s right. That was a copy of The Band because I really loved The Band. I was living in England at the time and when they came out with Music From Big Pink, everybody went crazy. They just loved it and then the second album was even better. So that song is kind of like my tribute to The Band.
You produced the album and cut it at Apple Studios. George Harrison played slide guitar on one track, “Goodbye Sunday.”
Gary Wright: My sister actually wrote the lyrics so she started writing the song and I had a little but of the music composed already and then we combined forces. I like the lyrical idea of “Goodbye Sunday,” I like the way she did it.
We were in Apple Studios; I think all the tracks of this album were cut at Apple Studios. Given that this was on the Beatles’ real estate, they didn’t use it much. The only track that I can remember having recorded there was a song by Ringo called “Back Off Boogaloo.” I played piano on it.
It was a great sounding studio and I was really impressed with it. We started just playing this groove and it wasn’t even gonna be incorporated in the song. We were just in the studio and George picked up his guitar and started playing slide guitar on the track and then I arranged it while everybody was there and put “Goodbye Sunday” to that kind of a groove. I like that track a lot.
“Lovetaker,” the lead off track, should have been a standard on Classic Rock radio.
Gary Wright: “Lovetaker,” yeah, I actually came up with the riff which starts the song and I showed it to Mick and he learned and embellished it. I got the words together: I thought it would be a cool idea with the words lovetaker, love maker, heartbreaker so I structured it that way. I loved the way it turned out and that’s why I put it first on the album.
How does spirituality find its way into your music?
Gary Wright: I try to structure my lyrics experientially, how I go through things in life and weigh that against the spiritual side of my nature and try to bring it into my music — but not hit people over the head with a hammer lyrically … but rather subtly introduce it when it makes sense. So to the degree that I can help people or uplift them, then I feel really good about that.
I often say this to people; it’s not really the big awards you get at the Grammys or the recognition of selling multi-platinum records and all that, to me it’s the person that comes up to me maybe after I’ve done a show and will say, “I played your music when I was going through a hard time and I almost ended my life and I played your music and I didn’t do it and I just wanted to thank you for it.”
I thought, wow! That’s the connection, that’s the real purpose of why I did my songs. I really believe that it’s an artist’s role to do that. A lot of artists push that away and don’t want to do all their hits and just want to do their new stuff. But I don’t feel that way. I feel if people come to a show and want to hear your hits you should do them. People have paid good money to see you.
Speaking of hits, “Dream Weaver,” which we touched on earlier, is not only a timeless song, its production sets it apart from anything else as well.
Gary Wright: It was the last song that was included on the album. I was in the studio with Jim Keltner and David Foster. That’s how I recorded the album, with a keyboard player, myself and a drummer and then I redid all my keyboard bass parts. When I did the album I wanted the bass to be really featured ‘cause nobody up to that point has used synthesized bass; Stevie Wonder did a little bit but I did the whole thing that way.
I wanted the album to have a certain texture that would really make it stand out so I made the drums small-sounding and not big big huge sounding so that the bass would really come through. The two keyboardists that I used were David Foster and a guy named Bobby Lyle who was a great keyboard player and of course I played keyboards too but mainly the piano and the clavinet parts came from David and Bobby.
I played the keyboard bass and did all the electronic sounds.
The production on “Dream Weaver” is really impressive.
Gary Wright: I met a guy once at some kind of function and he was talking about “Dream Weaver” and he said, “You know something? When ‘Dream Weaver’ came out that wasn’t just a hit song. It was like a weather front had moved in.” (laughs)
Bring us back to the sessions for George Harrison’s triple-album, All Things Must Pass.
Gary Wright: I played on all the whole album. I was very happy to play on that record. I got a call while I was in the studio working, producing another artist. Klaus Voormann called me and I’d met him before; he played bass on my first solo album, Extraction. So he called me and said, “Hey, I’m in the studio with George and he’s doing his first solo album and Phil Spector’s producing and they want to have another piano player. Are you free?”
And I said, “Absolutely.” So I jumped into the car and I’d never been to Abbey Road before so I think I got a little lost on the way there. (laughs) So I showed up and they’d already started. They had been rehearsing and just about ready to start recording. So I came in and was quickly and frantically trying to learn the song, which was “Isn’t A Pity.” (laughs)
All of a sudden the control room microphone blasted out into the studio, “Who the heck is that on the piano making all those mistakes?!” and that was Phil Spector. So George came up, “Don’t worry, we have plenty of time. We have all the time in the world so take your time…” So I thought, what a nice guy he is; he was not really pushing me and I could take my time to learn the song properly. I played Wurlitzer piano on that one. It was like the “Wall of Sound.” That was Phil Spector’s stamp on the record; he had that big, big sound, which George wanted to do. I didn’t get it when I was in the studio and thought, “wow, why is he going that way?” But when it was all finished I could see what he was trying to achieve and he did a good job doing it.
You co-wrote “If You Believe” that appeared on George Harrison’s self titled 1979 album. How did that come about?
Gary Wright: I wrote the middle section, the bridge and he incorporated that into what he had already written so that’s the backstory behind “If You Believe.”
But he used to play me songs he was working on and it was amazing. This was right after the Beatles first split up and I thought, “wow, how privileged I am to be witnessing this great genius here playing these incredible songs.” I’ll never forget when he played most of the songs to me for his next album, Living In The Material World. He played them to me just on acoustic guitar and it was an unbelievable experience.
You took part in the recording of George’s comeback album, Cloud Nine. Did you get a sense of George being especially excited about the music and being back in the game?
Gary Wright: He never wanted to stop making music; I could never remember him saying that. He didn’t like the business side of it at all. I think he was really serious about making this album. At the very beginning when we first started he wasn’t sure who was gonna produce it. But I had a feeling he wanted Jeff (Lynne) to produce it but he started off using this other guy (Bob Rose) who was a friend of Jim Keltner’s. But that didn’t work out so then he decided to use Jeff, who co-produced Cloud Nine with George.
We were having a walk one day in his garden and he said, “I want to do an old song but do a cool remake on it” and just out of the blue I stared singing (sings) “I got my mind set on you.” He looked at me and said, “How do you know that song?” and I said, “It’s the B-side of a Little Willie John song called ‘Fever’” but it may have been another R&B track. Then we just kind of smiled it put it on the back burner. Then about a week or so afterwards we were in the studio ready to start recording and Jim Keltner was on his drum machine and started playing this groove and all of sudden this feeling took over me and I started to sing, and play a little synth bass line and the whole song just came together in 45 minutes.
Besides your creative connection as musicians, what drew you together as friends and collaborators?
Gary Wright: Well, I was into Eastern philosophy at the time but not to the degree that George was into it. He’d gone to India with Ravi Shankar and all that but while we were recording All Things Must Pass in the studio he was burning incense and had these pictures of these Indian yogis and saints and I thought it was really cool. I’d never been in that kind of a vibe before.
He saw that I was interested in it and kind of took me under his wing and stared to tell me about Eastern philosophy and how we was into it. At that time, he was into the Hari Krishna movement. He was chanting the Krishna mantra and I was just fascinated by it. He showed me different things. I had been doing transcendental meditation prior to that which Mick Jones turned me onto but it wasn’t as deep as to what George was into. Then he invited me out to his house and we’d spend the weekends together and he showed me more stuff. It was this cool journey that someone was taking me through their lives. But I never asked him detailed questions; I didn’t pick his brain what it was like being a Beatle or anything ‘cause I thought everybody wants to know that but I’m not gonna go that route.
You were a real friend.
Gary Wright: Yeah. I didn’t feel it was necessary or pertinent at the time.
What do you miss most about George’s friendship?
Gary Wright: Oh wow. He had a great sense of humor. He was really funny and he was very honest and sincere.
Away from music, what brings you the most joy in life?
Gary Wright: I have to say being out in nature. I like to go out and look at spectacular things in nature because it’s a very spiritual experience. I love gardening as well. I do that as well; George (Harrison) loved gardening as well. We used to garden together at this house in Hawaii and in England as well. So that gives me a lot of joy.
I’m a grandfather now and that’s an amazing experience too.
May 5, 2021