Keys to the kingdom

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

The Nicholses told Wright about their long life together, and Wright responded with stories about his musical development, which began when he was four. His inclination toward the piano came seemingly out of nowhere. His family "had no musical talent at all," he said. His mother, who is not a musician, kept a piano in her home "as a piece of furniture"; one day when he was four, he sat down at the keyboard and began spontaneously plinking out "Lara's Theme," Maurice Jarre's popular tear-jerking melody for the 1966 romantic epic Doctor Zhivago.

As Wright grew up, he became progressively more proficient, eventually studying at North Texas State University and TCU. Unlike another famous Fort Worth pianist, Van Cliburn, Wright saw himself not as a classical pianist, but as a populist storyteller.

He idolized Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Nat "King" Cole, and other balladeers, and fantasized about someday composing lush, romantic movie scores like John Barry (Out of Africa) and Ennio Morricone (The Mission). He might have been just another starry-eyed music student playing in a bistro for walking-around money, but to the Nicholses, Wright seemed like a born entertainer.

"We asked him if he had an album," remembers Dori Nichols. "He said, 'Boy, I wish I did, but I don't.' One night when Bob and I were eating and listening to Danny play, it hit us both like an inspiration. We both looked up at each other at the same time and said, 'Why don't we do it?'"

So they enlisted a local management firm run by Wright's stepbrother, Bill Campbell, to book time at Summit Studios in Dallas, arrange for the pressing of 700 albums, and order the creation of sleeves and cover art. The finished product was hustled into independent record stores, gift shops, and other businesses on consignment. "Danny and I pounded the pavement," Dori Nichols says.

The album was titled Black and White. It contained all original material performed on grand piano and Synclavier synthesizer, and was adorned with what is, in retrospect, a singularly cheesy photograph of Wright poised before a grand piano in a white tuxedo. It went through several pressings. By the time Wright wanted to do a follow-up, the Nicholses felt they'd learned enough to cut the management firm loose and handle things themselves.

"After a while, record stores were coming to us," Wright says. "People would come in and ask them for CDs by Danny Wright, and after enough people came in, they'd say, 'Gee, we better stock this guy's stuff. There seems to be a demand for it.'"

Moulin D'Or Records, which is co-owned by Wright and the Nicholses, quickly gained a reputable national distributor, Lifedance, a new age purveyor based in Portland, Oregon. Soon Wright was performing at colleges and small concert halls across America, receiving sporadic airplay on easy-listening stations, and garnering an ever-wider following.

According to Dori Nichols' estimation, since 1984, sales of Moulin D'Or product (a French term meaning "Golden Windmill") have increased 60 to 100 percent each year, a claim the impressive SoundScan and Billboard figures bear out. The company moved from the Nichols house to a small office in the Brentwood Stair neighborhood in east Fort Worth to a larger one in Arlington that houses the record label's headquarters and another related business that manufactures cassettes.

It's a family affair. Dori Nichols serves both as Danny Wright's producer and as president of the label. Her husband, Bob, is vice-president. The Nicholses' youngest daughter, Julie Tew, acts as director of sales and marketing. Julie's husband, Peter Tew, manages the cassette company, Echotech, in conjunction with Bob Nichols.

Although Moulin D'Or has relied on Wright to generate its fortune, they've branched out recently and begun trying to build a small stable of artists. They signed the Texas Boys Choir under a new name, Fonologee, to release a CD of soothing free-form vocal sounds to arrangements by Julie Tew, a trained musician who plays six instruments. The album, From a Distance, is due in stores this month, and Moulin' D'Or is currently negotiating to sign the Dallas Brass.

Moulin D'Or is carried by 17 different distributors, each serving different markets from bookstores to gift shops. Wright's work is placed in major record chains like Blockbuster and Tower Records by Navarre, a Minneapolis-based independent that also handles the Beach Boys, the Marshall Tucker Band, Kitaro, John Tesh, and ex-N.W.A. member Ice Cube. An overseas agent sells Moulin D'Or product in Italy, Germany, The Philippines, China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Japan. A fan recently told Wright she heard his music played over the speaker system of a gift shop in Bali, Indonesia.

His music has been included on The KKSF AIDS Relief Sampler, a San Francisco-produced AIDS research benefit anthology that also boasted cuts by Al Jarreau, Sting, and Bonnie Raitt. Wright composed the score for "The Magic of Madison County," the best-selling documentary video about the covered bridges of Madison County, a tie-in with the popular novel. Wright's music is licensed by ASCAP, and Wright often hears his compositions used in commercials, broadcast news segments, infotainment shows like "Entertainment Tonight" (which, ironically, co-host John Tesh has temporarily quit to pursue his new age piano-playing career), and as backing music for professional skaters performing in televised tournaments.

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