Margaret Wright, Austin Hall of Fame Pianist, Passes at 78
Entertainer and educator spread love for six decades
By Kevin Curtin,
3:00PM, Mon. Dec. 7, 2020
Pianist and vocalist Margaret Wright, a joyous entertainer whose long career represented the enduring legacy of an East Austin she witnessed being erased, died Sunday at the age of 78.
Her daughter, Joely Wright, confirmed the news to the Chronicle. She said her mother had gone into the hospital on Saturday with a stomach ache and passed away the following day. She had not had a prolonged illness and her passing was not COVID-19 related.
Possessing a superbly chromatic and agile style of piano playing, Wright became a fixture at the intimate Skylark Lounge on Airport, performing there several times a week since 2013. Decades of local gigs saw her hold down extended residencies at the Driskill, Cedar Street, Ego’s, and the Elephant Room. She also made appearances everywhere from the historic Paramount Theatre to punk club Hotel Vegas.
All walks of life accounted for her fanbase.
“Why do I play gay clubs? Why do I play wherever? I don’t label,” Wright told Chronicle deep feature writer Kahron Spearman in a 2015 interview. “[Growing up], I played all kinds of churches. Everywhere. They wanted us to be exposed to different types of people. I just kept going.”
Born on the Eastside at Austin’s Holy Cross hospital in 1942, Wright grew up in a musical family with a mother who played in church and a multi-instrumentalist sister. She attended L.C. Anderson High School and had already begun playing live by the time she enrolled at Huston-Tillotson University, where she graduated in 1964. She became an educator and eventually taught music at the Texas Preparatory School until a few years ago when she retired.
Wright rarely – if ever – employed a setlist. She maintained an extraordinary mental repertoire of material: largely standards form the American songbook, plus blues, jazz, and gospel numbers she pulled from spontaneously or by request. She put her own mark on melodies, holding over notes with her rich and ageless voice, and leaving enough breath in a song that she could pause mid-line to make small talk with a patron dropping a $20 in the tip jar.
Her soul sang from any bandstand.
“People come out to be uplifted, not to be put down. I’ve come through enough struggle. We all struggle. Every day is a struggle,” Wright told Spearman of her approach to performing.
Live music capitalists voted the septuagenarian into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 2015 and she appeared at the Austin Music Awards to receive that honor.
Wright maintained notorious disinterest in conducting interviews or placing attention on herself aside from the communication between her voice and hands, and the audience. Her only child, Joely, explained in 2015:
“I guess we are protective. She just wants to be an entertainer, a pianist. All that limelight isn't important to her. [But] I told her, ‘You're leaving a legacy here, [and] it has to be documented. You’re one of the last of old Austin, the last of the way music used to be done.’”
The elder Wright, who’s survived by her husband Joe and Joely, represented a continuity to East Austin that’s increasingly difficult to trace, about which she remained outspoken in Spearman’s feature:
“I don’t like what they did to [East Austin], and I think it was mean in nature,” she stated. “I think it was spiteful, hateful, [and] disgusting. Why do you take stuff from people? Don’t move them, build on what’s there.
“They may have something to offer, so don’t run them out, because you may have to go get ’em.”
Margaret’s last performance occurred in the second week of March at the Skylark before live music shut down with the approaching pandemic. Joely says that the connection her mother had with her audience defined “familial.”
”They think of her as a friend, they call her ‘mother,’ they call her ‘granny,” revealed Joely Monday afternoon. “I shared her with a lot of people, so I had a lot of extended family. Everybody was her ‘babies’ or her ‘good friends.’ She just enjoyed people.
“She enjoyed entertaining them and she had a soul that was just friendly. She never met somebody she couldn’t speak to.