Keys to the kingdom

Local new age piano sensation Danny Wright ponders the secret of his success

Most significantly, Billboard--the trade publication that tallies the stats by which the industry sets its standards--ranked Curtain Call as one of the top three independently released new age albums of 1993, behind the likes of guitarist Adrian Legg, and four slots higher than Tesh.

But still, he has received little respect. He has been briefly profiled in the Los Angeles Times and the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado, but ignored in the hometown press--save for a scathing review in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. One critic in New York wrote of a Wright performance, "It doesn't make for much excitement as concert fare unless you're on a date with your dentist."

And yet his albums have been assessed with uncharacteristic enthusiasm (for new age titles, at least) in CD Review, Jazz Review, Jazziz, and other consumer guide publications. "Observations that keep popping up in reviews are that my songs have beginnings, middles, and ends, that the melody is stated very clearly but simply, and that it doesn't distract the listener's ear," he says.

Wright delivers this last bit of information without a trace of resentment or self-mocking irony. He dislikes the term "new age" ("I don't know what it's supposed to mean," he complains), and prefers the more unwieldy phrase "contemporary instrumental." But he doesn't mind when people tell him Danny Wright makes good music to do things to--stretching, meditation, cooking, knitting, car repair, you name it--as if his CDs are no more viscerally involving than a pleasant-smelling bowl of potpourri.

Of course, he likes it much better when listeners are moved. And that's his claim to fame: in a field full of sometimes oppressively sensitive artists, Danny Wright prides himself on being the most sensitive of the bunch.

"I've literally sat in a room where Danny is playing and seen people listen to him with tears running down their faces, they were so moved," says Dori Nichols, Wright's longtime producer, who, with her husband, discovered Wright 10 years ago playing at Salvatore's Italian restaurant. "People would describe his music by saying things like, 'His emotions flow through his fingertips.' A publicist once told us that if you want a musician to be successful, you've gotta have a hook, and that's Danny's hook. His emotions flow through his fingertips."

This creative philosophy has worked like a charm. He routinely receives letters informing him that his solo piano compositions--which range in emotion from quietly brooding to unapologetically sentimental to apocalyptically torrid--have saved relationships and marriages, healed damaged families, helped people get their misdirected lives back on track, and more.

One man wrote Wright claiming his music helped his wife fight cancer. A young woman wrote to say that she was profoundly depressed and seriously considering suicide until Wright's hopeful music gave her reason to live. A new mother wrote to say she played the pianist's CDs in the delivery room because she wanted the first music her child heard to be Wright's.

But if Wright has let such things go to his head, it's not apparent in casual conversation. In contrast to, say, Yanni, whose comments about his own work in a recent Entertainment Weekly profile gave the impression that the long-haired, mustached new age star had elevated himself to the same level of cosmic importance as Mahatma Gandhi, Wright is strikingly humble. He's proud of his financial success, and when he talks the details of distribution, promotion, and royalty percentages, he comes off as pretty cocky.

"Van Cliburn gets five percent," he says, "but I get 18."
But when asked to speculate on what people see in his music, he retreats into charmingly sheepish generalities. For the most part, he credits his success to higher powers. Although he was raised Southern Baptist and no longer belongs to any organized religion, Wright remains a genuinely spiritual person. When he thanks God for his good fortune--which he does about a dozen times in the course of a 90-minute conversation--it does not seem the least bit calculated.

"All through my life, whenever people heard me play, they always told me I had God-given talent, that it was a gift from a higher power, and that I should do everything I can with it," says Wright, smiling shyly. "And I think there's truth to that. I don't mean that I think I'm some genius or something--just that I was put here on this earth to make a connection with people. And that's what I try to do."

Dori Nichols certainly thought so. She and her husband of 48 years, Bob, moved to Fort Worth from Winter Park, Florida 11 years ago when his employer, General Dynamics, transferred him. They went to Salvatore's on a recommendation from friends. Danny Wright, who was then a transfer student at Texas Christian University working toward a music education degree, was playing piano.

"The first conversation we ever had with him, I asked him if he could perform 'Rhapsody in Blue,'" Dori Nichols recalls. "We put a dollar in his tip jar. Every time we went in there, he'd see us and play it. He'd always come over and talk to us during his breaks. He was such a nice young man."

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