Great things happen when Nancy Wright joins a jam session.
A singer-saxophone player, Wright debuted on May 23 at the Tuesday Night Blues jam with the Buddy Emmer Blues Band. On June 15, Wright will be included in a blues festival at the Carson Valley Inn, along with the Blues Monsters, Chris Cain, Mighty Mike Schermer and the Buddy Emmer Blues Band.
A longtime Bay Area resident, Wright has played and recorded with Northern California’s greatest blues bands, including Tommy Castro and Elvin Bishop. She’s recorded three solo albums. Her ability to improvise led her to the blues and to a career in music.
Three of her jams are legendary.
The first occurred when she was in college and was early for a rehearsal for a production of “Cabaret.” A classically trained bassoon player, Wright was just learning saxophone and had never played blues but was encouraged to join an acoustic jam that was happening between the music and theater buildings.
“By listening to my brother’s Johnny and Edgar Winter 8-Track tapes, I must have had the blues mode in my brain without even knowing it,” she said. “(I found out that) I could improvise and from there eventually got hooked into the blues and strayed off the classical path entirely.”
After college, Wright worked as a waitress at a club where at the end of her shift she was allowed to jam with whatever artist happened to be playing. One night it was John Lee Hooker. The jam went so well, she was invited to join the band.
“I was hired and got to do a couple of tours including Carnegie Hall,” where she was with the headliner on a bill that included Robert Cray, Willie Dixon and Big Mama Thornton. “That was pretty good for a kid just getting her feet wet in the blues.”
Later, Wright moonlighted at a Marriott Hotel. “I was playing pop music in lounge just so I could get the music out of my system before if figured out what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” she said.
While buying some gear at a music store, she fortuitously met Lonnie Mack. One of the first virtuosos of the tremolo (“Whammy”) bar, Mack influenced guitarist such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards and Duane Allman.
Mack invited her to one of his shows, where he encouraged her to join him onstage.
“I’m always ready to sit in,” Wright said. “Usually, you play two songs but when I tried to leave the stage, he said, ‘Where are you going, girl?’” He insisted that she play with him the rest of the show. That was the start of a musical partnership.
“If I hadn’t met Lonnie I probably would have quit playing sax because, with the lounge act thing, I knew I wasn’t happy doing that kind of music. But I met Lonnie and went ‘Whoa! This is it. This is the stuff.’”
Mack, however, eventually moved away, to collaborate with Stevie Ray Vaughan in Austin, Texas.
To pursue a career in music, Wright knew she needed to move away from her small Ohio hometown, too. The place for a Midwestern blues artist to go was obvious, but “Chicago scared the hell out of me,” she said.
On her way to Australia to visit family, she auditioned for a New Orleans-style band based in San Francisco. That’s when she joined the band Hot Links and made Northern California her permanent home.
While Wright just played with Emmer for the first time, she has shared the stage and studio many times with Cain and Schermer.
“I love playing with (Cain and Schermer),” she said. “I’ve worked with Mike for over 10 years, primarily as one of the sideman in his band and he’s a guest on my ‘Play Date’ CD, and every now and then when he’s in the Bay Area he’s been the guitar player in my band and he’s killer. A lot of times bandleaders don’t make good sidemen but Mike can do either.
“More recently, the past five or six years, I’ve been playing with Chris. I love Chris. It’s like Pavlov’s dog. If I hear his guitar or his voice, I start drooling. He’s a musician’s musician. I don’t know how to describe what he channels but it just flows.”