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 & the Elephant & Castle.
Denny Wright performed with Stephane Grappelli, Lonnie Donegan, Johnny Duncan (bluegrass musician), Digby Fairweather, Ella Fitzgerald, Ken Snakehips Johnson, Billy Eckstine, Fapy Lafertin, Russ Conway, Bireli Lagrene, Humphrey Lyttleton, Nigel Kennedy and his great friend George Shearing. A session musician for many years, he frequently acted as arranger and “fixer” for recording sessions. Wright was a prolific Jazz & Orchestral Composer. He led many bands, ranging from small Jazz Ensembles through Night Club Bands to full-size Orchestras. In addition to Jazz & Skiffle, he worked with Latin American & Jamaican Bands, including Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists. He contributed to Swing Bands & Orchestras, frequently playing with the Carl Barriteau Orchestra, the Decca Records House Band under Phil Green, and, on occasion, the Glenn Miller Band. Wright was voted the 1980 BBC Jazz Society Musician of the Year. Although best known as a Guitarist, his favourite instrument was the Piano – the only musical instrument he would ever play at home. Travellin’ Blues by Johnny Duncan and the Bluegrass Boys feature Wright’s Piano playing.
Denny on the right with Steve Benbow.
Denny’s 1st 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 1st 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 1st 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. In 1945 he set up London’s 1st Bebop Club, the Fullado in New Compton Street, where he played Piano & Guitar. In the late 1940s he Toured Italy and the Middle East with the Francisco Cavez Orchestra and performed in King Farouk’s Palace.
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 1950s. Denny was a Pioneer in establishing a fresh Lead Guitar style in the context of the folk & 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 & Solos for Donegan’s live work and recordings on both acoustic Archtop & Electric Guitar.
Together with Bill Bramwell and Donegan’s younger Lead Guitar players, Les Bennetts & 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 & 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 & 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.
In the 1960s, in addition to a great deal of Session work providing backing for many top artists including Mary Hopkin & Jones, with Guitarist & friend Keith Cooper he produced Tribute to the Hot Club as The Cooper-Wright Quintet.
Denny Wright, Steve Benbow (Left), go through a concert running order with producer John Paddy Browne. Typically, Steve & Denny are not taking things too seriously! Fo’c’sle Club in Southampton 1972
With Diz Dizley & 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.
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 & 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 1st 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 1st 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
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 & still playing!
Denny was part of Lonnie Donegan’s group who 1st 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 performed concerts with numerous musicians including Dick Charlesworth and Steve Benbow. In 1978, he formed Velvet with Ike Isaacs, bassist 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 & 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.)
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 16th February 1989 after an 8 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 & Denny’s son St John, who had given up his career to become Denny’s carer, were with him when he died.
Oral History of UK Jazz – Denny Wright
Part 1 – Denny Wright had been suffering from cancer for the past 6 years, but has kept playing. Discusses 1st jazz records in the early 30s, and his early Guitar influences; came to playing the Guitar through a combination of friends and the records he heard; mentions his early reputation as the “British Django Reinhart”. First Guitar an Epiphone at age eight, sold to him by Len father of John Williams. His 1st Band formed 1937, played South-east London; Denny’s brother on Rhythm Guitar, while Denny gravitated to lead. Member of Auxiliary Fire Service during Blitz suffered injuries and convalesced for 3 months in Morecambe; there met guitarist Alan Metcalfe and started playing together; on return to London started playing at Jigg’s Club with Beryl Bryden. Remembers other bands, players, and venues in the 40s. Memories of Jigg’s Club; working with Carl Baretta and his orchestra; anecdote about the gig in Dundee; memories of members of the Carl Baretta Orchestra. The gradual collapse of the Orchestra – end of era of Big Band Orchestra in theatre venues, move 1st to holiday camp gigs, then to smaller ensembles at clubs again. Denny begins performing alone in both clubs and recording studios; joins Decca Records house-band under Phil Green; works with Glenn Miller Band; “shortage” of guitarists in London during the War benefited Denny. Memories of Jamboree Club in Wardour Street.
Part 2 – Anecdote about Phil Green and his wife. Memories of performing at the Falado Club; 1st place bebop music was heard in Britain; drug-taking in British jazz at the time – deleterious effects of pot on DW’s playing; hard-drug use and alcoholism in the scene; police raids of Jazz Club for Drugs, instrumental in the Falado Losing its licence. Influence of George Shearing on scene’s piano players; Denny’s own piano playing, live and in the Studio. Denny on his guitar technique – inspired by Reindhart & records, but almost entirely self-taught; use of the thumb in his playing. Denny’s enforced departure from the UK; toured Italy & Egypt for 18 months; begins to learn Latin style of playing. Playing briefly with Humphrey Lyttleton; joins Latin section of BBC showband; at the same time as starting his own band, also session work.
Part 3 – Denny probably the 1st guitarist-Bandleader in Britain. Playing with Lonnie Donegan at beginning of Donegan’s hit-making career; Denny’s use of electric guitar in skiffle music; discusses the tabloid campaign against Donegan. Denny discusses his alcoholism, and the Alcoholics he played with; has been teetotal for more than 30-yrs. More about session work, and growing fame in Donegan’s band; long anecdotes about showbiz stunts & performances. Denny’s wife and family in Bingley at this time; the birth of Denny’s 1rst son; Denny commuted to gigs and sessions in London every day; brief details of his relationship with Donegan – worked with him off and on until the late 1970s.