September 18, 2008
OBITUARY: Richard Wright. Rock musician. Born Pinner, England, July 28, 1943. Died London, September 15, aged 65.
RICHARD Wright's keyboard playing was a vital ingredient of the sound that made Pink Floyd one of the biggest selling acts in the history of rock music. A founding member of the band, he also sang lead on several tracks on the group's early albums and co-wrote music for several of their best-selling albums, including The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.
He later fell out with singer-bassist Roger Waters, who fired him from the group during the recording of The Wall. Wright continued to work with the group as a hired musician but was restated to full membership after Waters left in the 1980s.
Richard William Wright was born in 1943 in Pinner, Middlesex, northwest of London. His father was chief biochemist at Unigate Dairies and he grew up in a large and comfortable house in nearby Hatch End with his two sisters. Educated at Haberdashers' Aske's school, he played piano, trumpet and trombone as a boy, adding the guitar to his repertoire at the age of 10. His first musical passion was jazz and by the time he was in his mid-teens he was hanging out at London clubs watching Humphrey Lyttelton and Kenny Ball.
In 1962 he enrolled to study architecture and the following year joined a band called Sigma 6, which included his future Pink Floyd colleagues Waters and Nick Mason. In 1964 the band became the Abdabs (sometimes the Screaming Abdabs), with Wright's girlfriend, Juliette Gale, sometimes singing with them. By the summer of 1964 the couple had married. Wright dropped out of his course and went travelling across Greece before returning in 1964 to enrol at the London College of Music.
With Syd Barrett added to the line-up and with Wright restored alongside Waters and Mason in a group now known as the Tea Set, they played R&B songs in a style similar to the early Rolling Stones. By late 1965 they had begun experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs and the experience was reflected in a more experimental style musically, a proto-psychedelic sound based on extended improvisation between Wright's keyboards and Barrett's guitar.
There was also another change of name, to the Pink Floyd Sound, after two American blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, which was trimmed to Pink Floyd.
The band's timing was perfect. The London underground scene was just emerging and Pink Floyd became its house band. With Barrett starting to write songs, Pink Floyd became a fixture at counterculture venues such as the UFO club and at benefits for radical causes such as the London Free School. They also began to accompany their performances with a light show and at the end of 1966 they recorded two tracks for Peter Whitehead's film Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, although they failed to appear in the film.
With the mainstream music industry waking up to the commercial potential of the new psychedelic sound, the group signed to EMI and made the Top 20 with its first two Barrett-written singles, Arnold Layne and See Emily Play, both released in1967.
Their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, followed later that summer and was a landmark in the development of British psychedelic music, combining the whimsy of Barrett's songs with a free-form sound in which Wright's keyboards featured prominently, the avant-garde quality enhanced by the use of stereo panning and other studio techniques that areold hat today but at the time weregroundbreaking.
Wright also sang lead on several tracks, including Astronomy Domine and Matilda Mother.
By the time of the release of their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), however, Barrett had become one of rock music's first acid casualties and was replaced by guitarist David Gilmour. If they missed Barrett's songs, they did not miss his LSD-induced unreliability, and the increasingly complex structures of their compositions helped to define the new notion of progressive rock far removed from the three-chord, three-minute-single format of pop music.
The band's next important release, Ummagumma (1969), featured all four members on extended solo compositions, Wright's contribution being a four-part, 13-minute avant-garde instrumental suite called Sysyphus.
Atom Heart Mother (1970) found the band recording with an orchestra for the first time on the title piece, a 23-minute rock-orchestral suite, while side two of the album included Wright's nostalgic Summer '68. It was the band's first No1 and was followed by Meddle (1971) which, minus the orchestra, cemented the epic, post-psychedelic Pink Floyd sound that was to make their next album, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), one of the biggest selling and most influential albums of all time.
Although the concept for the album belonged to Waters, Wright's jazz background exerted a strong influence in various ways, including the prominent use of a saxophone and his singing with Gilmour on Time, one of the album's most famous tracks.
Wish You Were Here (1975) was almost equally successful and included a nine-part suite Shine on You Crazy Diamond as a tribute to Barrett. Part of it was sung by Wright, but it was to be his last lead vocal until 1992, when the group re-formed without the dominant presence of Waters.
On Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979), Wright's influence was much diminished, and he was fired during the recording of the latter by Waters, who was calling all the shots as de facto leader.
By then Wright had a heavy cocaine addiction and when he refused to return early from his summer holiday to finish the album it was the final straw. Waters claimed there was no alternative but to dismiss him from the group, although Gilmour and Mason later claimed they had opposed his sacking. Wright finished the album and continued to perform live with the band as a hired hand on a fixed wage. By the time of the 1983 studio album, The Final Cut, Michael Kamen and Andy Bown were employed to produce the keyboards rather than Wright. It was the only Floyd album on which he did not appear. Two years later, in 1985, Waters announced his own departure and effectively declared the band dead.
Gilmour and Mason, however, asserted their right to the name and after a bitter legal battle released the 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason under the Pink Floyd name without Waters but with Wright back on keyboards, initially as an employee but restored soon to full status as a band member.
When the band recorded material for the 1992 classic-car racing film La Carrera Panamericana, it featured the first Floyd material co-written by Wright since 1975.
Another studio album, The Division Bell, followed in 1994, with Wright playing a full role, and it topped the British and US charts.
After that, band members concentrated on solo projects until 2005, when Wright, Mason and Gilmour reunited with Waters for a one-off performance at the London Live 8 concert, the first time all four had shared a stage together in 24 years.
Away from the Floyd, Wright released the solo albums Wet Dream (1978) and Broken China (1996), and the album Identity (1984) as half the duo Zee with Dave Harris.
Wright was married three times and is survived by his wife Millie and three children, two of them from his first marriage.