I've been told by musical professionals that a musical act should focus narrowly, define its market and turn out songs targeted to that market. I hope this isn't true because I could never produce a demographically correct album. Straight Down the Middle has a little bit of everything – rock and roll, blues, pop and country – eclectic to a fault. The band has given these varied songs a common character, I think, one that would be recognizable to people who had heard it before, so I'm not too concerned about the eclecticism. Besides, I like all my different moods as a songwriter and I especially like the ability of the band to match and enhance these different moods. In John Burke and Joe Pietretti, I have the help of two musicians with immense musical vocabularies, whose years of playing and listening have made them masters of most popular music genres. For all my eclecticism, I haven't been able to stump either one of them yet. It's endlessly fascinating for me to see what they can do with a song, filling it out and enriching it in ways that I hadn't imagined.
This is supposed to be a bio, so I will tell you a little about my checkered career. I grew up in Yonkers, New York and have spent most of my adult life in New York City where I have worked as a construction worker and electrician, as a reporter, as a government public information flack, as a speechwriter, as assistant to the New York City police commissioner, and, of all things, as a police management consultant. It was peculiar career arc born of a complete inability to plan ahead. The reality was that I was living somewhere else – in the songs I was writing and in the wonderful satisfaction that came with creating something at once so tangible and so ephemeral, so visceral and so spiritual, as a song. I love the visual arts, movies, plays, novels, poems and orchestral music, but I truly believe that the simple song makes the most direct and powerful connection with human emotions of any art form. The combination of music and verbal imagery speaks to the heart and opens up the feelings. I learned from the work of the great American songwriter Bob Dylan, whose songs I inhabited before I began to inhabit my own, that a three or four minute song (and in a few cases with Dylan, a ten or twenty minute song) can establish an entire world, people it with complex characters and emotions, and leave the mind reeling with imagery and sensation. I never tried to mimic Dylan or copy him, but it's fair to say, that his work revealed to me everything I aspired to be as a songwriter. Other influences include the grit and emotional depth of Delta and Chicago blues, the melodic gift and electrifying voice of John Lennon, the deep soul and pure passion of Bob Marley, and the lyric inventiveness and vitriolic fury of Elvis Costello.
Performing songs is an extroverted act, and in rock and roll it has become an almost Dionysian rite, but writing songs is something altogether different. Even the writing of the most raucous song occurs in the quietest place, a place where I have spent most of my creative life. You are hunkered down with your guitar and harmonica trying tap deep wellsprings of feeling, trying to open yourself up to whatever may be floating by, but you are also working on a puzzle, not so different from a crossword puzzle, trying to match the rhythm of music to the rhythm of language, words to beats, and emotions to musical intervals. I have come to believe that songwriting is a lapidary art, like jewelry making or fashioning miniatures, an art that requires precision as well as passion. In any case, I loved the process from the first moment I tried my hand at it. I became a kind of unconscious and compulsive noodler, working on songs and lyrics almost continuously, while riding my bike, grocery shopping or waiting for the bus.
Recording on the other hand is not an unconscious process. You can stumble onto a great song using my method but you can't stumble onto a great recording. That takes planning, foresight, discipline and lots of talent. So it's not surprising that all of my successful recording has been done in the company of musicians far more talented than I am. The first of these is John Burke whom I have known for almost as long as I've been writing songs and who is still my partner in crime. John is gifted keyboard player and guitarist who is also a natural-born arranger. He has an innate and almost immediate sense, upon hearing a song, of how it should be played. He has helped me and my songwriting greatly through the years and he was a major force in arranging the songs on Straight Down the Middle. Back in the 1980s when we were much more naive, we screwed around for more than a year with a drummer who couldn't keep time and a keyboard player who refused to play a song the same way twice, but we finally teamed up with Jeffery Glen and Dan Zegart to record two of the songs that appear on State of the Union. John moved out of town, and I met Ron Evans, a stellar guitar player, who produced the rest of State of the Union in his living room in apartment building in the East 60s in Manhattan. Partly because I was a little afraid of expressing my personal emotions, but also because I really believed in writing what are stupidly called "protest songs," State of the Union was a very political album and not a particularly marketable one. Ron, who was starting a new career as a photographer, had no interest in building a band, so I was left with a nice tape and no real plan for moving forward.
About this time I got interested in country music and began trying to target songs at the Nashville market, where songwriters were still providing the bulk of the music performed by the big acts. I wasn't very good a selling out and I turned out a bunch of country-flavored tunes that are probably too idiosyncratic for mainstream Nashville success. On the other hand, I met Richard Frank, maybe the most talented country musician in New York City, who produced my second album No Love Like an Old Love. Richard knew a slew of other talented musicians and even brought in the extraordinary Eric Weissberg to play on a number of tunes. My idiosyncratic songs were given a thoroughly authentic country setting. I peddled my papers a couple of times in Nashville with no results, got very involved in police work, and dropped the whole recording thing for about 15 years. I kept writing though, a few hundred more songs of all varieties.
Enter another old friend, Peter Dama, whom I met at the NYPD in the mid-1990s. Peter is a kind of all-purpose impresario. Our guitar player, Joe Pietretti, who has known Peter as long as I have known John Burke, calls him the "nexus" because of his uncanny ability to connect people and things and to make projects happen. Peter pestered me to start working with a band again, lined up players, including Joe and the drummer Tommy Scaraville, provided a rehearsal space, found a recording studio and, most of all, contributed an iron-clad faith in the project that led to my third – and Billy Wright Band's first – album, Straight Down the Middle. It builds your confidence when someone like Peter tells you that you are his favorite songwriter. I brought in Daniel Stein, who is in fact a friend of my daughter, to play bass (One of the advantages of growing older is that it widens your acquaintanceship). John Burke took over at keyboards, and he and Joe Pietretti, a hugely gifted guitarist, found the almost seamless blend of keyboard and guitar, supporting each other and sharing leads, that has become our particular sound. People ask me what kind of music it is. I don't know. It's Billy Wright Band music, and there is more where that came from.