RIP: Jimmy “Big Jim” Wright

Posted October 2, 2018 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Contemporary R&B producer, songwriter and musician with gospel connection dies at the age of 52

James "Big Jim" Wright, circa 1990. Courtesy of @bigjimwright / Instagram

Jimmy “Big Jim” Wright, circa 1990. Courtesy of @bigjimwright / Instagram

Jimmy “Big Jim” Wright, a prolific songwriter, musician and contributor to the Minneapolis R&B-funk sound, was found dead in his home in Rockford, Illinois on Saturday, September 29. Reports began swirling of his passing the following day. Although Wright was a behind-the-scenes vet, his career was an illustrious one, soldiered with responsibilities of producing hit records in the 1990’s and 2000’s for a slew of pop and R&B artists ranging from Janet Jackson to Mariah Carey.

Wright, who earned his nickname for his portly size, first rose to fame as an aide to Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, rising up in their Flyte Tyme factory in Minneapolis during their peak years. His first major work included songwriting contributions on best-selling albums for Sounds of Blackness, first appearing on their 1992 LP The Night Before Christmas: A Musical Fantasy. He also provided keyboard duties and led several of their songs including the perennial holiday gem “Soul Holidays,” the Al Green-esque “The Lord Will Make a Way” and the surprise crossover hit single “Everything Is Gonna Be Alright,” which hit #29 R&B. Although Wright acted as an honorary musical guest inside the realm of the Minneapolis-based fifty-member ensemble, his contributions were pivotal to the group’s success.


With Jam & Lewis, Wright’s workload grew expansively, leading to a production partnership and transformative co-writing arrangement that blessed the albums for Barry White (The Icon Is Love), Michael Jackson (HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I), Lionel Richie (Louder Than Words), Jon Secada (Secada) and Patti LaBelle (“When You Talk About Love” on Flame).

When Ann Nesby stepped away from Sounds of Blackness for her solo album debut with Flyte Tyme, Wright stood by her side. On 1996’s I’m Here for You, Nesby blends gospel and slick R&B together using an Aretha-like tapestry. And part of the magic was Wright’s careful pulse on delivering that soulful heartbeat to these records. His fingerprints are all over the album, from keyboard duties to co-writing much of the album along with Jam & Lewis. “I’m Still Wearin’ Your Name” quickly became Nesby’s signature power ballad, while “I’ll Do Anything for You” and memorable cuts like “This Weekend” showed off Wright’s knack for cool soul. He would apply that same formula to Janet Jackson’s “I Get Lonely,” which can be heard effectively in his handling of the Rhodes keyboard. It’s one of the greatest moments heard on Jackson’s The Velvet Rope.

Prior to his achievement on the chart-topping “I Get Lonely” (#3 pop, #1 R&B), Wright could be seen behind the scenes on Jackson’s groundbreaking janet album, contributing vocals when needed and playing keyboards on strong cuts like “What’ll I Do” and “Any Time Any Place.”

Mariah Carey with "Big Jim" Wright

Mariah Carey with “Big Jim” Wright

Wright would later contribute work on Boyz II Men (The Ballad Collection), Mary J. Blige (Mary), Usher (8701), Sting (At the Movies), Aretha Franklin (So Damn Happy), Kelly Price (Priceless), Celine Dion (“Dance With My Father” on So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross) and even Mariah Carey’s Rainbow, where he expanded his horizons as Carey’s musical director from Rainbow to Mariah’s #1 to Infinity. He also served as co-producer on most of her albums, including 2008’s E=MC2, 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel and 2014’s Me, I Am Mariah …The Elusive Chanteuse. He is best remembered for co-writing and co-producing the gospel-tinged “Fly Like a Bird,” a Top 20 R&B hit, for Carey’s 2005 album, The Emancipation of Mimi.

Despite his foot being anchored in pop and R&B, he never forsook his roots in gospel, which included work on Yolanda Adams’s Grammy-winning Mountain High…Valley Low, more work for Ann Nesby (Put It on Paper), Nicole C. Mullen, and even a vocal appearance on Soul Interpretations from Minneapolis contemporary gospel choir Excelsior. In 2007, Jam & Lewis were commissioned to handle two holiday albums distributed by Def Jam for Ron Isley & the Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle, yielding new collaborative music from Wright. Also that year, Wright with Jam & Lewis worked on Chaka Khan’s comeback album Funk This, supplying her with the Grammy-winning “Angel.”

On television, Wright served as musical director for comedienne Mo’Nique on her shortlived The Mo’Nique Show on BET

According to document, Wright’s final contribution to music was on Deborah Cox’s I Will Always Love You album, a 2017 tribute album to Whitney Houston that coincided with Cox’s role in the off-Broadway musical The Bodyguard. It had been rumoured that he was last in the studio working on music for a future album for Ann Nesby.

In one of his last posts on Instagram, Wright expressed his admiration to Aretha Franklin, three days after the Queen of Soul’s passing. “I had a great relationship with Aretha,” he wrote. “I didn’t think I’d be affected like this. This woman had respect for me and my talent. Out of all the great musicians she’s worked with over her career, she loved the way I played organ. The world is not the same knowing Aretha is not here. She called me many times to come play organ…She schooled me on music history, and I’ll cherish every moment I was blessed to be in her company.”

A day after Wright’s passing, personal tributes from his extended musical family was published on social media. “Big Jim, thank you for years of musical genius and for your friendship,” wrote Mariah Carey. “May you rest in peace,” she added. “Hurry home [to heaven]. There’s a Fender Rhodes and B3 waiting,” Jimmy Jam posted along with a one-minute “I Get Lonely” performance clip of Wright playing alongside Janet Jackson from their appearance on Rosie O Donnell’s ’90’s talk show Rosie.

No word yet on Wright’s cause of death or funeral arrangements.

UPDATE: This story has been modified to correct Jimmy Wright’s name, which was incorrectly credited as James Wright, and to include details on his work on The Mo’Nique Show.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


Be the first to comment!

Leave a Response


Please support HIFI Magazine
By clicking any of these buttons you help our site to get better