GAC extends condolences to the family, friends and fans of Johnnie Wright, who passed away at his home in Madison, Tennessee on Tuesday morning, reports the Tennessean. Johnnie was known as both a solo artist and as a member of the innovative duo Johnnie & Jack. He was married to country music legend Kitty Wells for 74 years. He was 97.
As a member of Johnnie & Jack, Johnnie introduced Latin rhythms into country music with hits like “Ashes of Love,” “Poison Love” and “(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely.” As a solo artist, he was known as ‘Johnny Wright’ and had a No. 1 hit with “Hello Vietnam,” written by Tom T. Hall.
When Johnnie married 18-year-old Muriel Deason in 1937, he was already an integral part of her career. He gave her the stage name of ‘Kitty Wells’ and brought the hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” that launched her career. He also offered her headline status when females were routinely regulated to supporting acts.
Johnnie grew up in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM. As a child, he would often see Opry star Uncle Jimmy Thompson put on impromptu performances at a Mt. Juliet feed store. He met Kitty when his sister Bessie married and moved in next to Kitty’s family. The pair bonded over their love of music – and the fact that Johnnie had a car.
The year after Johnnie and Kitty married, Johnnie’s duet partner, Jack Anglin, married Johnnie’s sister Louise, who sang backup vocals with Kitty as ‘Johnnie Wright & The Harmony Girls’ on WSIX in Nashville – which led to the formation of Johnnie & Jack with Kitty singing harmony. Jack left for the military and during that time, Johnnie worked as a band leader, hiring Chet Atkins to play fiddle. When Jack returned in 1946, the pair resumed their duo and were offered a place on the Grand Ole Opry in 1947 which they soon left in favor of the Louisiana Hayride show.
The 1951 Johnnie & Jack hit “Poison Love” brought a Latin beat into country music and followed it with “Cryin’ Heart Blues.” Decca Records’ Paul Cohen was at one of their shows at the Earnest Tubb Record Shop in downtown Nashville in 1952 when he approached Johnnie about a song he thought would be perfect for Kitty. Kitty was reluctant, but having given up her singing career to be a stay-at-home mother, she was swayed by the payment she would receive.
The song propelled Kitty Wells into the spotlight and Johnnie offered her top billing at shows, knowing she would pull in ticket sales – though many, including superstar Roy Acuff, told him it wouldn’t work. It did, and Kitty became known as The Queen of Country Music and was eventually elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Johnnie & Jack continued to have chart success through most of the 1950s. In 1960, Johnnie organized a package show that put Kitty in the spotlight and also featured Johnnie & Jack. After Jack died in a car accident on his way to Patsy Cline’s funeral in 1963, Johnnie worked as a solo act. He went by ‘Johnny Wright’ after noticing his label had misspelled his name on a record and decided to keep it that was as it was easier to spell.
Johnnie had his only No 1. with “Hello Vietnam” in 1965 and continued to tour with the Kitty Wells Family Show. He and Kitty continued to perform together up until the last day of 2000, before entering retirement. The pair always kept their tour bus parked in the driveway ‘just in case.’