It takes a real man to spend most of his life known as the husband of a famous wife. That was, in many regards, Johnnie Wright's legacy: he was Mr. Kitty Wells.
Johnnie Wright passed away this morning (9/27) at his home in Madison, Tennessee. He had been in failing health for a number of years.
Johnnie Robert Wright was born in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee on May 13, 1914. In 1938 he met up with another man born on May 13, Jack Anglin, and began a partnership with him as the duo Johnnie and Jack. Jack married Johnnie's sister, making them brothers-in-law as well as musical partners.
Wright made one other significant life change in 1938: he married an 18-year-old named Muriel Deason. The three performed together for years, bouncing between Nashville and Knoxville. Wright thought his wife's name wasn't a good "show biz" name, so he suggested she change her name. He mentioned the name Kitty Wells, taken from a song "Sweet Kitty Wells," and the rest is history.
Johnnie and Jack signed to RCA and began a string of hits in the early 50s. Kitty Wells was briefly on RCA (her classic song, "How Far is Heaven," was done for that label) before signing with Decca. Her first single on that label was an answer song to Hank Thompson's big hit "The Wild Side of Life." "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" put Kitty in a controversial situation: the happy wife and mother was singing a song that clearly irritated a number of men in positions of power in Nashville. (She was told point-blank to NOT sing the popular song on the Opry and was suspended when she defied that order.) She became the first woman to top the Billboard country music charts and kicked open the door for the Jean Shepards, Loretta Lynns, Tammy Wynettes, Connie Smiths, and Lynn Andersons who followed. As a result she earned the nickname "the Queen of Country Music."
Johnnie and Jack's career tragically ended in March, 1963 when Jack Anglin was killed in a single-car wreck on his way to the memorial service for Patsy Cline, who had died two days earlier in a plane crash with Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. The tragedies began talks of an "Opry curse" (eight more Opry-related acts would die in the next two years). Johnnie continued as a solo act with the support of his wife and son Bobby, who was by that time a cast member on the series McHale's Navy.
Wright's first solo single, "Walkin' Talkin' Cryin' Barely Beatin' Broken Heart," was released on Decca in 1964. When the single came out it had Johnnie's first name misspelled as "Johnny." He later said he figured the more traditional spelling of the name was easier for people to remember, so for the rest of his life he went by the misspelling.
Wright's only #1 song as a solo artist was a song written by Tom T. Hall, "Hello Vietnam." The song came out in 1965, before the controversy surrounding the war escalated. He never had another top ten record after that, but that doesn't mean he was not in demand. The Johnny Wright/Kitty Wells Family Show toured until 2000, meaning that Wright and Wells were on the road together for 62 years.
Johnnie and Kitty would have celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary October 30th. Their daughter, Ruby Wright (who had an answer song to Roger Miller's "Dang Me" titled "Dern Ya") passed away from heart disease two years ago Friday.
Bear Family issued all of Johnnie and Jack's recordings in a six-CD set Johnnie and Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. Sadly, the box set is out of print, and only a greatest hits CD is currently available on the duo.
The great Johnnie Wright was 97.