A Bona Fide Blues Man: Terre Haute’s Johnny T. “Rolling Stone” Wright

by Dave Kyle

Originally published in Blues News by the Kentuckiana Blues Society

In the ’70s, a couple friends I had played in bands with decided to open a recording studio in Terre Haute, Indiana. Steve Rusin and Steve Brown built Harvest Sound Studio in the attached garage of Brown’s home. It was a simple setup with an 8-track, Tascam A-H, 1/2″ reel-to-reel recorder, two TEAC, 16 channel boards, piano and drum booth. These guys were kind enough to use me on some recording sessions, one of which turned out to be a landmark for me. Rusin and I had played in the area’s only blues band earlier in the ’70s. Through his vast knowledge of the format I began my own dedication to this type music, which lasts to this day.

—–Through a mutual friend, Rusin was introduced to a blues guitar player and singer who worked at Terre Haute Malleable, a steel mill on the city’s north side. His name was Johnny Wright, a gentleman of about fifty-years-old, ancient to us, in our mid-twenties. Johnny went by the sobriquet, “Rolling Stone”, which he had obviously lifted from Muddy Waters. More significant to us, he was a bona fide Blues Man! Johnny had fallen on hard times, mostly due to a problem with alcohol, but still had a masterful blues voice, something white boys from the Midwest could only hope to emulate. He was the real deal. Ike Turner had signed him to a record deal, one of several during his spotted career. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself; let me get to the background on the treasure Brown and Rusin unearthed.

—–Johnny T. Wright was born February 20, 1930 in Centerville, Tennessee to Jake and Mary Cobel Wright. He and his brothers, Sherman and George sang and played local favorites on the town square in their youth. Johnny told the Terre Haute Tribune Star’s Gordon Walters in his interview, “My brothers Sherman, who played harmonica and George, who played violin and myself, we used to play on a corner in front of the courthouse for nickels and dimes.” Around 1940, when he was age 10, Wright’s father passed away. The family moved north for work and found it in Richmond, Indiana, a onetime recording Mecca for blues artists. While in Richmond, Johnny and his brothers continued busking on street corners and playing in clubs and American Legions. Anywhere that wanted music for what he called “…chicken feed, sometimes for nothing.'”

—–Then in 1950, by then a young, brash singer and guitar player, Johnny made the big move to St. Louis, Missouri. Once there he decided to go to the hippest place in East St. Louis, Illinois, the Cosmopolitan Club. Chuck Berry had recently begun playing with pianist Johnnie Johnson’s band there and soon took over. Wright met Berry and was eventually asked to join him on stage. In 1955 when Chuck’s first hit, “Maybellene” came out, he hit the road and left the club duties to none other than Johnny Wright, who started building his own fan base.

Photo by Steve Rusin.  Used with author's permission.
Photo by Steve Rusin. Used with author’s permission.

—–Traveling to Detroit on a Greyhound bus in 1953, Johnny penned a song titled “I Was in St. Louis”. He had recently broken up with his first wife and decided to move elsewhere in search of work, probably in one of the automobile factories. The second half of the trip, he wrote “I Stayed Down Boy”, about a scuffle he had with a girlfriend’s lover. Both tunes were released on a 45 RPM disc (“St. Louis” on the A side and “Stayed Down” on the flip) for the DeLuxe label out of Detroit, a subsidiary of the King label from Cincinnati which had originally started in Linden, New Jersey.

—–There begins the story of Johnny’s career as a recording artist. Both sides were recorded with help from Detroit promoter, Joe Von Battle in the back room of his music store. He sent Johnny’s recordings to King Records in hopes that this well-known label would kick off Wright’s professional debut. The songs were released in 1954 and sold well enough that Von Battle offered to record another session. For some reason however, these recordings were never released.

—–In 1955 Ike Turner had moved from his office in Clarksdale, Mississippi and was performing in and around St. Louis. Ike, who had worked with several of the top notch blues artists of the day, was also holding auditions for the label he was working with, RPM/Modern from Los Angeles. As an added bonus, Johnny couldn’t help but notice that B. B. King, a huge artist then and now, had also recorded for RPM.

—–Johnny passed Turner’s scrutiny and signed to the label, recording, “Suffocate” and “The World Is Yours”. Turner’s Orchestra backed Johnny on these cuts, where Ike’s distinctive guitar playing can be heard loud and clear. Allmusic.com writes about these recordings, “…you can sometimes hear some sterling, raw Turner guitar work elevating some unmemorable songs like Johnny Wright’s ‘The World Is Yours’ “, a statement I’ve never been quite satisfied with, on Johnny’s behalf.

—–Johnny was able to form his own band to play the St. Louis blues scene. Based in Madison, Illinois they included, Little Joe Whitfield on tenor sax, Big Joe Hunt on drums, a bass player known only as Speedy and Johnny on guitar and vocals. This was the lineup for his next single on Stevens Records. They pressed 2000 copies of his first record and saturated the St. Louis area, which increased his popularity.

—–In 1959 Stevens, a label in the St. Louis suburb, of Granite City, Illinois recorded two sides on Wright, “I’ve Got to Have You for Myself” on the A side with “Look at That Chick” on the flip. Johnny told Gordon Walters, “I wrote ‘I’ve Got to Have You for Myself’ because my girlfriend, Mary Francis was leaving me. After the record came out, she must have been impressed because she decided not to go.” What better reason could a man have to record a song like that?

—–Later that year, the Magnificent label released two sides on Wright, “Who Was” and “Wine Head,” while Wright moved to Los Angeles and played the bars and clubs of Southern California for a spell. At first, performing with Turner’s band, then soon setting out on his own, playing the Brass Rail in LA for $500 a week. He told Fritz Drumm, co-writer on one of his later 45s, that promoters and club owners didn’t always know one black artist from another, so he also passed himself off as Lightning Hopkins and Elmore James when work was slow.

—–After working the LA circuit, Johnny decided to move back to Indiana in 1968, again in search of work and to be near family. This time he ended up in Terre Haute, home of the long haired, blues loving gentlemen who began this story. After Steve Rusin – who is also an avid record collector – listened to Johnny sing in the early ‘70s and realized he had inherited a real, living embodiment of the blues, his natural thought was to get him into the studio to record his voice and guitar again. Everyone in our circle of friends, musicians and music lovers in general jumped at the chance to get a rare opportunity. Steve Sturm, a highly regarded captain of the printing industry in the area, also added his strengths in the production and promotion area.

—–Times had been rough on Johnny and he had fallen prey to drink again. To have his talent regarded highly enough that several recording companies placed their trust in his ability to sell records, and then find himself working around molten metal, sweating over demanding labor must have taken a toll. At the time Rusin brought him to the studio, Johnny was still doing this back breaking work in the daytime and trying to ease the pain the best way he knew how in the off hours: playing music and drinking wine.

—–To say that the sessions I played on in 1978 was a challenge is putting it mildly. Rusin had to sort of babysit Johnny for a day or two in order to make sure he was sober. Whatever happens in Steve Rusin’s life, he has my undying respect for his patience and kindness to a man others had blown off entirely. It was a struggle but with time and a heavy dose of patient maintenance he coaxed Johnny through the first record he had made since the early sixties, a tune is titled, “Coal Shed”.

—–The song was about a time Johnny had been… how to put this; thrown out on his can by the woman he loved. The basic tracks were done live in the studio with Steve Brown doing double duty on bass and engineering, Steve Rusin on harmonica, Steve Ridge playing drums, Billy Five Coats on acoustic piano and myself on guitar. We had to make a couple passes to get Johnny’s vocal just right but all in all, it came off without a hitch.

—–The B side was another story. Fritz Drumm had written a lyric about air pollution titled “Johnny’s Bad Air Boogie”, thinking of the steel mill and the choking smoke that came from molten metal, molded it into something Johnny could identify with. So again, we used some of the same musicians (with the exception of the drum chair, filled by Rudy Ross), the same configuration of instruments and the same scenario; re-record vocals. We had been at it a while and as the day wore on, Johnny became more tired and more than a little confused in remembering the lyrics. Again, Rusin guided him through it, sometimes verse by verse, but it all turned out great. I was proud to be on the record.

—–Harvest Studio took on every dime of expense that went into those recordings. They paid for pressing the 45s, labels, art work, everything was covered and any money made – and I mean every last cent – went to Johnny Wright. I didn’t ask for compensation and to my knowledge, neither did any of the other musicians. We were glad to donate our time and talents to a guy we had all come to know and love, and not just for his music abilities. Johnny had his problems but I can’t say it enough: he was the real deal.

—–Another 45 was cut later that year, this time featuring Steve Brown on triple-duty; bass, engineer and guitar. Rusin was on harp again, Five Coats on piano and George Rusin this time on drums. Both “Coal Shed” and the new record, “Shut Up” backed with “Move” (two Johnny Wright songs) were recorded on the HiWay label, a subsidiary of Harvest Sound Studio. Most agreed that “Shut Up” was the best tune on the record—all but Johnny’s wife, Dorothy, who said, “I hate that song. Just sounds like a bunch of hollerin’ to me.”

—–One last attempt was made to record Johnny at his best with a new version of “I Was in St. Louis”. This turned out to be a total fluke. Johnny was visiting Steve Rusin, playing on his Guild flat top and he sounded really good, better even than his voice had been in the studio. His playing too was improved, and Rusin decided to try to record him there and then. All he had at his house was a small boom box-type cassette recorder but the microphone didn’t record well. He called Steve Brown to come over and record Johnny once again just as he was.

—–Brown brought two microphones from the studio, plugged one in each channel and made a stereo recording, mics bleeding into each other but capturing that moment at that time in that room. It was true magic. Rusin played the harp while Johnny played acoustic guitar, finger-style and sang his first recording once again… for the last time.

—–The entire time Johnny had been recording, he was still slaving away in the hot steel mill until the work got too stressful on his body. His penchant for drinking was still a problem as well. While several of his earlier tunes were re-released by labels from the UK in 1982 (some a part of Ike Turner compilation discs), no money was forthcoming. Just as we have heard time and time again, he was the unlucky recipient of the same old huckster tricks promoters, labels and managers have done since show business started: the artist makes virtually nothing while the aforementioned leeches collect all the profit.

—–Still, Johnny Wright kept a good outlook and continued playing solo in clubs, sometimes joining up with Brown and Rusin in their group, the Highway Blues Band. When the mill got too tough and a bad fall took its toll on him, Johnny took a job at Cowan & Cook Florists. Jim O’Neal from Living Blues Magazine interviewed him but as yet, the piece has never been published. He and Dorothy settled down to a fairly quiet life on Terre Haute’s north side until he began having health problems. On June 2, 1988 Johnny passed away. He is buried in the Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute.

Johnny Wright and Steve Rusin. Photo by Rusin.  Used with author's permission.
Johnny Wright and Steve Rusin.
Photo by Rusin. Used with author’s permission.

—–Ironically, his 45s have become highly collectable blues singles. Johnny took this as a sign that his career wasn’t over yet. He felt he still had something to offer. In an article for England’s Juke Blues Magazine, not long before his passing, Johnny said, “I’ve never been no good in my recording business. I don’t know what it is. I’m still tryin’. The way I see it, I haven’t tried hard enough.”

—–In 2014 Steve Rusin pulled out the cassette of Johnny’s acoustic version of “I Was In St. Louis” just to give it another listen some 40 years later. He liked what he heard and had a light bulb moment: maybe he could have this packaged as a disc. Tape is notorious for breaking up, especially when exposed to changes in temperature, which the Midwest is all too aware of. He wanted to re-record it to disc anyway just to keep a record of one of Wright’s better live performances. The sound quality was unbelievable considering the age and climate so he thought, “Why not?”

—–Recording artist, Mark Cook had the cassette sent to a mastering lab in Atlanta, and Rusin again decided to cover all expenses. This time though, he chose to send them to radio stations around the globe. The results are phenomenal. So good in fact, radio stations that follow the blues format worldwide began putting the song on their playlists. Johnny hasn’t been with us for 26 years but the global audience he once hoped for, and was sadly denied, had finally arrived.

A Terre Haute native, contributing writer Dave Kyle now lives in Riverside, California.
A Terre Haute native, contributing writer Dave Kyle now lives in Riverside, California.
Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

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