George Wright (organist)
Wright was best known for his virtuoso performances on the huge Wurlitzer theater pipe organs at the famed Fox Theater on Market Street in San Francisco and the ornate Paramount Theaters in both New York and Oakland. He was in constant demand during the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, playing at concerts and recitals around the world.
George Wright learned to play the piano at an early age from his mother who was a private music teacher. He grew up in Stockton and Sacramento, where he graduated from Grant Union High School. One of his first projects was installing a theater organ there, where it still remains and plays.
In 1938 he had his first playing job at a Chinese night club in Oakland called the Shanghai Terrace Bowl which boasted a 2-manual, 6-rank Wurlitzer; the show was broadcast nightly by an Oakland radio station. In 1941, he joined San Francisco radio station KFRC and performed at the Fox Theater on Saturday nights. In 1944, he relocated to New York City to work as organist and musical director at the Paramount on Times Square. He began recording at this time, first cutting 78 RPM records for Syd Nathan's King Records. In New York he played on Jack Berch's NBC show and later guested with Paul Whiteman and Percy Faith, as well as on the network shows of Bing Crosby and Perry Como. He also conducted his own orchestra on the Robert Q. Lewis show and began a seven-year stint playing in a trio with Charles Magnante, accordionist, and Tony Mottola, guitarist, for an NBC show sponsored by the Prudential Insurance Company.
In 1949, he signed on as house organist for the Paramount Theater in New York. There, he played with many of the great jazz and pop artists of the time, including Frank Sinatra, Frankie Laine and Ella Fitzgerald. He moved to Los Angeles in 1950 as ABC's musical director for the West Coast. During his early years at ABC, Wright continued to perform live theater.
Though live theater variety shows had pretty much died by the late 1950s, Wright developed an avid, if cult-sized, following during this time and was able to fill big variety-era theaters long after their main audiences had shriveled. Wright became renowned among theater organists for his pyrotechnic virtuosity, devising novel effects and pulling off lightning fast stop changes.
In the 1960s, Wright became the studio organist (and eventual musical director) for the soap opera General Hospital. Wright remained with the show even after it switched from live broadcasts to video tape in the 1970s, and as musical cues modernized, he even began composing piano arrangements for GH's underscore. In his next-to-last year with the soap, Wright was asked to compose new theme music for GH, a piano-dominated tune which debuted on the program in April 1975. Over a year later, in July 1976, then-executive producer Tom Donovan chose to replace Wright's music with the style of another director. Wright, his scores, and his GH theme song were history (with the latter being replaced by the piece that will forever be the closest association of GH in history, "Autumn Breeze" by Jack Urbont).
During his long career, George Wright played a key role in reviving interest in theater organ music. He recorded more than 60 albums, some of which sold more than a million copies between the early 1950s and 1960s. Wright was the first act signed to Hi-Fi Records, and recorded 20 albums as their featured organist in the late 1950s and early 1960s before switching to Dot Records in 1963.
On his Hi-Fi albums, Wright is a perfect complement to the label's star, Arthur Lyman—except that Wright produces bird squawks, screeches, and other jungle noises with the organ alone. His Dot albums are somewhat less showy, though he continues to work with a considerable range of material, from old standards to Dave Brubeck's "It's a Raggy Waltz." In August 1970, however, the warehouse where he kept his personal pipe organ burned and he stopped recording for over 10 years.
Wright bought a house in the Hollywood Hills less for its location than its capacity to accommodate his own mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. He worked on it constantly, swapping out pieces he collected in his travels around the U.S.
In 1980, a friend founded Banda Records for the purpose of recording Wright, and many of his albums are currently available from Banda. In 1995, he was presented with the first Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Theatre Organ Society. He continued to play at concerts and make recordings to the end, and many unreleased tapes have been found. He finished his last album, Salon, just 60 days before his death. Banda has released almost nothing since the early 2000s however.
George Wright died of heart failure on May 10, 1998 at Glendale Memorial Hospital near his home in the Hollywood hills, at the age of 77. His estate was left to his adopted son, Tom. Wright's music library was purchased by theatre organist Lyn Larsen and is not available to the public.
Mr. Wright's organ recordings were distributed on the Banda, HiFi, SOLO and DOT labels.
- American Theatre Organ Society
- Reflection on George Wright by Ron Mussleman
- The Theatre Organ Home Page
- The Complete George Wright Discography by Mark & Carrie Renwick