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He’s Got a Right to Spin the Blues : Deejay Early Wright is a folk legend in Mississippi

-- It’s the Right Time! Early Wright Time!!!

For 41 years, that booming incantation has echoed across the dark flatlands of the Mississippi Delta, rolling north to Lula and Friar’s Point, drifting south to Shelby and Tutwiler. It’s the voice of Early Wright, who presides at WROX-AM every week night, 7 to 11, spinning blues and gospel records, touting his advertisers, providing funeral schedules and offering healthy portions of homespun advice.

Don’t forget to head on down to the Delta Furniture Store. They’ll make sure you can have something in your home you can be proud of. Just get ‘em to show you one of those big poster beds!

Wright is a part of history now. At 73, with a touch of gray hair, bifocals and a pair of gold teeth, he’s guaranteed a comfortable perch in any Blues Hall of Fame. Hired at WROX in 1947, he was the first black deejay in Mississippi--and one of the first in the entire South.

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A contemporary of blues greats Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker (both Clarksdale natives), Wright began his career in an era when this state was still a vast plantation, ruled by suspender-snapping segregationists such as Sen. Theodore Bilbo. Serving a predominately black, rural audience, Wright (also known as the Soul Man) has shared radio time with Sonny Boy Williamson, hosted station visits by Howlin’ Wolf and gave Ike Turner his first radio job.

Today he’s an heirloom--a folk legend who’s finally getting his due.

Station manager Tom Reardon calls him “the Faulkner of the entertainment business over here.” NBC News and CNN have been down in recent months, spotlighting Wright’s role in the area’s blues resurgence. He has a city street here named after him. And the University of Mississippi has established a scholarship in his name, sponsored by the school’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

This is where you can buy your bananas, greens. Every day. You be surprised to know how good you can feel when you buy your greens from Thomas Liberty Cash Supermarket. Give me the prices on those hogs there. Ninety-nine cents a pound! Early Wright says get over there now!

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“Early is a natural resource,” said Clarksdale mayor John Mayo. “There’s no one like him on radio today. He deserves a lot of heartfelt recognition. “

Talk about recognition. As Wright was digging a Junior Parker single out of a battered pine box, ABC “Nightline” correspondent Jed Duvall was crouched in a corner, watching his crew light the tiny, wood-paneled studio. Preparing for a blues segment, Duvall had been shooting footage here and in nearby Oxford, at Ole Miss, where the Center for the Study of Southern Culture has a sprawling blues archives.

Startled to find another out-of-town reporter on the scene, Duvall jovially greeted the new visitor, saying: “Well, we’ve got quite a media center going here.” Capturing the Soul Man’s folk charms wasn’t an easy task. Wearing a starched gray suit with a blue striped tie, the elderly deejay sat ram-rod straight in front of his microphone, a bit unnerved by the noisy TV technicians and the hot lights.

Wright loosened up only after the news crew killed the lights and began packing up. He marched Duvall in front of a microphone, announcing that “several extinguished visitors” were on hand.

Wright: Tell me, Mr. Duvall. How did you get your first job in this TV news business?

Duvall: Early, I want you to know that I got my start in this business as a disc jockey in Durham, N.C. I worked on the air from 1955 to 1959, making a dollar an hour. But I loved every minute of it. So we have two deejays here, one good--and one otherwise.

ABC News doesn’t stop by here often, so Wright took advantage of his opportunity. When he was finished with Duvall, he put the ABC producer on the air, followed by the network’s camera man and audio technician. When they finally struggled out the door, Wright cheerfully bade farewell: “If you have a flat, just call me!”

“Don’t start me talking,” Sonny Boy Williamson once sang. “I’ll tell you everything I know.” Early Wright practices the same credo. Though blues fans savor his priceless record collection, his show owes its unique personality to his colorful advertising pitches for local merchants as well as his rambling anecdotes and cautionary tales.

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Eager to reminisce, he encouraged listeners to honk as they drove by the station (“If I hear you blowing that horn, I’ll be dropping them (playing requests) on you tonight”) as he cued up a tart B. B. King ballad on his aged turntable, whose tone arm was weighted down with a pair of pennies. Speaking in a dense, sometimes impenetrable Delta drawl, Wright rested his huge, callused hands on his knees as he sifted through a tangle of distant memories.

“I got my start as the manager of a gospel group called the Four Star Quartet Singers. We used to broadcast out of Helena, Ark., but when this station was built, we came over here. I asked the boss here to sell me 15 minutes of air time. Pretty soon he was begging me for work, so I got the job here.

“For 12 solid years I unlocked the station in the morning and locked it up at night. I did a shift in the morning and then one at night, playing hard blues and gospel. But you couldn’t get me to change for anything. I used to work for the railroad company--I’d drive a train and was a switchman in town. I was a mechanic, too. Now there I was an ace. I was a better mechanic than I was a deejay!”

You know you can get what you want at the Conley Shoe Store. Look for those ladies large-size stockings, all for $1.99. Don’t be ashamed to give your size. If your toenails don’t grow, then your shoes are too small!

“I’ve always loved the hard blues. The boss has never interfered with the kind of music I played. Muddy Waters. Howlin’ Wolf. Sonny Boy Williamson. They were still living here when I started out.

“For me, the blues is rhythm. Rhythm began with the blues and it’ll always be here. Elvis Presley had rhythm--he was high one time. Just like Michael Jackson now. But they’ve never topped the blues. Round here, if you couldn’t sing the blues, you couldn’t do anything.”

Now don’t forget to run by Phelps Brothers Furniture Store. Hear me. Go by tomorrow. It’s the first store I’ve seen sell VCRs on easy terms. And they got extra dining room chairs in case you break something you bought from them. You know you’ll get the service you deserve.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to get an education. I’m not proud to say it, but it’s true. I had a stepfather who didn’t send me to school. I had to go out and work. Treating people right is what got me this far.”

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“Now that is some blues!” exulted a toothless, gray-haired guitar-slinger after a raucous rendition of an old Howlin’ Wolf rocker. The veteran blues man, sporting the unlikely moniker of T-Model Ford, was at the helm of a four-piece band blasting blues standards at a dimly-lit juke joint in Tunica, 30 miles north of Clarksdale.

Seeing the band play between a pair of pool tables on a scuffed, wooden floor--illuminated only by the neon beer signs on the walls--you had the eerie sensation of slipping back in time. Here, on a gravel road off Highway 61, was a juke joint populated by characters such as Boogaloo Aimes and T-Model Ford, men who have been playing the blues almost as long as Early Wright has been plugging furniture stores on the local airwaves.

The juke joint had no name--directions simply stated: “Turn left at where Wylie Hubbard’s place used to be.” At the door, you paid $2 to an old man in a porkpie hat, who stashed the profits in a shoe box. Several hefty women stood by the bar, swaying to the music. A dice game kept other patrons busy in a back room. Everybody drank beer out of 64-ounce bottles. The music roared long into the wee hours.

Two bands alternated on stage, one led by Ford, the other by Lonnie Shields, a hot young Delta guitarist. Between sets, the band men sat in a corner booth with Jim O’Neal and Patty Johnson, two blues aficionados who run Rooster Blues Records, a local label that has played a key role in preserving the Delta blues tradition.

Early Wright was easing a Bobby Blue Bland album on the turntable when a car drove by outside the studio, loudly beeping its horn. “I hear you blowing that horn!” he boasted over the air, interrupting the beginning of a Bland ballad. “Just wait till I drop this (record) on you. And how ‘bout this--I’ll give away a load of bread to the first listener who goes to KM&C; Grocery and tells ‘em that Early Wright sent you!”

During the evening, the Soul Man fielded dozens of phone calls, many from female listeners whom Wright treated with flirtatious attentiveness. “How’s your sister doing?” he said to one woman caller. “Tolerably well? That’s good--just keep praying for her. OK, baby. I got to go. But keep calling.”

Doesn’t his wife ever get jealous? “Nah, she don’t have anything to worry about,” said Wright, clearly a bit taken aback. “I just talk with these women. I’m 73. At my age, you don’t have to worry anymore.”

Sooner or later, every new generation of rock fans discovers--or rediscovers--the blues. It’s easy to forget that an influential assortment of artists, from the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac to Led Zeppelin, Cream and the Allman Brothers, began as blues groups. More recently, popular bands such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, George Thorogood and ZZ Top have kept the blues flame burning brightly.

“People tend to forget the amazing diversity of performers who were spawned in the Delta,” said Bill Ferris, who runs the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. “Sam Cooke was from here. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Ike Turner. Aretha Franklin too--her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, moved from here to Detroit.

“And virtually all of those people were first played on the radio by Early Wright. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of radio in giving that kind of music the exposure it needed to develop and survive.”

You can’t beat the prices at the Meat House. Right now, I know you can get salt meat for 89 cents a pound. So remember, the pennies and nickels and dimes you save at the Meat House you can use to meet your other obligations.

Wright tapped the palms of his hands on his knees, trying to explain how he’s lasted 41 years, keeping both his audience and his advertisers happy. “I can’t imagine having any other job,” he said quietly. “Blues gets in your bloodstream and you can’t get it out. I just try to do the best I can each day--and then I try to do better the next time.”

Wright was back on the air, offering expert testimony for the Clarksdale Pawn Shop. Down the hall, an elderly WROX night guard was directing a visitor back to Highway 61.

“The thing people don’t understand is that no one knows how to sell ads like Early Wright,” the guard said, limping down the corridor. “He’s got customers that’ve been with him for 20 years, 30 years. Maybe more. They never take their business anywhere else.”

He said proudly: “The only way Early’s ever lost a customer is if they died.”


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