Denny Wright

Denny (Denys Justin) Wright

(6th May 1924 – 8th February 1992)

Denny was a jazz guitarist, born in Deptford, London. Denny grew up in Brockley, with frequent forays to the Old Kent Road and the Elephant & Castle.

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Denny on the right with Steve Benbow.

Denny’s first instrument was the piano. His older brother, Alex, was a semi-professional guitarist before the war and it was inevitable that Denny, ten years younger, was soon trying to play his brother’s guitar. He must have succeeded, because Denny began playing professionally before 1939 while still at school. For a schoolboy, he was pulling in a substantial income. Indeed, when one teacher took a dislike to him, Denny took his entire class to the cinema and the teacher arrived after lunch to find an empty classroom.

Denny spent the first part of the war playing in jazz clubs in the West End of London, doing almost non-stop session work and performing in bands on many hit wartime shows. He worked with Stephane Grappelli for the first time in London around 1941. Denny was unable to join up, being classified as medically unfit due to a childhood injury which resulted in his spleen and half of his liver being surgically removed. When he was old enough to join up, Denny joined ENSA, entertained the troops, and ended the war in Hertogenbosch in Holland.  After the war, he toured Italy and the Middle East with the Francisco Cavez Orchestra.

In the 1950s he featured on BBC’s Guitar Club. In 1981, Denny was voted BBC Jazz Society Musician of the Year.  Denny’s free-flowing improvisational style came to the forefront through his work with Lonnie Donegan in the 1950`s. Denny was a pioneer in establishing a fresh lead guitar style in the context of the folk and blues roots from which Donegan drew his song repertoire . Drawing upon and transcending the jazz blues elements in his own background, and the vital influence of Django Reinhardt, Denny produced constantly innovative lead breaks and solos for Donegan’s live work and recordings on both acoustic archtop and electric guitar.

Together with Bill Bramwell and Donegan’s younger lead guitar players, Les Bennetts and Jimmy Currie, he helped forge an approach to lead styling inspirational for the next generation of British lead guitarists working with blues – based material in a rock context.   He was a session musician for many years and frequently acted as arranger and fixer for recording sessions. Denny was a prolific composer for jazz and orchestra. Denny led many bands in his career, ranging from small jazz ensembles through night club bands to full size orchestras. Denny worked with Latin American and Jamaican bands. Although he was best known as a guitarist, Denny’s favourite instrument was actually the piano. At home, he frequently played piano, while his guitars stayed in the car!

Les Bennetts was a fine player and a better one in the making then.  Les formed “Les Hobeaux”  and joined Chas McDevitt when the then incumbent Tony Kohn was purloined into National Service.  A bit later he was recruited by Lonnie Donegan to replace Denny Wright who was not treating his body like a temple.  Les stayed with Lonnie for some time until Denny recovered his health.

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Denny Wright, Steve Benbow (Left), go through a concert running order with producer John Paddy Browne.  Typically, Steve and Denny are not taking things too seriously!  Fo’c’sle Club in Southampton 1972

With Diz Dizley and Denny Wright on acoustic guitars and Len Skeat on bass, Grappelli said this is the closest I’ve heard to the sound of the original Hot Club Quintet with Django Reinhardt. You even hear the 4/4 guitar rhythms of the HCQ at times. This performance was shortly after the rebirth of Grappelli’s career beginning when he met and played with Dizley at the Cambridge Folk Music Festival earlier in ’73.

Stephane Grappelli: “Denny Wright also is a marvellous player, he’s got such a good technique. Of course he can’t produce Django’s melodic line because Django invented it, but he has his own style, and on top of that he’s got the strength of Django Reinhardt. In my opinion he’s the only player in the world who can compare to Django and, you know, when I’m playing with Denny Wright and if I let my spirit go, then maybe I find that for a few seconds I’m back again with Django Reinhardt.”  Paul McCartney: “I remember going to see Lonnie Donegan in 1956 at the Empire in Liverpool. It was wonderful. After we saw him and the skiffle groups, we just wanted guitars. Denny Wright, his guitar player, we really used to love–he was great.”  Denny died in 1992 in London after a 9 year battle with cancer. His wife, Barbara, predeceased him by just under 3 years. He leaves a son.

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Denny (Denys Justin) Wright (6 May 1924 – 8 February 1992) was a jazz and skiffle guitarist, who performed with Stephane Grappelli, Lonnie Donegan, Johnny Duncan (bluegrass musician), Digby Fairweather, Ella Fitzgerald, Fapy Lafertin and many other musicians, including young rising stars such as Bireli Lagrene and Nigel Kennedy. He was a session musician for many years and frequently acted as arranger and fixer for recording sessions. Denny was a prolific composer for jazz and orchestra. Denny led many bands in his career, ranging from small jazz ensembles through night club bands to full size orchestras. In addition to jazz and skiffle, Denny worked with Latin American and Jamaican bands. Although he was best known as a guitarist, Denny’s favourite instrument was actually the piano. At home, he frequently played piano, while his guitars stayed in the car!

Denny spent the first part of the war playing in jazz clubs in the West End of London, doing almost non-stop session work and performing in bands on many hit wartime shows. He worked with Grappelli for the first time in London around 1941. Denny was unable to join up, being classified as medically unfit due to a childhood injury suffered in a road accident which resulted in his spleen and half of his liver being surgically removed. Whilst still at school, Denny served with the Auxiliary Fire Service in Brockley. When he was old enough to join up, Denny joined ENSA and entertained the troops, apparently had a great time, and ended the war in Hertogenbosch in The Netherlands

After the war, in 1945, he set up London’s first be-bop club, the Fullado in New Compton Street, where he played both piano and guitar. In the late 1940s he toured Italy and the Middle East with the Francisco Cavez orchestra before ending up playing in King Farouk’s palace. He then returned to the United Kingdom. Throughout the 1950s Denny was hard at work providing some of the great guitar accompaniments for Lonnie Donegan, Johnny Duncan, Humphrey Lyttelton, Marie Bryant (one of Duke Ellington’s great vocalists) and others, as well as featuring on the BBC’s Guitar Club. Wright worked with Tex Ritter, providing him with musical accompaniment at the ‘Texas Western Spectacle’ at the Haringey Arena in 1952; in addition to playing a Sheriff in one scene (which Denny loved, always having been a great fan of Westerns), he had to ride around an arena with Tex and the band whilst playing his guitar; on one fateful night, he discovered that the cinch on his saddle had not been properly tightened — he began to list and by the time he left the arena he was almost horizontal — but still on the horse and still playing!

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Denny was part of Lonnie Donegan’s group who first took skiffle to the Soviet Union in 1957, where his exploits included being mistaken for a champion weightlifter — also called Wright — and presented with medals at every station on the sleeper train to Moscow, hurling a large glass ashtray at a regimental band of pipers who began rehearsing in the early morning, and knocking a Chinese acrobat out after he knocked Denny’s amplifier off the stage.

From 1940 (Workers’ Playtime, among others) until the early 1980s, Denny Wright was a regular in the recording studios as one of Britain’s best session musicians. Denny loved the life of a session musician, and he relished the musical challenges that it brought.

Denny Wright’s free-flowing improvisational style came to the forefront through his work with Lonnie Donegan in the 1950s. Denny was a pioneer in establishing a fresh lead guitar style in the context of the folk and blues roots from which Donegan drew his song repertoire. Drawing upon and transcending the jazz blues elements in his own background, and the vital influence of Django Reinhardt, Denny produced constantly innovative lead breaks and solos for Donegan’s live work and recordings on both acoustic archtop and electric guitar.

Together with Bill Bramwell and Donegan’s younger lead guitar players, Les Bennetts and Jimmy Currie, he helped forge an approach to lead styling inspirational for the next generation of British lead guitarists working with blues-based material in a rock context. In the early 1970s, Denny once more accompanied Grappelli, beginning at the Cambridge Folk Festival where Stephane’s career was relaunched. Denny performed concerts with numerous musicians including Dick Charlesworth and Steve Benbow. In 1978, he formed Velvet with Ike Isaacs, Len Skeat and Digby Fairweather. In 1981, Denny was voted BBC Jazz Society Musician of the Year. After Velvet, Denny formed a band with Don Harper before reforming the Hot Club of London with Johnny van Derrick (violin), Gerry Higgins (double bass) and his protégé Rob Seamon (guitar). Denny played with the Hot Club of London across the UK, as well as at the jazz festivals in Eindhoven and Cork. His last gig, at The Grapes in Shepherd Market, Mayfair in late 1991, was with Johnny van Derrick.  Denny occasionally taught young guitarists and guest lectured at the Royal College of Music on the life of a session musician.

Apart from jazz, Denny Wright’s listening tastes ranged from Delius and Ravel to Kate Bush (‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes‘ was one of his all time favourites.)

Personal life

Denny married Barbara Nelson-Jones, lyricist and actress, in 1961 and their son, St. John, was born on 1st March 1963 while Denny was on stage with Lonnie Donegan in Leeds. Barbara died on 16 February 1989 after an eight year battle with Breast Cancer. They had been married over 27 years. Denny, who was devastated by his wife’s death, (died on 8 February 1992) in London after a 9 year battle with Bladder Cancer and secondary’s, a direct result of his very heavy smoking and past abusage. Johnny Van Derrick and Denny’s son St John, who had given up his career to become Denny’s carer, were with him when he died.