Back with a new single ‘Doing It On The Flo,’ veteran funk pioneer Charles Wright reflects on his life and career, recalling the origins of his iconic hit ‘Express Yourself’ and working with comedian Bill Cosby.
“It feels good not to be broke,” laughs a dapper-looking Charles Wright, who, judging from his appearance, no longer endures financial struggles. Stylishly dressed in an elegant, multi-coloured jacket that projects affluence rather than penury, Wright is talking to me from a tastefully decorated, decidedly contemporary-looking room in his cool, ultra-modern Los Angeles home. Shaven-headed and sporting a moustache, he looks much younger than his 85 years. He is reflecting on a time when his career – which had flourished so spectacularly when he led the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – fell into the doldrums in the 1980s.
“At the time, my royalties had dried up and I desperately needed money,” he remembers. “I went through some hell for a while.” But then in 1988, a stroke of life-altering good fortune came from an unexpected source: rap music. Remembers Wright: “My son called me and said ‘Daddy, you’ve got to hear this record, it’s your song.’ I told him, ‘I don’t think so, I’ve never heard it on the radio.’”
Thinking that his son was mistaken about what he’d heard, Wright dismissed the idea that a record of his had been resurrected without his knowledge. But the next day, his son phoned him again with more urgency in his voice. “Daddy, they’re selling the record out of the trunk of their car.”
That was enough for Wright to take notice and act. He decided he’d go down to a local record store to see if he could get more information. As he left his house, his young next-door neighbour pulled up in his car. Blasting out of his car stereo was a tune that Wright instantly recognised, even though it sounded somewhat different. It was a rap version of ‘Express Yourself,’ Wright’s 1970 hit single with the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. The new version preserved the original track’s memorable chorus and funky groove but had been reconfigured into a hip-hop record. Recalls Wright: “I went over to him and said that’s my song. He said, ‘No, Charles, you’re old school. This is new stuff and I’ve never heard you rap.’ I said to him, ‘Let me see that tape box, I’m going to show you something.’ I looked at it and it said ‘Express Yourself’ written by Ice Cube.”
Wright felt confused, angered, powerless, and deflated. His disbelieving neighbour put him in his place by saying, “I told you it wasn’t your song.” Wright discovered that the name of the groove-robbing group was NWA, the controversial hip-hop outfit from Compton featuring Ice Cube and Dr Dre. By sampling ‘Express Yourself’ without Wright’s permission, they had flagrantly broken copyright law and, to make matters worse, while the R&B veteran was suffering financially, NWA were profiting from the track. Their version, which featured on the group’s triple-platinum debut album Straight Outta Compton, had rocketed into the US R&B Top 50.
Determined to get to the bottom of the situation, Wright found the phone number of the group’s record company, Ruthless Records, and called them. A staffer at the label was decidedly sheepish. “I told them I didn’t think they could get away with this,” she told Wright, a confession that was tantamount to an admission of guilt. Adds Wright: “She gave me Ice Cube’s number and I called him and we settled our differences.”
Wright, like many other veteran R&B artists, including the mighty James Brown, saw his back catalogue mercilessly plundered by hip-hop acts looking for funky drum breaks and horn licks in the early days of sampling. Once he and other heritage artists got wind of what was happening, they got lawyers involved and began to get paid for their music being sampled. Thanks to NWA’s use of ‘Express Yourself,’ Charles Wright’s financial situation rapidly improved. Shortly afterward, his bank balance looked even healthier when the fast-food outlet Burger King used the track in one of their ads. “I’m so thankful for not only that but after that so many other companies picked the song up,” says Wright. “It’s been a staple for me ever since.”
Though sampling brought Wright a lucrative stream of royalty revenue, the singer/guitarist saw an opportunity to resurrect his career and began making music again. In 1997, he founded an indie label – humorously called A Million Dollars Worth Of Memories Records – and released Going To The Party, his first album since 1975’s A Lil’ Encouragement, his third and final offering for ABC Records. Since then, Charles Wright has continued to release new music, albeit sporadically. His last release was 2009’s My Love Affair With Doo-Wopbut earlier this year, he returned to the fray by releasing a single called ‘Your Hand,’ a smouldering late-night blues number. He’s now followed it up with ‘Doing It On The Flow,’ a chunk of earthy, infectious funk that Wright calls “a party song.” With its real horns, guitar, and drums, the track is decidedly old school with echoes of Watt’s 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s classic track, ‘65 Bars And A Taste Of Soul.’ “I insist on real instruments,” explains Wright, adding: “I’ve been fighting this electrical stuff for 35 years. I’m against that 100%.”
‘Doing It On The Flo’ is a taster of Wright’s forthcoming and as yet untitled new album which the veteran R&B man describes as “not just funk, it’s beyond category.” It will be preceded by another single, ‘Follow Your Spirit,’ set for release in mid-January 2024.
Charles Wright’s storied career is a long and winding one. He was born 85 years ago near Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta, the seventh of twelve children. As he vividly described in his 2016 book, Up: From Where We’ve Come– the first installment of an intended three-part autobiography – his father was a sharecropper; a tenant farmer operating within a quasi-feudal system unique to the US, who is obligated to hand over a portion of his crop to the landowner to pay rent. Consequently, Wright’s family had little money and endured a tough existence that was made harder by the dark, sinister shadow of Jim Crow laws and blatant racial discrimination. “Sharecropping is the next step above slavery,” states Wright, condemning the practice prevalent in the American South that took power and financial independence away from African Americans, thereby disenfranchising them.
Thankfully, in 1952, Wright’s family left Mississippi behind, taking an epic 1800-mile journey West to Los Angeles, California, to begin a new life. “It was like going to a different planet,” says Wright. “I was amazed at the differences between where we came from and where we got to.”
It was in California as a teenager that Wright’s interest in music began. Back in Mississippi, he hadn’t been exposed to much music, just hymns in church, though he wasn’t a singer. Listening to gospel music was allowed but rhythm and blues was frowned upon. “I didn’t even hear secular music till I was a teenager,” Wright reveals. “My father’s sharecropping farmer convinced him that the blues was the devil’s music and he believed it.”
But in Los Angeles, Wright began listening to the radio while going to and from school. There was one show in particular that he and his friends tuned into religiously. “It was the Hunter Hancock radio show,” discloses Wright. “He was a white man who played all the newest black music as it came out in Los Angeles.”
One day, Hancock played a record by Jessie Belvin (pictured left), an influential smooth-voiced crooner, who hit the US R&B Top 10 in 1959 with the single ‘Guess Who.’ “Oh man, I was so enthralled by his voice,” says Wright, who confesses that he became so obsessed with the singer that he contacted him. “I looked him up in the phone book and called him. I said, ‘Mr Belvin, I want to sing and sound just like you.’”
The young schoolboy intended his words as a compliment, but the singer dismissed his flattery and didn’t want to encourage an imitator. “He gave me a great piece of advice,” laughs Wright. “He said, ‘Get your own sound, boy, and leave mine the hell alone!” Belvin was about to hang up on Wright but the youngster’s innocent enthusiasm won him over. “I said, ‘Please don’t hang up, I just love what you’re doing and want to be a part of it.’” Much to Wright’s relief, Belvin decided to help the youngster. “He was gracious enough to invite me to a rehearsal with a group called The Turks.”
The Turks were a doo-wop act and the first of several vocal groups that Wright would join in the late 50s. By his own admission, Wright was a “late starter” in music but he had an innate flair for it. As well as evolving as a singer, he also decided to learn the guitar, though it was a struggle at first. “I never thought I’d be able to play guitar because I’m left-handed,” Wright reveals. “I was with a group called The Shields. They had a hit record (1958’s ‘You Cheated’), and the only background music on that record other than the vocal group was the guitar. We would go on the road and in those days, they didn’t have many guitar bands. They had these big bands that were trying to play ‘You Cheated’ with horns. I didn’t like the idea, so I decided I’d try to learn the guitar so we could sound authentic.”
Though left-handed, he learned to play a right-handed guitar, an endeavor that some of his musician friends thought “crazy.” “I eventually started playing some things well enough to back the group up,” he says. “Since I’m left-handed and playing a right-handed guitar, my stroke was different from everybody else’s.”
His different approach and sound got him noticed and he rapidly progressed into being an in-demand session musician on the Hollywood studio scene in the early ‘60s. “Some people wouldn’t do a session without me,” he reveals.
When he wasn’t doing studio work, Wright could be found leading his own group, The Wright Sounds. “I had Barry White and the Captain of the Captain and Tenille, Daryl Dragon, in the band,” discloses Wright. “Barry White was a great drummer. He only played with me for about two or three months. There was another guy in the band, (saxophonist) Big John Rayford; they were both about the same size, both heavyweights. They couldn’t get along for some reason. Big John was like the mother of the band. Every time someone new joined, he gave them a hard time. Barry didn’t stick it out.”
The group came to the attention of producer Fred Smith, who launched his Keymen label in 1966 and recorded soul singers Bobby Womack and Jackie Lee. Rechristening them The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, in 1967 he produced the band’s debut single ‘Spreadin’ Honey,’ which made No. 44 on the US R&B singles chart.
Later the same year, Wright’s career took a significant turn during a studio session when comedian Bill Cosby turned up looking for musicians to back him up. A stand-up comedian with a growing audience, Cosby had made four comedy albums for Warner Bros and now wanted to branch out as a singer. “He first he heard me was when I was playing with a studio band,” recalls Wright. “Then he eventually came to see us play and then he’d come and sing with us. Essentially, my band became his backup band.”
What was it like working with Cosby? “It was fine for a while,” reveals Wright. “For the most part, he was a very gracious man. He was trying to sing and people went along with it for a while but then they got tired of him singing and wanted to hear his jokes again.”
They made one album together, 1967’s Bill Cosby Sings/Silver Throat, which they also promoted with live performances. The comedian was so enthusiastic about Wright’s band that he persuaded Warner Bros to sign them. “We were the ones that broke Warner Bros into the R&B business,” says Wright of the Burbank label. “They had tried for years to break into the R&B field to no avail and gave us a chance to see what we could do.”
By then, Wright’s group had evolved into an eight-piece ensemble with a horn section. Their Warner Bros. debut album Hot Heat & Sweet Groove came out in 1967 but a disagreement with Smith combined with a line-up change altered the band’s trajectory.
“Once we got signed to Warner Brothers, I had to hassle Fred Smith to produce something myself instead of him because he didn’t play an instrument,” recalls Wright. For the group’s second album, Together, Wright took charge of the production. Uniquely, the album was a compendium of both studio and live recordings. The LP yielded the band’s first major hit, ‘Do Your Thing,’ which rose to No. 11 on the US Hot 100 in early 1969. It captured the band live at the Haunted House, a horror-themed nightclub in Hollywood where the band enjoyed a long residency. Warner Bros had sent a remote recording truck there to record the band over several nights but it took a while for Wright to get what he was searching for sonically.
“The first couple of sets, the band was kind of nervous,” he remembers. “But by the third set, we had loosened up and started playing like we usually did.”
It was during the third set that the band’s hit ‘Do Your Thing’ came about. Says Wright: “I looked out on the floor and it looked like everybody was doing a different dance to the other person, so I started singing, ‘Everybody get up on the floor and do your thing.’ I just made it up right there and then.”
The band’s impromptu on-stage jam was captured on tape and the next day, Wright played it back to the rest of the band. “They didn’t like it but I knew it was a hit record,” he says. Warner Bros released ‘Do Your Thing’ as a single but it sank without a trace. Eight months later, however, Wright got a call from a Philadelphia disc jockey, inviting the band to headline a show there. Wright was pleasantly surprised but also perplexed. “We’ve never headlined before,” he told the DJ, asking him why he was inviting them. It turned out that ‘Do Your Thing’ had become a big record in Philadelphia. He rang Warner Bros to tell them the news but they thought it was a hoax. Wright was told: “Someone is pulling your leg, Charles. It’s been out eight months and we’ve lost track of it. Forget that record and think about coming up with something new.”
But Wright demanded the label check it out. They reluctantly agreed. Five minutes later, someone from the label rang back in a state of shock, saying excitedly: “You’ve sold 92,000 in Philadelphia alone, which is unheard of for an R&B record.”
More hits followed – ‘Till You Get Enough,’‘Must Be Your Thing’ and in early 1970, ‘Love Land,’ the latter taken from the band’s third album, In The Jungle, Babe. One of the most popular cuts from the LP was ‘Love Land,’ which made No. 23 in the US R&B chart. It was a labour of love that Wright spent a lot of time perfecting in the studio. The song was originally a doo-wop style number brought to him by Don Trotter. As doo-wop was considered passé, Wright suggested revamping it, if he could share the songwriting credit. Trotter agreed but then Wright discovered that Trotter “had stolen what he brought me in the first place from the B-side of an Al Hibbler record from 1958.” Though slightly perturbed by that fact, Wright was determined to wrestle with the song and turn it into something contemporary sounding. But it wasn’t easy, as Wright recalls: “It took me about 40 different dates to record it right because the guys in the band didn’t believe in it. They didn’t like it.”
But his belief in the song and dogged perseverance paid off. “One day we absolutely nailed it,” says Wright. “I knew that was it. But it cost me a whole lot of money. It probably cost me more to make than I made off it.”
Later in 1970, the band, in recognition of Wright’s leadership, became Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Rhythm Band. Explaining the name change, Wright says: “I remember a person at Warner Bros called me one day and wanted to talk to me. I went to his office and he gave me some good advice. He said, ‘Nobody really knows who you are because you don’t put your name out front of the band.’ He was the promotion man for Warner Brothers so I took his advice but the band didn’t like it though.”
There was already dissent in the band and the group’s change of name only exacerbated tensions. Later, when Wright came up with what would become his group’s signature track, ‘Express Yourself’ in 1970, the rest of the band dismissed it as trash. Wright takes up the story: “We were performing at Texas A&M College one night and ended the show with ‘Do Your Thing.’ The kids were stomping and clapping so I shouted “Express yourself!” and everybody went wild. So I tried to write the song live, right there.”
Inspired by what he’d said and the audience’s reaction, Wright returned to his hotel room that night determined to finish the song that became ‘Express Yourself.’ Says the singer/songwriter:
“The next week or so, I tried to record it. I did it with the band like we usually did but it just didn’t work out. So, one Sunday afternoon, I decided to take just a bass player and drummer and record it in the studio. I bought the track back Monday to let the band hear it and for the horn players to do their thing.”
Wright was convinced ‘Express Yourself’ would be a hit but the track got a frosty reception from the band. “They didn’t like it,” reveals Wright. “They didn’t want to play on it. They just thought it was a piece of junk. So I told them that I was going to get some of my old studio buddies to play it. They grumbled and finally played it.”
Pleased with the finished studio recording, Wright took it to Warner Bros. The resistance he’d felt from his band to the track was echoed by the top man at the company. “Joe Smith, the president, didn’t like it,” says Wright. Bewildered, Wright then hoped to win support from disc jockeys but one he played it to in Detroit gave it a resounding thumbs-down, telling him, “I think you made a mistake.”
Though dispirited by the indifferent response within the music industry to ‘Express Yourself,’ Wright persuaded his label to release the track as a single. In stark contrast to his company’s cool reaction, the US public immediately warmed to it, buying enough copies to push the single to No. 12 on the Hot 100 and No. 9 on the R&B chart.
53 years later, the anthemic ‘Express Yourself,’ which is now considered an iconic funk track, is still going strong. As well as being sampled numerous times, it’s been heard on TV ads, radio jingles, and movie soundtracks. Musing on its astonishing longevity and why it still resonates with people, Charles Wright says: “I think we all want to express ourselves. Sometimes we can’t, sometimes we don’t know how, but I think everybody wants to express themselves. That’s the reason it’s lasted and why merchants like to use it.”
‘Express Yourself’ was the commercial pinnacle of the band’s career. They made one more album together, 1971’s You Are Beautiful – which contained a different, slower, version of ‘Express Yourself’ called ‘Express Yourself II’ – but grumblings of discontent eventually exploded into a full-blown mutiny.
Remembers Wright: “We had a couple of jealous members in the band, so the bigger we got, the more they thought I was going to leave them. But I was never thinking of that. I was hoping my band would become as tight as Count Basie’s band where everybody breathed together. That was my dream.”
But the dream quickly evaporated. In 1971, the band quit, though it was done quietly and surreptitiously. “I had a guy hanging round who wanted me to produce a record on him,” reveals Wright. “His name was Bill Withers. But before I did that, I realised he had stolen my band. The jealous factions sided with him. I only found out about it when I saw him on television with them.”
Though hurt by betrayal, Wright stayed with Warner, releasing his first solo album Rhythm & Poetry in 1972. But change was in the air. “I left Warner Brothers and went to ABC,” says Wright. “That was my next step and I thought it was a good one.”
Between 1973 and 1975, Wright released three albums for the label – Doing What Comes Naturally, Ninety Day Cycle People, and A Lil’ Encouragement – but says he faced obstacles at the label. “ABC had a guy there who would not promote my music even if it had gold sleeves on it,” he laughs. “Somehow, me and him were like oil and water. He wouldn’t promote my music. But I did some great music on that label.”
He is especially proud of Doing What Comes Naturally, a double album from 1973 whose title track hit the US R&B Singles Top 30. “All of that music I did for ABC, especially the Doing What Comes Naturally album, I want to rerelease because it’s not been heard,” he says, though adds that might be difficult as the masters for those albums “got burned up,” referring to the devastating fire at Universal Music’s tape storage facility in 2008.
Fast-forward 50 years and Charles Wright is his own boss, releasing records independently. He’s been putting out his music that way since 1997 but he’s still coming to terms with the fact that the music business has changed beyond recognition since his career began in the 1950s as he navigates his way through the age of streaming and digital downloads. “It is a challenge for me,” he admits. “I preferred the time when record companies did this rather than doing it on my own.”
There are some advantages, though. “At least being on my own, I can release my music to the public and I’m glad to do that,” he says. “Even if I don’t make a whole lot of money, I’m glad to be able to put music out there at my age and at that this time.”
What’s been the highlight of his career? “I’d be foolish not to say ‘Express Yourself,’” he laughs. “It’s done me justice. It’s one of the highlights of my life. When everybody told me it was no good I proved that they were wrong and I was right after all.”
Another high point in his career, he says, was the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s two-year spell, between 1966 and 1968, playing at The Haunted House, a famous nightclub on Hollywood & Vine. “That was the highlight of my existence musically because that was a time before all the dissension became part of my band when we were all innocent and were happy,” Wright says. “When we became famous, some of the guy’s egos were out of place, and even though they disagreed with most of the music that I released, they took credit for everything and became not-so-nice people anymore.”
Rhino Records documented the band’s stint at the club with the excellent Live At The Haunted House, a double CD release in 2008. It offers a vivid snapshot of the group’s exciting live performances there, revealing how they blended energetic covers of famous ‘60s soul hits with original material. The venue, itself, with its uniquely decorated interior, remains seared into Charles Wright’s memory. “In the entranceway, the first thing you saw was a big Frankenstein monster on your right, which would make this noise,” says Wright, who follows his words with a horrible groaning sound. “After that, there were creatures from the Black Lagoon, and then there was Dracula down this long hallway that finally took you into the club.”
According to Wright, even the performing area adhered to the club’s horror theme. “The stage was a big monster’s face,” he laughs. “When we were standing on the stage playing, somebody would push a button so smoke would come out of these big nostrils. We had a wonderful time working there.”
Though he’s 85 now, Charles Wright’s desire to express himself is as strong as it’s ever been. “All I want to do is to make music,” he says. “That’s what I love … what else do I know how to do? I intend to keep putting music out there because I still have a lot to say.”
Charles Wright’s new single ‘Doing It On The Flo’ is out now