Johnnie Wright obituary

Country music singer and half of innovative duo Johnnie & Jack

Johnnie Wright, who has died aged 97, was one half of one of the great duet acts in country music. Under the billing of Johnnie & Jack, he and fellow singer-guitarist Jack Anglin were popular throughout the south-eastern United States for 25 years, often united in broadcasts and on tours with Wright's wife, the singer Kitty Wells. In hit recordings such as Poison Love, Cryin' Heart Blues and Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight, they spiced country music's plain cooking with exotic dashes of Latin American music and black doo‑wop vocalising, yet for a decade they were valued cast members of the conservative Grand Ole Opry.

Wright was born into a farming family in the small town of Mount Juliet, east of Nashville. By his early 20s he was singing on one of the city's radio stations, WSIX, with his sister Louise Wright and his new wife, Muriel Deason, for whom he had suggested the stage name Kitty Wells, drawn from the title of an old song. In 1938 he met Anglin, who had been working in a trio with his brothers Jim and Red, and who soon afterwards married Louise Wright.

This close-knit group spent the next five years on various south-eastern radio stations before Anglin was drafted into the military in 1943. Re-forming in 1946, Johnnie & Jack recorded for the King and Apollo labels and had a brief spell on the Grand Ole Opry before moving to a rival station, KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana, where they participated in the first broadcast, in April 1948, of the Louisiana Hayride, a show that would prove hugely popular for many years.

The following year they signed with RCA-Victor, having been recommended by the guitarist Chet Atkins, who had played the fiddle in their band briefly in the mid-1940s. In 1951 came the chart success of Poison Love and Cryin' Heart Blues, with their rumba rhythm emphasised by maracas. There was a similar Latin touch to Ashes of Love, written by them and Jack's brother Jim. RCA issued it as a B-side, but it has since become a country and bluegrass standard. In 1952 they were invited back to the Grand Ole Opry, this time to stay.

Johnnie & Jack took an even more innovative step when they decided, in 1954, to adapt songs from the R&B chart: first the Four Knights' (Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely, which they took to No 1 in the country chart, then the Spaniels' Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight, a remarkable mélange of strident hillbilly harmony, steel guitar and a booming bass part, sung by Culley Holt from what would become Elvis Presley's favourite backing group, the Jordanaires.

Within a year or two, however, Presley and his kind were pushing country acts down the bill, and by the end of the 50s Johnnie & Jack were simply Opry regulars with an occasional minor hit record, such as Stop the World (and Let Me Off) in 1958 and the folky Sailor Man (1959), which borrowed its martial drumbeat from Johnny Horton's recent huge hit The Battle of New Orleans. Then, in 1963, driving to attend a memorial service for Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, country stars who had died in a plane crash, Anglin was killed in a car accident.

Wright continued to perform and record with their band, the Tennessee Mountain Boys, and in 1965 had a country No 1 with Hello Vietnam. He and Kitty also appeared together regularly, and in the 1970s had their own TV show. Between 1983 and 2000 they ran their Family Country Junction museum and studio in Madison, Tennessee, where they had settled.

After several years' retirement, in 1992 they resumed playing, joined by their son Bobby, who, like their daughters Carol Sue and Ruby, had some minor-league success as a country singer. In 2000, he and Kitty gave their farewell concert in Nashville.

Wright is survived by Kitty, Bobby and Carol Sue. Ruby predeceased him.

• Johnnie Robert Wright, country music singer, born 13 May 1914; died 27 September 2011


Tony Russell

The GuardianTramp

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