The Victory Tour was indisputably a major step in Michael Jackson’s career. Not only was it the last tour he would achieve with his brothers, but it also marked his coming back on stage after the phenomenal « Thriller » album. That’s why I wanted to discuss this fabulous era with one of the musicians who took part in that adventure. Here is a conversation with the first guitar player in the history of music who played the « Beat It » solo live on stage with the King Of Pop. Thank you so much, Mr Gregg Wright, for sharing your experience.
First of all, can you tell us about your passion for music ? How it started and how you became a professional musician and guitarist. What about your musical influences too, please ?
My very first memory in life was watching and hearing my mother play piano in church, when I was a baby. I would listen and watch while lying in a basinet next to her as she played. So, my passion for music goes all the way back to the very beginning. As far as influences go, man, I soaked up everything from everywhere. I’m like a sponge. My Dad had the world’s greatest Jazz and Blues record collection and an awesome stereo, so my brothers and I heard all that while growing up. When I took up guitar as a young teen, my main man was Jimi Hendrix.
How did you feel about Michael Jackson and his brothers before working with them ?
Man, I always dug the Jackson 5, the Jacksons and Michael in every one of their incarnations, starting with “I Want You Back” and beyond. That I would eventually work with them was mind blowing!!
How were you hired as a guitar player on the « Victory Tour » ?
I’d befriended Randy Jackson in Los Angeles about a year before the Victory Tour. He and Marlon invited me to play a solo on the song “Body” from the “Victory” album. Eventually, he asked if I’d be interested in auditioning for the tour they were planning. They held three auditions and initially, there were about 100 guitar players at the first one, 20 at the second and down to 3 at the last. The Jacksons were funny guys. They stonewalled everybody at all three auditions and never said who got the gig. You’d simply get a callback to make the next audition, if you’d survived. After the final audition, I learned I’d won the lead guitar spot three days later when their management called me to relay the rehearsal and pay schedule. My girlfriend at the time went through the roof. I was simply relieved. So, the Victory Tour started for me with a big Victory!
What are your memories of the rehearsal sessions and your feelings about the band of musicians, including the Jackson brothers ?
I was a 3 sport athlete in school so I was very disciplined. It’s something that carried over to my musicianship. When I saw how methodically the Jacksons organized their rehearsals, I thought :“This is for me! I’m all in.” First, we broke down into groups and spent a month just working on guitar parts at Tito’s house. Next, we went to a rehearsal hall and rehearsed as a band. I thought this was the very best group of musicians I’d ever been with up to that point in my career. The last month, we rehearsed the entire full-production show 3 times a day at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zeotrope Studios. So we’d had 3 months of rehearsals, 15 hour days, 7 days a week, and I loved it!!! The Jackson brothers set the bar as high as it can go. They strove for absolute excellence and were rehearsing just as hard as the rest of us! My respect and admiration for their talents, work ethic and professionalism stands to this day!
You joined the band that was going to play songs from the best selling album of all times.
Yes, every single song we played was a smash hit from the Jackson 5 to Thriller. The audience never got a chance to sit down. People were literally on their feet the entire concert!
Did you instantly realize that this tour was going to make the history of music, or did it take some time before you really appreciated that fact ?
From the very beginning, it was apparent and very noticeable, this Victory Tour was something very special. It was something that’d never been seen or heard before. There was a keen sense amongst everyone on the tour, that we were making history. At the time, it was the biggest tour in Rock & Roll history and remained so for a very long time thereafter.
I really enjoy your guitar solo on the MJ song « Workin’ Day And Night ». Did Michael himself decide for a rock arrangement of this song, and something different from the studio version and the 1981 live version ?
Thank you. I was the very first Rock & Roll guitar player Michael and his brothers ever had in their shows, and they really wanted to utilize that. They called me up to their production office one afternoon. I was surprised and a little nervous when I walked in, seeing all six Jackson brothers there with their unison stoic facial expressions, never giving away what they were thinking. At first, I thought I’d done something wrong, but then Marlon stepped forward and said :“We’ve never had a Rock guitar player in our band and we have a place we’d like to feature you in the show.” I couldn’t believe my ears. They wanted to turn over a stadium full of 80,000 rabid music fans to me and have me do my thing! It happened to be the song “Working Day and Night” that the brothers wanted me to cut loose on. We definitely stretched out on this one.
Your solos and the presence of two guitar players on the tour from 1984 was a new pattern that Michael Jackson would later use on his 3 solo tours in the 1980s and 90s. Do you feel like you contributed to some major evolution in his stage career?
Absolutely! Like I said before, I was the very first Rock guitarist in their band. The late, great David Williams and I were doing some pretty unique things as a guitar team. I learned so much from him because he was literally a rhythm machine. I don’t think anybody had paired a Funk guitarist and a Rock guitarist before. Stylistically, they are world’s apart, but we made it work!
Another highlight of the show was performing the song « Beat It ». Could you feel some pressure, being the first guitar player in history to play Van Halen’s solo live on stage with Michael Jackson at your side ?
I never felt any pressure at all. I’d put the work in on guitar having fronted my own bands during my formative bar band years. I’d always played loud, heavy, screaming guitar. It was nothing new to me, so I was quite comfortable playing!
You actually played the solo twice, and it’s something that would never occur again after. Do you think artists and musicians could perform more freely and drift away from the studio versions at that time?
Of course, the show was very precise and tight but not as much as the following tours.
I remember Randy Jackson stating in an interview before he’d put the band together that they were looking for musicians that were also performers who could bring something extra to the table. We could all play the tight set and improvise at a moment’s notice, which made the Victory band very special. So many big shows nowadays are so fully choreographed, that there’s no room for improvisation. But I see hope on the horizon. A lot of people on the street and in clubs are responding big time to bands and artists who can improvise, take chances and ultimately make the music more interesting.
Any particular memories and impressions regarding Eddie Van Halen’s performance at the show in Dallas, whether on stage and / or behind-the-scene ? How did you share the stage on this occasion ?
I had the pleasure of meeting Edward and his wife at the time, Valerie Bertinelli. Jamming with him onstage was really cool. We gave the audience some real guitar fireworks. I think the brothers themselves became spectators for that one!
Any favorite song or special moment of the show and tour that you still remember?
Without question, playing the song “Human Nature” was my favorite moment and memory from the ”Victory Tour”. You wouldn’t think so, my being a Rocker and all, but that song was pure magic. Playing it was like being in the eye of a hurricane where it’s calm and peaceful. When Michael passed, I had a very hard time hearing that particular song whenever it came on the radio. I could literally see him standing right in front of me, singing that song.
Where does the « Victory Tour » stand in your whole career ? Did you keep up with The Jacksons’ and Michael’s career and music after that ?
The Victory Tour is high on my list of career highlights. It holds a very special place in my heart. I’ve run into the brothers over the years and we are always glad to see each other. I’ve done some work for them on occasion. They told me way back when, “You’re one of us, now!” It’s like seeing old army buddies, whenever I run into anyone from the Victory Tour. We are a fraternity.
Any other (musical) projects you would like to share with our readers?
Well, I had a great time touring and recording an album with Mick Fleetwood’s Zoo. In 2009 I was a featured artist on a 6-week tour called “Chicago Blues, Europe”, where we played 36 European cities. Most of the cities were in France. I also played on an IMAX film soundtrack called “Ocean, Oasis” featuring the Prague Philharmonic. We recorded that in Grasse, near Cannes. In 2013, I was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. It’s a real honor to be included amongst the greats of American music like, Louis Armstrong, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Dr. John, Buddy Guy and many more.
What is your musical actuality nowadays ?
Right now, I’m working on a new solo Blues CD that I hope will get me back over to Europe, France, in particular, in 2019. I absolutely love playing there! I have a world class Blues/Rock band that I would love the world to see and hear. I am very excited about this project. I sincerely believe it’s the best thing I’ve ever done thus far.