The much beloved blues and gospel singer, Marva Wright, died peacefully at her daughter’s home in eastern New Orleans March 23. She was 62. Wright suffered back-to-back debilitating strokes in 2009 and never was capable of returning to the stage. She’d been living with her eldest daughter since her health deteriorated last year.
Wright was a late entry into the field of entertainment as she was still a full-time high school secretary when she began singing at clubs at the age of 39. In the late 1980s, she began as a fill-in singer at the Absinthe House on Bourbon Street, but word of a powerful new blues singer spread quickly around New Orleans. Wright began working at other French Quarter nighteries and Uptown clubs with her band, appropriately dubbed the BMWs—the Band of Marva Wright. Razor-sharp sets at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival strengthened her local fan base and attracted European promoters. Her first album, Heartbreaking Woman, was released on the short-lived Tipitina’s label (since reissued on Mardi Gras Records) in 1990, and she would go on to record several other CDs for local and international labels. Her last album, After the Levees Broke, was produced by her long time bass player, Benny Turner, in 2007, and appeared on the Australian AIM label.
“I don’t know anyone that had a bad word to say about Marva,” says Mardi Gras Records’ Warren Hildebrandt, who has four Wright albums in his catalog. “She’s one of the artists I really got to know well. She’d always come in the office with her husband Tony and buy CDs to sell on her gigs, and we’d always have a nice conversation.
“I’ll tell you a funny story about Marva. When we did the first (Mardi Gras) CD, Marvelous (1995), I didn’t really know Marva that well, having only talked to her a few times over the phone. We did that CD at Willie Mitchell’s Hi Studio in Memphis. The tracks were already cut, so Marva and I flew up there for her to do the vocals. The first day we were in the studio, about 10 a.m. she says, ‘Warren, I’m hungry.’ Then a little bit later it was, ‘Warren, I’m really hungry.’ Then it was, ‘Warren, I’m really, really hungry.’ Around noon, I went out to a neighborhood joint and brought back a whole bunch of soul food. We polished it off and then she says, ‘Warren, you shouldn’t have bought all that food. Now I’m too sleepy to sing.’
“She was easy to work with and not demanding at all in the studio. She was a great entertainer and also a great business person. Believe me, that’s often a rarity in this business. We talked about doing a gospel album.”
Wright grew up in the Carrollton section of New Orleans and attended the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and briefly attended Southern University. She married, had children and took a job at McMain High School. She sang gospel in church on Sundays. When her children grew up, she toyed with the idea of launching a secular singing career.
Like many gospel singers, she struggled with the decision. Finally, New Orleans gospel veteran Jo “Cool” Davis, convinced her to make the switch and she began a second career successfully.
Wright’s career motored along nicely as she’d earned the reputation as “The Blues Queen of New Orleans.” Then, on August 29, 2005, Wright’s world tipped upside down when Hurricane Katrina devastated South Louisiana.
“The morning before the storm, my daughter came to the house andsaid, ‘Mom, we’ve got to evacuate right away,’” said Wright in 2007. “My husband was able to make a reservation in Panama City. We drove there with 10 or 11 members of the family. We left with just the clothes on our back because we thought we’d be just turning around and coming back. After staying in Panama City three days, we ran out of money. My husband’s daughter called from Maryland and said, ‘I’ll wire you some money. Come up here and stay with me.’”
Despite being uprooted, Wright found her stay in Maryland pleasant. “Everybody was gracious and friendly there,” she said. “The blues societies were our saviors. They got us a nice apartment, clothes and gigs.”
Wright was tempted to relocate to Maryland when she found out her home in eastern New Orleans was devastated, but her ties to New Orleans were too strong to sever. After a couple gigs back home in the summer of 2006, she decided she missed New Orleans too much and bought a house in Harvey with her husband.
Wright had a steady gig at the Ritz- Carlton’s On Trois Lounge for over a year before returning to Bourbon Street. She performed at a wetlands awareness concert in Denver during the Democratic National Convention with Tab Benoit in 2008.
Wright is survived by a husband, a son, three daughters, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A tribute to Marva Wright featuring the BMWs with Davell Crawford, Benny Turner, Tara Alexander and Papa Grows Funk will take place at Jazz Fest in the Blues Tent on Saturday, April 24.