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Margaret Wright, grand dame of Austin piano bars, has died

Deborah Sengupta Stith
Austin American-Statesman
Margaret Wright, an accomplished Austin musician with a storied career that spanned over 40 years, died on Sunday at age 78.

Margaret Wright, an accomplished singer and pianist who thrilled Austin audiences with her effortless recreations of jazz standards, torch songs and pop favorites, died on Sunday morning after being hospitalized for a sudden illness on Friday. She was 78. 

In a storied career that spanned over 40 years, Wright played venues all over the city, including upper crust rooms like the Driskill Hotel, tiny dives like Ego’s, and gay bars like Charlie’s and Rusty's. When the Skylark Lounge opened in 2013, Wright became the club’s flagship act, holding court for years with a happy hour gig each Thursday and Friday. 

"She anointed us in a lot of ways and I can never repay that anointing that she paid us in the community and what she did to legitimize what we were trying to do," Skylark owner Johnny LaTouf, who confirmed her death to the Statesman, said on Monday.  

Wright was known for her exceptional talent, her stunning command of the ivories and her ability to improvise on a dime.  

Harold McMillan, a bass player who served as her longtime sideman, began playing gigs with Wright roughly 30 years ago. In spots like the Driskill Hotel bar, fans would gather around Wright and call out songs they wanted to hear. 

“She knew every tune ever written,” McMillan said. Even when she fielded an unfamiliar request, “she would remember enough of the melody line and enough of the lyrics and then she would harmonize it on the spot for her left hand to make the chords and the melody work.”

“It was just like breathing to her,” he said. 

Wright was born in 1942 and grew up in a segregated Austin. She attended Huston-Tillotson University in the '60s and worked as an elementary school teacher for decades. She broke barriers as the first Black teacher at some of the schools where she taught. 

LaTouf said she carried the “soul of what the city was” in her performances. 

“When you had her in your place, you were hearing something that was from the roots of our community and someone who had seen and felt many things in this country and many things in this city and she sang her heart out that way,” he said. 

She was also known for her warm and joyous presence.

“To me, music is a feeling. If you have a talent, whatever your talent is, like an artist or anybody else who creates stuff, you want to do it to make it more personable,” Wright said in 2019. Reaching people with her music was “one of the ways that I just learned to enjoy life more,” she said.  

“She was much bigger than the music," LaTouf said. "Music was a part of her, but her love and her care and her kindness was even bigger than the music. It just came through in the music."

“She was the matriarch of Skylark,” musician Oscar Ornelas said Monday. “You know, everybody looked up to her ... and it was just one of those things where, you know, you just, you felt better just being around her. She just changed everybody's life.” 

She referred to Ornelas, who occasionally filled in for Wright’s happy hour gigs, as a son. “She was the one who believed in me the most,” he said.

“She was such a mom to all of us,” LaTouf said, adding that it was generous of Wright’s actual daughter, Joely Wright, to share her mother with a music community that basked in her love. 

Wright also was dedicated to her husband, Joe Wright, who came to all of her gigs and, until his health declined in recent years, often joined her on stage.  

Her death came as a shock to friends and fans. A few days before she was hospitalized, LaTouf said he and Wright had a conversation about reopening the Skylark, which has been closed since the pandemic hit.  

“We were planning the return and what we were going to do and what our plans were and she was just so excited about, you know, reopening and playing again because playing was her life,” LaTouf said.

Stories of the familial approach she took to her crowds and the many Austin musicians whom she mentored echoed across social media as news of her death broke on Monday.  

"She was Austin music royalty who always had a twinkle in her eye and a joyful spirit to share with her dedicated audience," musician Elias Haslanger said in a Facebook post. 

Sharing her spirit with anyone who chose to listen was second nature to Wright. 

“One of my mom’s favorite quotes was ‘You be good to people because you may be entertaining angels. You never know who they are,’” Wright told the Statesman in a 2019 interview. 

As Austin’s music community reels from the loss of one of our greats perhaps we can take small comfort in the idea of Margaret Wright entertaining angels. 

Wright is survived by her husband and her daughter.

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