Johnnie Wright — husband of Country Music Hall of Fame member Kitty Wells and partner in Johnnie & Jack, a popular country music duo of the 1940s and 1950s — died Tuesday morning (Sept. 27) at his home in Madison, Tenn. He was 97.
Wright was born May 13, 1914, in Mount Juliet, Tenn., near Nashville, and was early drawn to show business. During his and Wells’ farewell concert on Jan. 31, 2000, in Nashville, he recalled seeing performances by Uncle Jimmy Thompson, the first star of the show that would become the Grand Ole Opry.
“Uncle Jimmy Thompson used to come by the store over there [in Mount Juliet] where I was raised up, and he had this woman with him called Becky Bruce,” he said. “She was a sister of George Wilkinson of the Fruit Jar Drinkers [another early Opry act].
“Uncle Jimmy had this little old Ford truck, and he’d come by and get this fiddle out. He had whiskers way down to here. He’d fiddle, and that woman would start dancing, and I’d get out there and start dancing, too.”
Wright kept that comic, festive air about him throughout his long musical journey. In 1937, he married 18-year-old Muriel Deason, who, like him, aspired to be a country singer. She would later change her name to Kitty Wells and ultimately wear the title Queen of Country Music following her 1952 hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Wright met Jack Anglin in 1936 shortly before Anglin married Wright’s sister, Louise. The two men performed together occasionally during that period, but Anglin worked primarily with his two brothers until the act split up. In early 1941, Wright and Anglin teamed up and eventually named their family group the Tennessee Hillbillies.
World War II fragmented the act, but Wright and Anglin paired up once more in 1946. The following year, they joined the Grand Ole Opry after renaming themselves the Tennessee Mountain Boys.
Their time at the Opry was short, however. They moved to radio station KWKH in Shreveport, La., in 1948 and became regulars on the Louisiana Hayride until 1952.
After brief forays on the Apollo and King labels, they signed to RCA Victor Records in 1949 and, as Johnnie & Jack, had their first Top 5 single, “Poison Love,” in 1951.
Two of their most successful songs were cover versions of then-current pop hits, “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” and “(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely,” both in 1954. The former was first recorded by Sunny Gale and the latter by the Four Knights.
Johnnie & Jack continued recording into the late ’50s with such Top 10s as “Beware of ’It,'” “Kiss-Crazy Baby” and “Stop the World (And Let Me Off).”
Their last chart single came in 1962 with “Slow Poison.” In 1963, Anglin was killed in a car crash.
Wright recorded as a solo artist on Decca Records from 1964 through 1968. There, in 1965, he scored his only No. 1 single, “Hello Vietnam.” That song was written by a young up-and-comer named Tom T. Hall.
After his solo career ended, Wright toured as a part of Kitty Wells’ stage show. Wells was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.
Two of Wright and Wells’ children, Bobby Wright and Ruby Wright, also had recording careers, and Bobby acted in the 1960s TV series McHale’s Navy.
In 1995, Wells and Wright hired Eddie Stubbs, a former member of the Johnson Mountain Boys, as their full-time fiddler. He has since become a leading Nashville disc jockey and music scholar.
Funeral arrangements for Wright have not yet been announced.