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 City and Oakland. He was in constant demand during the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, playing at concerts and recitals around the world.
George Wright learned to play the piano at an early age from his aunt who was a private music teacher. His mother was a movie accompanist on the piano for silent movies played at the Orland Theatre.
In 1938, he had his first playing job at a Chinese night club in Oakland, called the New Shanghai Cafe and 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 on the Blue Network by 1942. In December, 1942 he started performing at the San Francisco Fox Theater on Saturday nights. In late 1944, he relocated to New York City to work as organist for NBC radio. He began recording at this time, first cutting 78 RPM records for Syd Nathan's King Records and Regent Records, in addition to securing contracts for transcription disks on the Thesaurus, Associated, and Muzak labels. In New York, he was a guest on the Paul Whiteman"Stairway to the Stars" radio program (May 21, 1946) 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 Jack Berch's NBC show sponsored by the Prudential Insurance Company. The trio, with added bassist Bobby Haggart, recorded five "Soundies," as well.
In 1948, 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 1951 and in 1963 became ABC's musical director for the West Coast. During his early years at ABC, Wright continued to perform live theater organ concerts.
By the late 1950s, Wright developed an avid, if cult-sized, following for his solo organ concerts 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 1963, 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 Richard Vaughn's HIFI Records and recorded 20 albums as their featured organist in the late 1950s before switching to Dot Records in 1963.
On his HIFI albums, Wright is a perfect complement to the label's star, Arthur Lyman. 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 studio/warehouse (owned by organ speaker inventory Don Leslie) 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 for 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, his friend Bob Power founded BANDA Records for the purpose of recording Wright, and many of his albums are currently available from BANDA (BANDA rights, inventory, and master tapes were acquired in 2015, and CDs will once again be available through http://www.GeniusOfGeorgeWright.com). 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 digitized after the acquisition of BANDA. He finished his last album, Salon, just 60 days before his death. BANDA has released almost nothing since the early 2000s however, but the new owner of BANDA has issued two new offerings, "Back to School" and an all-piano offering "Gin & Tonic," both available at http://www.GeniusOfGeorgeWright.com.
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 longtime partner, Tom Shoot. Wright's music library was purchased by theatre organist Lyn Larsen and subsequently by British theatre organist Simon Gledhill.
Mr. Wright's organ recordings were distributed on the Associated Program Service Transcriptions, Muzak, Thesaurus Transcription Service, Armed Forces Radio Service, RCA Custom (under the pseudonym Jocelyn McNeil), RCA Camden (under the pseudonym Guy Melendy), Malar, King, Regent, Lurite, Doric, Century, Hamilton, Reader's Digest, Essential, BANDA, HiFi, SOLO, and DOT labels.
- "George Wright, Theater Organist". The Los Angeles Times. May 29, 1998. p. A34.
- "Obituaries/Funeral Announcements". The Los Angeles Times. May 15, 1998. p. A28.