Marva Wright, a house-hold name in New Orleans, is finally where she wants to be—in demand. In her home town, in her own country, and especially abroad. She has numerous CDs out (more in Europe than here) and now spends equal time on the road and at home.
Marva started singing gospel in her church at the age of nine, became a soloist with the St. John Baptist Youth Choir and later sang with the Geraldine Wright Christian Four Gospel Singers, Samuel Berfect and the Dimensions of Faith, and the Greater St. Stephen’s Baptist Church Inspirational Youth Choir. While in high school, she started singing back-up for various people and eventually was noticed by Allen Toussaint, who used her vocal talents on some of his sessions. She kept her day job as a secretary at McMain High School until she finally performed her first “professional” gig for the Zulu Club on Mother’s Day, 1986. At that time, she made the transition from pure gospel to blues and rhythm and blues.
She has been especially prolific as of late. Two new releases—Marvalous, an all-covers album on Mardi Gras Records, and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, on AIM Records—are the latest entries in the growing Marva Wright catalog. She sat down in the study of her spacious ranch-style home in Gentilly to talk about the new records, dieting in Brazil and her desire to meet Jesus’ relatives.
How did the switch from gospel to blues affect you and did you receive any negative feedback when you made the change?
No. I really didn’t. I’m sure there was talk behind my back but not to my face. People that did talk to me about it said they understood—it’s a way of making a living.
What triggered the transition?
One of the choir persons that sang with me heard a tape of me doing “C.C. Rider” and her remark was “Marva, the only difference is the words ’cause you sound the same.” That really put my music in perspective for me because I haven’t changed nothing. The only thing that’s changed from gospel to blues is the words—it’s still me singin’ the way that I sing. Even a lot of chord changes are the same—the music is the same.
You’ve been spending a lot of time on the road the last few years and recently went to Brazil for the third time. How do you like performing in Brazil?
Brazil is wonderful. This is my third time playing in a club there [the Bourbon St. Music Club in Sao Paulo] that brings in a lot New Orleans talent. I was the first person to open the club in 1993. To my surprise, when I arrived there I found out I was appearing after Ray Charles and Shirley Horn! I asked the promoter, Luis Fernandez, why he put me after them and he said, “Marva, if I would have put you on before Ray Charles, nobody would have been left in the audience. You would have killed his show.” And he was right. I have so much energy that even going on after Ray Charles we still got standing ovations. That made me feel soooo good.
The people in Brazil are very receptive—of course, they have a lot of heart, they’re very nice people. Most of the people speak Portuguese and they don’t understand the words to the songs but they understand the feelings. Brazilians are so many different colors—it reminds me of New Orleans, a real mixture of people. And the food is wonderful. It’s kind of like New Orleans food. Very well seasoned.
Did you manage to stay on your diet?
Nooo. I’ll tell you what. We were living in a suite and my husband [Tony Plessy] would go across the street to the grocery and get fried chicken, pork chops, steak—this is what we ate. He’s a great cook! By the time I’d get to the gig at night—they provided New Orleans-style food for us—I was never hungry. Except they had these great pies with ice cream on top, mmmm-mm-mmmm. So, one night I was kind of sick of the New Orleans food and asked for Chinese, not knowin’ what to expect.
Was it horrible?
It was delicious! Brazilian-Chinese food. In fact, it tasted like there was mustard greens in some of that stuff. Absolutely delicious. They also took us to a place that served nothin’ but all kind of meat. They had ribs, sausage, fried chicken, pigs in the blanket, this kind of steak, that kind of steak, you name it. They gave you a chip that was green on one side and red on the other. If you wanted them to stop serving you, you turned the red side up and if you wanted to keep going, you turned the green side up. It was crazy.
Do you try to keep the same band for touring as you have at home?
I try, but you know it’s real hard to keep the same band members. Some want to tour and some don’t. But my band leader, Benny Tyler [Freddie King’s brother], has been with me the longest. And my “adopted son” Breeze [Brian Coyalle] has been with me off and on for a long time. Recently, I’ve been having Scott Thomas, who did sound at Margaritaville for the last two or three years, play guitar with me. But he don’t like the long tours. And I can’t take the Bishop [Sammy Berfect] along on tour because he can’t leave his church for that long. So I get Deacon Jones [from Los Angeles] to play keyboards on tour—in fact he’s going to Germany with me next month. The last tour we borrowed Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” [Arnold] from Walter [“Wolfman” Washington]. My permanent drummer now is Larry Williams, Bryan Lee’s ex-drummer, so we pretty much have our stuff together now. I’m happy with my band.
Let’s talk a little bit about a couple of CDs that have recently been released. Marvalous on Mardi Gras Records is all cover songs, and the title cut of your Australian release on AIM Records, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” is a U2 song. How did you like working with (producer) Senator Jones on the Mardi Gras release? He picked some interesting material for you.
I loved it. Senator Jones is magnificent. In fact he pulled out a lot of stuff on that CD that I didn’t think I could do but he convinced me. It was a gas seeing him again because I used to do background (singing) for Allen Toussaint many moons ago and I used to work for Senator then, too. He was surprised to see me. He didn’t remember who I was until he saw me. I was still singin’ in church the last time he saw me. I was doing background for a lot of people back then—Joe Cocker, Tony Owens, Bobby Marchan and Allen.
I’ll never forget how frightened I was in the studio with Allen. He really intimidated us. In fact, he used to have to hide behind the speakers when we was recording in order for us to get it right. If he stayed in the room we were too scared to get it right.
You do a really diverse selection of covers on Marvalous. What inspired you to do a “covers” CD?
Well, bless Warren Hildebrand [owner of Mardi Gras Records]. He said “you need something here [in the U.S.] for people to buy.” So we went to Memphis to record and tried to pick songs that people would really enjoy listening to. That’s how that project happened. I’m real happy with the CD, especially the Sam Cooke song “You Send Me” and “It’s Raining.”
What about the AIM release? You worked with the legendary Wardell Quezergue, who has worked with everyone from the early New Orleans R&B stars to, recently, Dr. John and Robbie Robertson.
Wardell was incredible. He kept working and reworking the songs and bringing in horn players and violin players. But the production is wonderful. It’s so full. He’s an amazing arranger. And he also pushed me to do songs I didn’t think I could do, like “Easy Money.” That was hardest thing I ever did in my life. How I got through that…
My husband likes “One Night Stand”. It makes you “jump in your seat,” as he says, and my favorite is “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.” I also try and put one original song on each new recording and I’m proud of the one on this CD, “(The Battered Women’s Song) I’m Not Coming Back.” Written from personal experience, you know.
So, what New Orleans musicians stand out for you? Who do you like?
I’ve worked with just about every musician in town, I think, and I love them all. I started out with George [Porter] when I first turned professional and he helped me a lot. I love Walter’s band. And don’t you love those Soul Rebels? I thought they were just a regular brass band when I toured with them several years ago but uh, uh, they’re bad! They play a little of everything. I wasn’t expecting that. They’re so good.
I love helping young people and one of my proteges, who was a student at McMain when I met her and used her for background, is Tara Darnell. She’s done really well for herself and has her own CD out. In fact, she produced my Christmas CD that came out last year. As long as someone has the artistic ability, I’m willing to help them by recommending them for gigs. But they have to take it from there with their own talent. That’s as far as I can go. I’m very proud of Tara but I told her, she’s on her own now.
Breeze is another one—he’s an old timer, though. He got his experience with Dino Kruse. We parted at one stage and he went to Los Angeles. Then he learned what I was tryin’ to tell him. “Ma, you was right,” he said. “I should have listened to you.” But you got to go through it yourself. But Breeze is very talented and he’s going to have his own CD out soon.
What’s coming up for you in the near future? More tours and new recordings?
Well, Born With the Blues is being re-released [in the United States] on Point Blank on January 23. That’s been real popular in Europe. Plus, I’ve been signed to Virgin International to do two CDs.
When are you going in the studio for them?
Supposedly, next month. I’m also going to be doing a gospel CD and a traditional blues CD. I want to do old-fashioned blues like stuff by Blue Lu Barker and people like that.
We’re going back to the Hotel Meridien in Paris November 24 & 25. That will be my third time performing there. And I’m playing a date in Germany and then two dates in Baku in Dubai.
It’s near Turkey. I’m looking forward to it. I might see some of Jesus Christ’s relatives or something, you never know. I’ve never lost my inspirational roots, you know.
You just don’t stop, do you?
I think if I stopped I don’t know what would happen to me. I usually want to come home when I’m on the road. Then when I get home, after a few days I’m ready to go out again.
I’ve played just about every major festival there is to play in Europe. I’m still going strong. It’s what’s keeping me eating. You can’t just make it in New Orleans, that’s why I tour. We played Utrecht right after the Blues Estovet Festival last year and they were all talking about Sunpie and Ready Teddy. They loved them!
Since you’re so well-traveled now, do you have any thoughts or comments on being a musician from New Orleans? Where are you best received?
Unfortunately, there is a difference between performing in the States and performing in Europe or Brazil. European and Brazilian audiences are very warm and accepting and I have found that if you don’t stop yourself with encores, you’ll do a whole set of them. Not that American citizens don’t appreciate us, too, but foreigners take our music, especially New Orleans music, more as a treasure because they don’t get it all the time. Here, we’re sort of taken for granted.
But I love working in New Orleans. Even though there still might be some jealousy, it’s like family fighting—the next thing you know, you’re back together again. You know what I mean? I can call almost anyone in this town and say “I need help on this project or need a player for a gig” and they’re there. And I do the same thing. I did some songs for Tracy Griffin and Marc Adams on their latest CD and the same for Timothea’s [CD]. And they don’t always say “how much?” A lot of times that’s settled up afterwards. I know in New York or Los Angeles it’s not like that. There’s so much animosity and jealousy. It’s family here. There’s enough work for all of us. You don’t have to stab nobody in the back to get a gig and if you do it right, it’s going to come right back to you. I’m afraid that when these CDs start hitting the U.S. market, I’m worried about what will happen to me because I know what it is like in these other places.
I’ll tell you something else. Tourists come to New Orleans to see New Orleans artists, not necessarily “big acts” and that’s a fact. I’ve been trying to explain to people the different styles of blues and how New Orleans blues is different. There’s California blues, Chicago and Delta, Philadelphia, upstate New York and Boston. They all have their own colors of blues—different shades. Marcia Ball does that Texas blues. But people come here to hear our blues—rhythm & blues.
In New Orleans, I can’t do a whole show of just blues. There’s too many styles here, you have to do them all—R&B, funk, gospel—when you pull the blues out in between that stuff, they don’t even know they’re listening to it. It blends in with everything else ’cause it has that New Orleans sound.
It sounds like things are going very well for you.
So far. I love this business and I love the people in it. I receive a lot and I give a lot and that’s the way it should be.