If you want to be a star, it’s said, you should come up with a unique style all your own. Except we know that isn’t true. (Just look at American Idol.) Being sui generis may get you started, but it won’t necessarily take you home.
Few artists of the 1970s landed with a more unique sound, or a bigger splash, than Gary Wright. Two enormous, inescapable singles, “Dream Weaver” and “Love Is Alive,” were all over the radio in 1976, partly because there had never been anything quite like them. There were no guitars on the Dream Weaver album—a fairly radical idea in the 70s. Although synthesizers had been a part of rock for several years (a big-enough part for Queen to emblazon their 1976 album A Night at the Opera with the words “no synthesizers”), nobody had relied on them as much and taken them as far up the charts as Wright did. He even went on tour with a guitar-free band, sharing bills with Yes and Peter Frampton.
You’d have guessed back then that Wright was in on the ground floor of a coming revolution in musical technology, and that he’d be set for a lengthy solo career. But you’d have been wrong. The third single from The Dream Weaver, “Made to Love You,” tanked at Number 79 in the fall of 1976. Wright’s next album, The Light of Smiles, was highly praised and publicized at the time of its release in early 1977, but its lead single, “Phantom Writer,” stiffed, and the album missed the Top 20. Two more scarcely noticed albums followed: Touch and Gone in 1978 and Headin’ Home in 1981. Given that 1978 was the year in which disco conquered America, the funky title song from Touch and Gone should have been bigger than Number 73. “Really Wanna Know You” from Headin’ Home got into the Top 20 in the summer of 1981, but it sounded pretty tired. Wright spent the 80s contributing to movie soundtracks and backing George Harrison; in the 90s he got into world music.
In the new millennium Wright went back on the road, searching for audiences who remembered him when. I’ve come close to seeing him a couple of times. Six or seven years ago he played Summerfest in Milwaukee on a bill with Ambrosia, Dave Mason, and Colin Hay of Men at Work, but The Mrs. and I were band-hopping between two stages and heard everybody but Wright. A couple of years ago, he played a summer festival in Madison, but his unmercifully loud sound system drove us away before he got around to playing any of the hits. It was too bad, really—Wright was one of the musical icons of 1976, and you know how I am about 1976.
So anyway, “Phantom Writer”: It sounds like the love child of “Dream Weaver” and “Love Is Alive;” it’s got the same mystical vibe that suffused the entire Dream Weaver album. Why it failed to catch on, I don’t know. Maybe 1976 was Wright’s moment, and 1977 was past it. Life’s like that.
(Warner 8331; chart peak: 43, April 9, 1977)