Billy Wright poses for a Peacock Records publicity still circa 1955.

In the annals of music history, there are often unsung heroes who paved the way for future generations. One such trailblazer was Billy Wright, an openly gay American singer who defied the conventions of the 1950s to become an influential figure in the world of rhythm and blues. While his solo career may have been relatively short-lived, his impact on the music industry, particularly on the legendary artist Little Richard, cannot be overstated.

Though there is dispute over the year Wright was born (some say 1918, others 1928, Billy claims 1932), he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and began his musical journey as a child, singing gospel in local churches. In his youth, he also worked as a dancer and even as a female impersonator, but developed himself as a singer when he began performing at Atlanta’s 81 Theater.

Wright’s soulful voice and charismatic stage presence caught the attention of listeners and propelled him towards a career in rhythm and blues. The saxophonist Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams saw Wright’s performance when the two shared a bill with Charles Brown and Wynonie Harris at the 81 Theater. Williams recommended him to Herman Lubinsky of Savoy Records, leading to the creation of his most notable song “Blues for My Baby”

Released in 1951, this hauntingly beautiful ballad captivated audiences with its emotional depth and Wright’s indelible crooning abilities. Listening to the track, it transports you to a jazzy night club, with its somber atmosphere and yearnful lyricism. It is also sprinkled with some tongue-in-cheek lyrics, with Wright singing “I get the blues for my baby ever since she’s been gone away / I’m so unhappy, tell me how can you feel so gay?” The track was recorded with Howard Collander’s orchestra, and rose to number 3 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1949.

Wright was always a flamboyant performer, both in his youth and in his later career, and came to be known as the “Prince of the Blues” throughout. He was a key figure in the Atlanta blues scene after World War II and had a major influence on the rock-and-roll pioneer Little Richard, whom he helped get his first recording contract in 1951.

The two met in Atlanta at either the Royal Peacock or Bailey’s 81 Theatre, two spaces that were part of the “chitlin’ circuit”, venues that provided commercial and cultural acceptance for African American musicians, comedians, and other entertainers during the era of racial segregation in the United States, created by and for black artists

Little Richard held a profound admiration for Billy Wright, recognizing his unique sense of style and flamboyance. In Little Richard’s own words, he described Wright as someone who donned “vibrantly colored attire, with matching shoes,” which inspired him to adopt a similar look. Little Richard even emulated Wright’s distinctive pompadour hairstyle and began using the same brand of pancake makeup,

Wright reciprocated the fondness for Little Richard, playing a pivotal role in securing his first recording session with RCA in 1951. Interestingly, Wright facilitated the session by enlisting the very same talented musicians who had supported him on his own releases, cementing their professional collaboration.

Although both artists possessed undeniable talent within the realm of rhythm and blues, their recordings from that period fail to capture the extravagant flamboyance that characterized their personal personas. The queer style that brought them together was simply too daring and unconventional to be faithfully reproduced in a recorded format at the time.

Though Billy Wright’s solo career was relatively short-lived, his influence on future generations of artists is notable. Not only was his commitment to being true to himself, both as an openly gay man and talented musician, but the bond formed between him and Little Richard and the act of supporting and uplifting a fellow queer singer in a brotherly way is touching and relative to how gays have navigated professional and artistic development for years, setting a precedent for future queer artists to follow.

Billy Wright leaves a lasting mark on LGBTQ+ history within the music industry, as an openly gay singer of the 1950s, defying societal norms and becoming an influential figure in rhythm and blues. “Blues for My Baby,” serves as a testament to his ability to translate personal struggles into timeless music, and his influence on Little Richard shaped the landscape of rock ‘n’ roll and inspired future generations of queer artists to fearlessly embrace their identities and expression.

While you’re here, check out the trailer for the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, which is now available to watch on all major streaming platforms.

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