A Sound That's Mystical to Many

Don Heckman writes regularly for The Times.

Danny Wright's name may not ring much of a bell in the Los Angeles music community, but he's been selling records big time throughout the country. The Fort Worth-based pianist, who performs Thursday night at the Wils/ Ebell Theatre, has marketed more than 2 million copies of the eight albums in his catalogue. It's quite an achievement for a regional artist on a small label.

His recordings, which generally can be found in the New Age bins, actually defy category. The first, "Black and White," ranges from Wright's reading of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to a "Barbra Streisand Medley." His second album, "Time Windows," consists of original compositions for piano and synthesizer. Successive releases have been similarly eclectic and equally difficult to codify.

Remarkably, until two years ago, most of Wright's sales were made without benefit of advertising, with relatively few public performances and with only modest radio airplay--a rare instance of a music business Cinderella story that has taken place outside the usual media arenas.

"It's really happened by word of mouth," said the 30-year-old, surfer-blond Wright during a conversation at lunch last week. "People just seem to tell each other about the records."

"And not just each other," interjected Dori Nichols, Wright's producer and the owner of Moulin D'Or Records, which has released all of Wright's albums. "We get letters--lots of letters. I kid you not, I have letters in my office insisting that Danny is not a mortal, because no mortal could make a sound so beautiful. I've even got people writing to insist that his music cured their mother's Alzheimer's."

To underscore her point, Nichols offered a few examples: A missive from a woman in El Paso who wrote of "the sublime, transporting, soaring, unearthly beauty and sadness and joy" of Wright's music; a four-page letter from a physician in Wyoming who made an analogy between hearing Wright's piano and "the intense peacefulness one experiences after making love to someone that they deeply admire, respect and love"; and a testimonial from a Fort Worth playwright who broke through a writer's block while listening to one of Wright's albums: "I laughed . . . I cried . . . I felt pain . . . I knew joy . . . My dreams have now taken flight. Thank you for the miracle!"

Wright's success has been inextricably entwined with Nichols and her husband, Bob, who first heard him playing for $30 a night and leftover food in a Fort Worth Italian restaurant.

"We walked into the place where Danny was working just by chance," Nichols recalled. "And we could not believe what we heard. It was just beautiful."

As impressed as they were with Wright's playing, the Nichols did not initially envision any professional connection with the pianist. Bob Nichols had spent most of his life working for General Dynamics, and Dori Nichols designed sweaters and taught knitting.

"But when they found out that I didn't have a recording," Wright said, "they just kind of sprung into action."

"It was kind of sudden," added Dori Nichols with a laugh. "Bob and I just turned to each other and said, 'Let's do it.' Fortunately, we knew absolutely nothing about the music business, so we weren't knowledgeable enough to know all the difficulties of putting out a record. But we found out--fast."

When the Nichols discussed making an album with Wright, he was enthusiastic, if doubtful. Neither they nor he had the faintest idea of how to go about it.

"I finally called my half-brother, who had a few connections," Wright said, "and he steered us to a management company that helped us with graphic designs, recording studios and things like that. That was enough to get us through the first album. We made 400 LPs and 350 cassettes. And then we sat there and said, 'What are we going to do with all these things?' "

Nichols and Wright took the only practical step they could think of: They loaded up a car with boxes of tapes and LPs and started going from store to store, trying to place them for consignment sales.

"The funny thing is that what happened a lot of times," Wright recalled, "is that the store owners would say, 'OK, let's hear what you've got.' They would play the album over the sound system, and before it was finished, customers would literally be buying copies right out of the box. It was amazing."

Despite his striking musical successes, Wright comes from a background with few creative associations. Clinton D. Wright, his father, is a former real estate developer who built Fort Worth's first all-electric home in the 1950s. Before her retirement, his mother, Gloria, was an interior designer.

Wright recalls little awareness of music around the house when he was a child, and he remembers how startled his parents were when as a 4-year-old he picked out on the piano the melody of the theme from the film "Dr. Zhivago."

When he began taking lessons, further indications of his talent emerged. "I started off by improvising my own melodies in the middle of classical pieces, and my piano teachers would screech," he said. "I was taking Mozart and Beethoven and arranging their music the way I thought it should be arranged. Fortunately, I finally found a teacher who encouraged me, at a very early age, to explore my own possibilities."

Even with the signs of a gifted and growing talent, his parents, he thinks, were far more interested in directing him toward a career in real estate.

"They were willing to give me the lessons," Wright said, "but my father really wanted me to be like he was, even though today he points out my records to friends and says, 'That's my son.' But at the time, I don't even think he wanted me to practice, and that just made me practice more. In fact, I think that was the key to what made me so determined to become a musician."

By age 16, Wright was on his own, supporting himself by playing easy-listening music in restaurants. When he went to college, he studied music education "although I knew that never in my wildest dreams did I ever want to do that to make a living."

But, even in the leanest years, when the Nichols often fed Wright and his companion, and occasionally made sure their rent was paid, Wright never doubted his skills or potential: "I've always known that my talent was a gift from God. . . . I can compose a piece in 45 minutes if I'm inspired at that moment. And, as a kid, I could memorize a sonata in a day. . . . So I knew that I was given that talent for a reason. I feel that the kind of music I compose and play comes from my soul, and that's what makes it possible for it to touch other souls.

"People ask me, 'When are you going to change, Danny? When are you going to become an arrogant, no-good show biz star?' And I say, 'Never, I hope.' Because I don't think I'll ever forget where I came from."

Danny Wright will perform at the Wilshire-Ebell Theatre, 4401 West 8th St., at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $20 for all seats. Call: (213) 939-1128. He also will perform and sign albums at Tower Records, 2881 El Camino Real, Tustin, from 7-8 p.m., Wednesday.

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