Gary Wright – Connected (2011)

Gary Wright‘s life around the Beatles continues, as he helps kick off the UK leg of Ringo’s ongoing All-Starr Band tour today at Hampton Court. Wright’s newest album Connected also includes a turn from Starr — as well as a continuation of his decades-long collaborations with George Harrison.

“I named the album Connected because I believe we are all connected with one another and that our thoughts and actions have a great influence on our planet collectively,” Wright said. “We, therefore, all need to work together in making this world a better place by manifesting more hope and more positive thinking wherever we go — as well as doing our parts in creating peace and spreading it wherever we see darkness.”

He’s certainly produced an album that reflects those values, even as it recalls 1970s successes like “Dream Weaver,” a No. 2 hit in the U.S. in 1976. Wright couples brand-new compositions, written in the same vein, with additional tracks he’s unearthed and polished up for release. The result is an album that’s recognizable without ever sounding dated.

Wright opens Connected, issued earlier this month, with gospel-inflected, life-loving “Satisfied,” a song whose personnel certainly lives up to the album’s title. Ringo Starr plays drums, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (of Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan fame) is on rhythm. Then the Eagles‘ Joe Walsh takes this great solo — a thing of gnarled beauty.

“I asked Ringo, Joe and Skunk if they wanted to play on my new album, and they all agreed to do so,” Wright told me this week. “Most of the songs were either written on acoustic guitar, or in my studio. I took my time recording the album, and was very pleased with the results. I feel both Ringo and Joe’s performances were great, as well as Skunk’s. It was truly a labor of love.”

The deluxe digital version of Connected, available through Wright’s Web site, features two Harrison-related tracks. The first, “To Discover Yourself,” was co-written by Wright and Harrison in 1971 and recorded by Wright on the day of George’s death in 2001. “He was over at my apartment. I wrote most of the lyrics. He did the music. I put it in the back of my mind,” Wright said. “The actual day that George passed, I was in the studio (and) I decided to memorialize that day by recording the song. That was the version that I’ve just put out.”

The second song, “Never Give Up,” was recorded in 1989 and features George on guitar.

Wright, lead singer of the British progressive blues rock band Spooky Tooth from 1967-74, is also celebrating the 35th anniversary of his solo smash The Dream Weaver. The title track, Wright’s most recognizable hit, was one of the first all-synthesizer pop projects, featuring only drums — either Jim Keltner and Andy Newmark — along with his keyboards. “Dream Weaver” was actually inspired by a book that Harrison had given Wright. “Yes, George had given me several books written by Paramahansa Yogananda, a god-realized master whose poem “God, God, God” contained the words ‘when at night, my mind weaver dreams …,’ Wright told me. “He became my guru and, later on, George’s guru as well.”

Wright had earlier contributed piano to Harrison’s massive production All Things Must Pass. That’s where he met Starr, beginning a relationship that would include turns on Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo.” Wright, for his part, has said he preferred later, more intimate dates like the sessions for Harrison’s Living in the Material World (which spawned the No. 1 hit single “Give Me Love” in ’73) to Phil Spector‘s heralded Wall of Sound on George’s 1970 debut.

“I’m not a big fan of that style of production, and later on in the project, when things were reduced production-wise, I enjoyed those sessions more,” Wright said. “There was only George, Klaus Voorman, Eric Clapton, Jim Gordon and I as the rhythm section.”

He could continue to work with Harrison, notably co-writing “If You Believe” for George’s 1979 self-titled album and playing keyboards on his 1987 smash Cloud Nine. “George was, and is, one of my dearest friends — and I always admired his creativity and sincerity,” Wright said. “He was a true genius, and probably one of the most creative people I’d ever met.”

Wright, who will appear this fall in celebrated director Martin Scorcese’s Harrison biopic, has seen his championed on the “Wayne’s World” film series and included, more recently, in the hit 2010 animated movie “Toy Story 3.” He’s been sampled by the likes of Salt N Pepa, Tone-Loc, Busta Rhymes and Mya. He also ended up having to give a deposition in defense of “Better By You, Better Than Me,” a track from Spooky Tooth that was later covered by Judas Priest — only to became part of a subliminal-message lawsuit. “It was done on the phone, and from the start I knew it was only a nuisance suit and that the plaintiffs would lose,” Wright said.

“Really Wanna Know You” was a Top 20 hit in 1981, but it was a snippet of “Comin’ Apart” from The Right Place album that found its way into a next-century dance hit for Armand Van Helden in 2004. “I’m always pleased when other artists cover my material — especially with the success that song had,” Wright said this week. “I liked it from the first moment I heard it.”

Wright returned to 1976′s No. 2 hit “Love is Alive” a few years ago on the EP The Light of a Million Suns, recording this time with his son. “It’s gotten better,” Wright said. “I love the version I did with my son Dorian. He has a great voice, and I love performing this version live on stage. It’s a combination of both versions.”

This revise is also included on the expanded digital edition of Connected. Elsewhere, there is nothing so overtly retro on the album, though Wright has skillfully threaded his classic sound into this new project.

At first, “Under Your Spell,” with its crisp melancholy feel, is perhaps the closest Connected gets to approximating what made “Dream Weaver” so, well, dreamy. But Wright updates the concept with a towering, Motown-ish chorus. Similarly, “Nobody Does It Better” recalls, at its bottom, the fat electronic bass lines of “Love Is Alive,” but again Wright lets loose in front of Valerie Pinkston and Lisa Vaughn, a swaying pair of funky R&B vocalists. “Gimme Some Time,” itchy and propulsive, boasts the recording’s most memorable groove — and the return of Skunk Baxter for a smart solo. The digital version also includes “The Way I Feel,” a song Wright contributed to the soundtrack for the 1986 German film “Fire and Ice.”

Then, there are the Beatles connections, as much a part of Wright’s career over the years as any keyboard. Fans of his 1970s hits will find much to love about this return to form — even as they get yet another chance to see Wright’s lasting bond with Ringo radiate from on-stage during the latest All-Starr Band dates. Wright also played on the 2008 and 2010 editions of this tour.

“We’ve always been friends, since the early days with George,” Wright told me, “and he’s a wonderful person with a great message of peace and love, as well as being a great drummer. I feel very honored that he’s asking me back three times to play with him.”

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Here are the UK dates for Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band: Hampton Court (June 17), Liverpool Empire (June 18), Birmingham Symphony Hall (June 20), Manchester Opera House (June 22), Glasgow Clyde Auditorium (June 23) and Bournemouth BIC (June 24). This edition of the group features Rick Derringer on guitar, Richard Page on bass, Wally Palmar on guitar, Edgar Winter on sax and keyboards, Wright on keyboards and Gregg Bissonette on drums.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.