Norma Jean Wright: Chic And Beyond…
By David Nathan
One of the brightest new stars on the horizon is a young lady whose voice has already been heard across the world. As lead singer with Chic, Norma Jean has tasted the fruits of success and now with a solo album of her own, she's ready to gain even more recognition for her talents whilst still remaining a part of the unit.
AS Jerry Wexler, the legendary record executive and producer noted several years ago when writing the liner notes for the first of many gold albums for Aretha Franklin on Atlantic Records, "there are workaday stars and then there are superstars". He went on to note that Ms. Franklin belongs fairly and squarely in that second division. Well, in line with that statement, we'd like to suggest that the lovely and talented Ms. Norma Jean Wright belongs also in that second category!
To make that kind of status, you need something other than just vocal ability. It's a combination of many factors including that elusive human quality that differentiates the good from the excellent. We venture to suggest that the subject of our feature has that quality hence the prediction! Now, whether you know it or not — if you've ventured into a disco at any time during the last year or been to a party where the music was really hip — you've heard Norma Jean. The reason being that she is the lead singer with the very successful team, Chic who now have a platinum album with their debut set and a million-selling single in "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)". Cuts like "Everybody Dance" and "You Can Get By If You Try" have become staple fare for disco folk everywhere and since they began working live dates earlier this year, Chick have captured a strong and loyal following with their excellent stage act. So Norma Jean has already been heard by quite a few people thus far!
Now she has a solo album, entitled appropriately "Norma Jean" on the Bearsville label and it's already spawned one hit single in "Saturday" and promises to establish the lady's capabilities even further. But before we get to the album, more information about the lady herself. Born in Tennesee but raised in Elyria, Ohio, Norma recalls that she's always had a desire to get into music "since I was in high school. When I was around fourteen, I really decided that music was going to be my career." Whilst attending college in Ohio, Norma would spend evenings working with a local group, The Topettes, in and around her home town and after graduating from school, Norma began working as a claims investigator "although it wasn't really what I wanted to do obviously — I wanted to sing more than anything else."
Norma got her first serious professional opportunity in 1973 when she met Rusty Bryant, the jazz saxophonist who was playing at a nightclub in Columbus, Ohio, where Norma was living at the time. "There was an amateur night where people could showcase and Rusty was there for the night so I sat in with him. He liked what he heard so I worked with him for about a year." Then in 1974, Norma met Earth, Wind & Fire. "They were playing in Columbus and at the time, their lead singer Jessica Cleaves had left the group. It was about the time of the "Head To The Sky" album. Anyway, I was singing on the show during the opening portion and we met up. They had my mike hooked up so that they could hear me in their dressing rooms whilst I was performing. They said they liked what they heard but they needed someone with a larger range so that was that situation." Not too much afterwards, Norma was working with a local group, Associated Press and they came to the attention of The Ohio Players. "At the time, they were just beginning to get into looking for other groups to produce. We sat down and discussed a potential situation after the group had auditioned for them but it wasn't quite what we wanted at the time, so that didn't really materialize."
Then in 1975, The Spinners came to Columbus and it was shortly after their hit with Dionne Warwick, "Then Came You". "The guys told the local promoter that they needed a girl vocalist to sing Dionne's part and I knew the song, auditioned for the group and got the job. This was at a time when John Edwards was substituting for Philippe Wynne when he was sick with tonsilitis, by the way." The group went on to Cleveland, Ohio for their next date and asked Norma if she'd join them for that. "I agreed and after the gig, they asked me whether I'd like to continue on the road with them. They really wanted to see just how serious I was about getting into the business and I knew that eventually I'd have to make some kind of decision about my future because I was still doing my 9-5 job. I decided that I'd wait a little longer though and save some money and come to either New York or Los Angeles and try and put my musical career together."
Norma saved some money for about a year and decided that "New York was where I wanted to be. I'd met a few people — like Eddie Holland from Atlantic Records when he was with The Spinners in Ohio — and I had a friend in the city who told me that once I got there, she'd introduce me to a lot of people in the business." As often happens when Norma did arrive at the end of 1976, that didn't quite happen! "When I first got to New York, I started right away doing some freelancing, hanging out at sessions whenever I could just to meet as many people in the business as possible. I'd actually done a demo on two songs whilst I was in Ohio so I did have something for people to listen to."
Whilst looking for a lawyer to represent her, Norma landed a job "for two months in the office there — which was great because I got a chance to really deal with contracts and stuff, so I was learning all the time". Through another friend, Lenay Davis who happened to be a model, Norma met two gentlemen who were destined to affect her future somewhat considerably. The guys were Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards and they are, in fact, the founders and originators of the group Chic. "At the time," Norma recalls, "they were busy writing material and trying to put a deal together and I was really impressed with them musically. I felt very strongly about what they were doing." Whilst Nile and Bernard were busy hooking up a record deal — which never takes exactly five minutes! — Norma Jean decided to accept a gig doing background work in Canada. "I stayed there for about four months and we stayed in pretty close contact. Then I heard from the guys that it looked as if they had something pretty definite so I came back to New York only to find that it turned out not to be quite as certain as everyone had hoped it was."
However, as those who read our story earlier this year on Chic will recall, Messrs. Rogers and Edwards got themselves a deal through Tom Cossie and Marc Kreiner with Atlantic Records and things began to really look brighter. "Just to kind of assure them that I was the right person for the role of lead singer, Nile and Bernard came down to check me out at Broady's, a night spot in New York, and that kinda sealed it all." Norma confesses that she didn't quite expect the group's initial album to be as big as it turned out to be. "I really loved it but I don't think I expected such big things to happen from it" and indeed, it was whilst recording one of the cuts, the beautiful "Falling In Love With You" for the album that the executive producers (Marc and Tom) felt that Norma should definitely do a solo album. "Bernard and Nile and I had already talked about it from the beginning but I didn't think we'd get to it quite so soon. I figured it would happen maybe a year or so after being with Chic but everyone felt that it should be the next recording project when the Chic album was completed."
It was no problem securing a record deal for Norma Jean with Bearsville Records, a company known up until now primarily for their involvement with more rock-oriented acts like Todd Rundgren and Foghat. "They heard the 'Chic' album and they agreed on the deal almost straight away. I signed with them in January and we completed the album in March. I must say that the company has been extremely supportive."
Norma feels that the album contains a good balance between disco and uptempo material and ballads. "There was a group effort on the selection of the material between Nile, Bernard and myself (the two afore-mentioned gentlemen having produced the album, of course). The guys wrote most of the material themselves although I co-wrote one song, "This Is The Love". We decided to do "Having A Party", the Sam Cooke song, because we wanted to do an oldie but goodie and that seemed appropriate. But I think the album has a lot of good things in there. I told the guys that "So I Get Hurt Again" should be an easy thing for me to get into because I could really dig the lyrics, although I don't feel that I have a preference for ballads as opposed to uptempo material — I like both. It all depends on the underlying message in the song and that's why I particularly like "This Is The Love" because there's a bit more to it than just the man-woman thing — it's got another spiritual message in there if you check it out."
The inevitable question is whether Norma Jean will in fact become a solo artiste, since she has already indicated that for the moment at least, she will continue with Chic. In fact, she's finishing off the second Chic album and doing some background work on a Sister Sledge album which Nile and Bernard are producing. "It's not a delicate subject with me or the guys since we have discussed it at length. I'd say a solo career is a consideration, a possibility in everyone's mind but I think for the moment, I'll be incorporating some of my material into Chic's live performances. We were due to go out again on the road (the group spent a considerable amount of time touring during the year) right now but we're waiting to finish off the product we're working on at the moment."
Norma feels that her own career thus far contains a lot of pointers to those who may want to pursue a livelihood in entertainment. "It's important that you use strategy and you must be totally dedicated to want to succeed. I'd say it's all about using the plan you map out for yourself and lots of prayer, daily!
"Naturally, at certain points initially, your folk and friends are going to think you're crazy — especially if you leave home like I did to pursue singing — but, of course, they're all very proud of what's happened with me. But it took a lot of thinking, working towards the goal, struggling and believing that it would really happen eventually." When asked for her comments on what she would like to do as far as her general approach to her music and life were concerned, Norma Jean was ready with the reply! "I'd like to encourage people, inspire them to achieve a goal that they might set for themselves through positive thinking, positive energies. It's worked for me — although it wasn't all easy — so I know it can work for other people too!"