Keys to the kingdom

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

Danny Wright, a trim, blond 31-year-old with a killer grin, is giving a reporter a tour of his spacious home in Fort Worth--a California-style, sunlight-saturated minipalace done up in tasteful tones of black and ivory.

The color scheme befits a man who, during the past decade, has amassed a small fortune as a pianist in the pop music category called "new age," rising from an obscure keyboard player in a Fort Worth Italian restaurant to an international instrumental sensation who has sold, by his record label's tally, more than two million albums worldwide.

Wright's unabashedly emotional piano trills, captured for posterity on CDs with such titles as Time Windows, Phantasys, Autumn Dreams, and Shadows, can be heard over the public-address systems of movie theaters, malls, clothing stores, gift shops, bars, airport terminals, and new age paraphernalia outlets from Ann Arbor to Zurich.

Wright's home is a shrine to that success. A gleaming black Steinway grand piano dominates one portion of the main sitting area, and affixed to the walls around it are framed covers of Wright's album and CD covers. In other parts of the house are record sales certificates, publicity photos of Wright, framed prints by his favorite artists and photographers, and numerous posters, flyers, and other items connected with Barbra Streisand, for whom Wright admits an all-consuming fascination. (Among his favorite souvenirs is an autographed camera negative of the album cover art for Yentl.)

There are also signed photos and letters of appreciation from various meaningful parties throughout Wright's career--particularly folks for whom he has performed at charitable functions. This last pursuit is especially dear to Wright's heart. He's played for groups organized to fight animal cruelty, bone marrow and breast cancer, AIDS, and countless other social ills; for each occasion, he prepares a new composition in honor of the cause.

His latest effort is the single "In Memory," a spare piano piece backed by synthesized choral vocals intended to honor the victims and survivors of the Oklahoma City federal building. It goes on sale in record stores nationwide this month. All proceeds from the single's sale are earmarked for an Oklahoma-based disaster relief fund.

At the top of a staircase leading to his TV-watching room is Wright's most treasured piece of memorabilia. It's a photo of Wright onstage at a 1990 concert in Boston. Behind him is a brown-haired young woman staring at Wright with something like awe. She is a Boston woman named Jeannie Colbert, whose 15-month old son, Danny, was dying of leukemia. The boy's family had raised and spent nearly $250,000 to test the blood of marrow donors, hoping to find a match for Danny's rare type. Desperate, they contacted Wright through a Boston promoter, and Wright agreed to do a fundraiser.

A young woman who attended the concert was so moved by the boy's plight and by Wright's dedication that she impulsively set up an appointment to have her bone marrow tested--and discovered it matched Danny Colbert's type perfectly. She contacted the infant's parents and arranged to undergo a transplant operation. As of this writing, Danny Colbert is five years old and quite healthy.

"For his third birthday, they invited me and my producer to go up to Boston to come to his party, so we went up there and just had a wonderful time," Wright says. "It was really neat to know I was a part of that little boy's life. It was the most amazing thing--right after the concert, this woman from the audience just happens to decide to check her bone marrow, and it just happens that it matches exactly. It's so neat that it almost sounds hard to believe."

So, for that matter, is Danny Wright's career--at least if you aren't a devotee of new age music. With the exception of light jazz, no popular music form is as critically reviled. At least light jazz gets reviewed in mainstream publications, even if it's brought up only to be mercilessly slammed.

But new age--a broad marketing category that encompasses everybody from more musically sophisticated acts such as Pat Metheny Group and Oregon, who could just as easily be placed in the jazz bin, to "Blond Frankenstein" John Tesh (so says Howard Stern) and Yanni, whose "Live at the Acropolis" ranks as one of public television's all-time great fundraisers--exists beneath the entertainment media's radar.

In contrast to rap and country and rock, new age artists operate in direct contact with the public. Their relationship with fans goes mostly unmediated by critics, entertainment journalists, infotainment shows, or music videos. Except for a handful of superstars signed to multinational labels with plenty of PR money to sling around, the majority of new age recording careers are made or broken by word-of-mouth.

"Local people have always been supportive of me," Wright says. "People would come hear me at [the now-defunct Fort Worth restaurant] Salvatore's and return with friends. Later, when I got an album out, they'd tell their friends, 'Hey, you gotta buy this record by this guy named Danny Wright.'"

And many people have: SoundScan, which tallies record sales for Billboard magazine, has certified Wright's two most recent albums--his 1993 Merry Christmas album and last year's Applause!--gold, meaning both have sold more than 500,000 copies. Applause! stayed on the Billboard new age charts for almost two months, peaking at No. 8 and sharing the Top 10 with the likes of Enya, Yanni, former Jefferson Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico, and George Winston (considered the Mozart of new age). Merry Christmas and its predecessor, 1993's Curtain Call (an album of Broadway standards), also made it into the new age Top 10.

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."

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.

"It's funny," says Dori Nichols. "In the last few years, we've grown into a several-million-dollar business, but in the beginning I wasn't even trying to start a company. I just wanted to do something to help Danny. It was almost like magic."

Of course, success comes with a price tag.
"It's getting so I can't go into a grocery store or to the florist without somebody saying, 'Hey, you're Danny Wright!' and coming over to me asking for an autograph," he says. "It hasn't gotten so bad yet that I have to stay indoors all the time, but if that day ever comes, I don't know how I'm gonna feel about it."

He lives a low-key life, visiting regularly with his elderly parents, who live nearby, and entertaining friends in his home with his companion and housemate of seven years, Michael Landers, owner of Landers' Hair Salon, a popular Fort Worth styling spot.

But he's found that as benevolent and calming as new age music is, its fans can be as disturbed as any rock groupies. Wright's mailbags don't always arrive bearing sweet testimonials. There are countless unsolicited musical submissions from would-be Danny Wrights, and he dutifully listens to them all, though few impress him; when the submitters don't hear from Wright with a pledge of eternal support, they sometimes write again expressing bewilderment or hostility. Occasionally the postman arrives bearing vaguely creepy missives from strangers demanding money or personal possessions from Wright, or a personal visit, lifelong friendship, even marriage.

A couple of years ago, Wright acquired the official seal of true celebrity: his very own stalker. The young woman, who lived in Fort Worth, was so obsessed with Wright and his music she drove by his home several times a week, invariably accompanied by two rather large and scary-looking men. Wright says he turned her away and began reflexively calling the cops whenever she showed up--which was often very late at night.

After Wright changed housekeepers, the woman managed to gain entrance to his house by introducing herself to the new hired help as a close friend. While the unsuspecting housekeeper went to fetch Wright, who was working out in a back room, the woman made herself at home, rifling through his CDs and memorabilia. Outraged, Wright ejected her. A few weeks later, he spotted her with her two companions a block from his house and sicced a nearby cop car on them.

They haven't returned, but Wright is still spooked by the whole affair. He posted a full-time bodyguard in the front room for a while and invested in an expensive home security system. His number is unlisted, and he asked that this article not give the address of his home, describe its exterior, or even mention the area of town in which it is located.

"It's kind of scary to think about," Wright says. "All these people are out there, and they feel like they know you through your music, even though you've never met them and probably never will meet them. They feel like they're your best friends."

But he's willing to run such risks because the thrill of celebrity is so addictive and satisfying. He doesn't occupy the same hallowed plane as some of his idols just yet--but he's getting there.

Two years ago, he played on the same Dallas Symphony pops bill with composer-pianist Marvin Hamlisch. After the performance, Wright introduced himself and gave his hero an autographed CD. "He didn't know who I was when I met him," Wright says.

Then he smiles a satisfied smile and adds, "He does now.

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