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Obituary

Early Wright; Mississippi 'Soul Man' Deejay

December 18, 1999|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early Wright, a legendary radio personality in Mississippi whose nightly "Soul Man" broadcast on WROX in Clarksdale spanned more than half a century, has died.

Wright died on Dec. 10 at a hospital in Memphis. He was 84 and had been in poor health since suffering a heart attack last month.

The first black disc jockey in Mississippi, Wright was an institution in the state's Delta Region, ground zero for blues music in America. He was equally adept at spinning tales of blues performers and their music and selling the products of local sponsors, whom he called customers.

"The only way Early's ever lost a customer is if they died," one observer told The Times' Patrick Goldstein, who profiled Wright several years ago.

Wright's four-hour nightly radio program was a throwback to radio in the 1950s. As the "Soul Man," he would spin blues music for part of his program, then switch to Gospel music as "Brother Early."

While the names might change, the persona didn't. Wright would play records by artists both noted and undiscovered. And he would offer his own brand of public service announcements, telling children to stay in school, seeking volunteers to deliver meals to the elderly and urging citizens to get out and vote. He read obituaries from the newspaper, detailed funeral arrangements and promoted the appearances of various circuit preachers.

He would urge drivers passing by the station's studio to sound their car horns and most of the time the residents of Clarksdale complied. He would also ignore prepared advertising, offering his own off-the-cuff endorsements of the lima beans from one store or the prices at the local meat house.

Some of the greats who appeared on his show over the years included Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Milton, Ike and Tina Turner, Pinetop Perkins and Charley Pride.

Elvis Presley appeared on Wright's show early in his career, and afterward the disc jockey defended him from critics who felt he had stolen his act from black musicians. Wright said that Presley had "a real feel and respect" for the music.

Born in Jefferson, Miss., Wright moved to Clarksdale in 1937, working as a train engineer, auto mechanic and manager of a gospel group before being hired by WROX, a white-owned station, in 1947.

"I didn't have an opportunity to get an education," he told Goldstein. "I'm not proud to say it but it's true. . . . I had to go out and work. Treating people right is what got me this far."

In 1988, the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture honored Wright by establishing a scholarship in his name.

Wright retired in 1997 after his 41-year-old daughter died of cancer. He underwent multiple-bypass heart surgery that same year. He is survived by his wife, Ella, two sisters, seven grandchildren and two brothers.

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