Walking Around Heaven

Jim Sullivan
February 8, 2006
Marva Wright belts out a tune in Recital Hall iW.
Davell Crawford
Nick Balkin
Nick Balkin

There's not much good to say about Hurricane Katrina. But New Orleans-born-and-bred singer Marva Wright suggests there was an upside and a downside to the devastating storm: "I lost my songs, my music, five computers, everything." Not to mention her house and a couple of minks. But then she adds, "If it weren't for Katrina, I wouldn't be here now."

Wright was the focal point of two New Orleans Visiting Artist (NOVA) events at Berklee last December: a meet-and-greet luncheon and a session featuring her and her bandmembers answering questions and performing. During lunch, she talked with virtually everyone who approached, including Berklee president Roger H. Brown. Wright was joined in the room by bassist Benny Turner (brother of the late Freddie King, cousin of Johnny Mathis) and young pianist Davell Crawford.

During the performance session, Wright talked about another mitigating aspect to the devastation: New Orleans musicians have gone out as ambassadors all around the country and been welcomed everywhere, from churches, to blues societies, to national TV chat shows. "The musicians displaced spread the culture of New Orleans...I believe it's just the way God planned it...I'm at the age now that whatever happens, happens. God has chosen it for me," said Wright, whose visit was cosponsored by Berklee's Women's Network.

Wright and part of her family live in Maryland. A return to New Orleans? Several years off, she suggests. Plus, she's touring Europe, Australia, Japan and many other places in the upcoming months. She admits that she's less-known in the States; in the Boston area, she has played mostly smaller clubs and festivals.

Wright, 55 and a former secretary, works God into a lot of her music. She didn't start singing professionally until she was 37—she says she waited for her mother's approval—even though she sang in the church from a young age. She's an emotive, full-throated blues/r&b/gospel singer, who the previous night played Berklee Performance Center with the 53-member Reverence Gospel Ensemble, led by Dennis Montgomery III. "Oh my God, it was like back home!" raved Wright. "The Berklee kids were fantastic."

An ample woman with a big smile, wearing a purple top and bright scarf, Wright explained from the stage of Recital Hall 1W that she'd lost 125 pounds. She also said that her pal B.B. King expounded upon the virtues of sitting while performing, and she said she did so when she joined him on stage. At Berklee, she sat for "Pray For Me," her first song, and for Crawford's rendition of "Strange Fruit."

During a break in her set, Wright discussed the age-old chasm and conflict between the blues and gospel. Like Jerry Lee Lewis in the early days, she says she still gets criticized for mixing the two. "God knows you live the blues every day," she said. "But the gospel is in my heart … God is right here in this big heart of mine."

Crawford and Turner offered insights during the session, as well. Turner, who'd played with his late brother and John Lee Hooker, said he turned down an Allman Brothers Band audition when he found Wright. Crawford, who said his grandfather was close to Ray Charles, talked about music this way: "I didn't study it, but I obeyed it … you have to acknowledge the past whether it's Chopin, Debussy, Liberace or Professor Longhair. And, "You have to have some soul–one ounce of soul in whatever it is you do."When asked about her music education near the end of the chat-music session, Wright said, "I played 45s, tapes, my mother was a gospel singer in the Jackson Gospel Singers, the first female quartet. They recorded on Atlantic Records." When Wright went back and discovered her mother's voice on record, she said it sounded unlike when her mother sang in person at home–but it did sound like Wright herself.

No one is purely original, Wright acknowledged and laughed as she admitted she'd "borrow" from the best, mentioning Bobby McFerrin. "You're not so big and good, you can't borrow from other people," she said.

Wright came to her feet as she concluded the fervent gospel number "Walk Around Heaven All Day." In her heaven, she walks and sings, meets deceased family, the Lord, and generally has a grand old time. She had the room in a swoon, clapping along, seeming to believe in that glowing afterlife.

As she sang, Wright indicated that she knew a class was due in and she was running out of time. Wright was hitting the final choruses of "Walk Around Heaven All Day," when she ad-libbed "I know I gotta go." The fervor, however, was still building. So she went on a little bit longer. "But I gotta (sing). He's so in my heart." So, she walked around heaven a little longer.