Johnny Wright, 40, guides his clients to the top of the world of teen pop music. From 'N Sync and Britney Spears to new groups he's launching, he teaches the Wright stuff.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000
ORLANDO -- To journey to the center of the Teen Pop Universe, you don't turn on MTV. You turn on a road into a quiet neighborhood that looks like any pleasant, All-American subdivision, with tree-lined streets, neat brick homes and a family atmosphere.
But it just so happens that in this little slice of Orlando suburbia -- where kids revel in the sounds of 'N Sync, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, as kids do everywhere -- teen pop has a special home right at the end of the block.
The format flourishes there along with a man who may not be well-known outside music circles, but who has helped shape a multibillion-dollar industry built for youths and their parents.
In a town famous for vast entertainment worlds, this one belongs in a big way to Johnny Wright.
Just beyond the driveway, on a lot large enough for a half-dozen homes, a huge two-story structure rises next to an immaculately restored house. It overlooks a lake and endless possibilities.
Outside, the amenities include a full basketball court, beach volleyball area, putting green, luxury pool and spa, and personal watercraft. Inside are three recording studios, a choreography room, a movie theater with sofa seating, state-of-the-art gym, video arcade games, pool tables -- even a slick bowling lane with computerized scoring.
This is the headquarters of Johnny Wright, arguably the most powerful manager in pop music today and past or present guru to the top pop acts going, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Britney Spears.
Wright, who stresses treating his acts and staff like family, designed the compound to give his performers a home away from home while they write and record new songs, rehearse for world tours or simply relax. Clients such as 'N Sync or Spears can't go to the movies or the mall without causing a riot, but they can come here.
On this steamy September evening, Wright is throwing a party at his mega-pad. There's only one hitch -- he's stuck at an airport in New York.
It is the day after the MTV Video Music Awards in New York City, where 'N Sync and Spears have made their presence known. 'N Sync has nabbed three honors with its smash album No Strings Attached, and Spears has served notice that she has turned 18 -- ripping away her pseudo stage suit to reveal a skin-tight, flesh-toned outfit.
While a cavalcade of video stars jets out of the Big Apple the next day, Wright does what comes naturally to him: stays busy. After meeting with record companies that handle his 11 acts -- which include such names as Blaque, Wild Orchid, Boyz N Girlz United and Tampa's PYT -- he arrives at the airport too late for his 5 p.m. flight. There goes any chance of making his soiree in time.
Back in Orlando, guests are piling in for the bash, catered by chefs and servers from Planet Hollywood. In an upstairs office, Wright's assistant, Theresa Page, re-books her boss on a 9:20 p.m. flight.
"I literally have booked Johnny from Orlando to L.A. to a meeting, to New York, and back to Orlando -- all in a day," she says with a smile. "I don't see how he does it. He's never tired. That's the thing that amazes me."
Whatever the demands on his time, according to friends, family and colleagues, Wright has remained the same steady, easy-going and innovative force as always. He is regarded as one of the true nice guys of the business, a showman with a natural gift for tweaking a tune or dance move, a perpetual problem-solver in a constellation of clashing star egos. He turned 40 in August but still has a baby face and the lean look of an athlete, favoring jogging attire and a ball cap over business suits.
"He's almost Zenlike in his approach to the business and to controversy, conflict and confrontation, which is a constant when you do what he does, on the level he does it," says Epic Records executive David McPherson, the man who signed the Backstreet Boys to their first deal with Jive Records. "He's the consummate professional. And I'll tell you -- the amount of information that guy is able to retain in his head is unbelievable, especially when it comes to putting together a tour. He could route a tour off the top of his head, and do it thoroughly. He's an incredible talent."
How does McPherson rate Wright's contribution to the scene? "Huge," he says. "Johnny was there with me from the very beginning with (Backstreet founder and financier) Lou Pearlman and Jive Records. And as far as I'm concerned, the Backstreet Boys set a tone for a whole new generation of music we now know as teen pop."
It's almost as if Wright were practicing for his part in the show all along.
Even as a kid, he showed a knack for combining business savvy and a passion for music.
He would play his R&B records for hours in the basement of his family home in Hyannis, on Cape Cod, pretending to be a deejay. His parents -- Dee, then a church organist and choir director, and Wesley, a bank employee -- never made him turn the music down, simply shutting the door instead. But they did make him work for the things he wanted.
"My father told me when I was 13, "I'm going to buy you what I think you need; if you want the things you want, get a job,"' Wright recalls. "So, at 13, I got a job at a restaurant washing dishes."
He and a co-worker formed a band, but Wright quickly learned that deejaying at parties paid better, so he started his own business. In high school, he earned credit working at a radio station. He was constantly on the go, booking bands for school dances, juggling three jobs, doing charity work -- like roller-skating from Hyannis to Jacksonville to raise money for multiple sclerosis research.
"He was always such a popular kid who just loved music -- the same as you see him now," says Dee, who now lives with her husband in an Orlando dream house their son bought for them. "He was just a gifted child, and God really blessed him."
In his high school yearbook, Wright wrote that he wanted to run his own production company one day. He started toward that goal after high school, when he got a gig hosting a two-hour disco segment on radio. Wright missed a chance to hit it big at 19. R&B singer Maurice Starr, grateful that Wright was spinning his records, offered the young deejay a chance to invest $1,500 in a national talent show designed to find a major new act. Wright didn't have the cash and kicked himself when Starr's event produced the heralded New Edition with Bobby Brown.
But several years later, Wright received another call from Starr. New Edition had decided to leave its founder, and he was starting a new group, made up of five white teenage singers. He asked if Wright could serve as road manager for a brief Northeast tour. Wright wasn't going to make the same mistake twice.
"So there I was in a Winnebago, driving these kids around for three days," he says. "Somehow, three days turned out being 41/2 years, and the group was New Kids on the Block."
Wright learned the business inside and out as road manager for the act, a precursor of the Backstreet Boys. He soaked up everything he could from Starr and New Kids manager Dick Scott, who had been Motown founder Berry Gordy's right-hand man and a road manager of the Supremes. "I'd get up early every morning on the road and meet him for breakfast," Wright says. "Hearing him talk about the history of Motown was a great education for me."
It put him in position for the next step -- a move to Orlando at the forefront of the teen pop explosion.
Traveling with New Kids, Wright and the group often passed through Orlando. He liked the warm winter weather far more than the snow and freezing temperatures of New England. Soon after New Kids broke up, Wright and his wife, Donna, relocated in 1992 to Orlando, hoping to make a new start.
Wright was managing a group called Snap at the time and kept hearing about this new group of young kids called the Backstreet Boys. "My attitude at that point was, "Been there, done that,"' Wright says.
Still, his wife met with the person who had put the group together, Lou Pearlman. He had made a fortune in the airline charter business before seeing the potential of a new youth market generated by New Kids. Pearlman had the deep pockets to make things happen. But he needed somebody with the experience and vision to forge Backstreet into a commercially viable act.
"Lou found out that Donna and I were married, so he invited me to come meet the group at a restaurant," he says. "They sang a capella for me. I looked at 'em and said to Lou, "All right, if there's no money out of my pocket, and you're willing to do what we say, I've got nothing to lose."'
And much to gain. Wright signed on as manager of the unproven teen act, guaranteed a percentage of the profits if there were any. The pop scene was still dominated by the darker, edgier sounds of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and gangsta rap. But he knew that New Kids had hit big in the era of Motley Crue, tattoos and drugs, and he sensed that parents were crying out for a change in what their children listened to.
Pearlman provided the cash, and Wright did the rest. Guided by the New Kids experience, he made a pivotal move: took the Backstreet Boys to Europe to develop their act and create a strong buzz before launching them in the U.S.
"In '93, if groups sold a few records in Europe, so be it," says McPherson, the Epic executive who had signed Backstreet with Jive Records. "But Johnny was ahead of his time on this, and it benefitted not only the Backstreet Boys but everything else that followed."
While overseas with the Backstreet Boys in '95, Wright heard rumblings of a new boy band in Orlando and suggested to Pearlman that they sign the group. Some six weeks later, following Wright's European strategy, the rookie act named 'N Sync had the No. 1 song in Germany and was on its way.
Then came trouble. In 1997, now well-entrenched at the top, the Backstreet Boys met in Canada with Wright and told him he would have to make changes:
"They wanted me to cut my commission in half. I had no problem with that. But they also wanted me to get rid of my other partners -- Donna and Lou. They wanted me to spend more time with them on the road, and the biggest thing was they wanted me to drop 'N Sync. None of those were things I could do."
So Wright said no to his act, and one week later, he got a letter from the group's attorney firing him. Wright walked away from untold millions in his split with Backstreet, one year away from their record-smashing Millennium album. He cast his lot with unproven 'N Sync. But in 1998, the act, propelled by its debut album and a Disney special (which Backstreet passed on) achieved parallel status to the Boys'.
"I don't care if 'N Sync never would have had the success they did," he says. "I enjoyed being with them. That's what it was all about. We just got blessed to be where we are right now."
Today, his life could hardly be better.
He has gotten past the difficult breakup of his marriage to Donna Wright, a relationship damaged, he says, by the strain of the Backstreet mess and the co-managing that consumed their life. This year, he became engaged to 1996 Miss America first runner-up Erika Schwarz, a New Orleans lawyer who met him while interviewing 'N Sync for a TV show.
In August, Schwarz threw Wright a surprise party attended by 250 guests, including all his acts. One Backstreet Boy (Howie Dorough) showed up, and another (A.J. McLean) sent a video greeting -- a sign the relationship has been patched up.
Wright no longer works with Pearlman, who made his latest mark with the boy group O-Town in the ABC-TV series Making The Band. Wright says he doesn't rule out rejoining forces with Pearlman "if the right thing came along."
Wright is pleased that color barriers have been torn down by today's pop, with white suburban kids buying albums by Dr. Dre or TLC or Blaque.
He has launched several multicultural groups, Boyz N Girlz United and Out of Blue, on his own label, Wire International Records and Entertainment. The irony: In the '60s and '70s, R&B groups were often black and the managers white. He is the African-American manager of R&B-tinged acts that are white.
"You know, I really don't look at myself as a color," he says. "I didn't think about it until somebody brought it up to me. Still, that did make me question some things that have happened. Like, I could be standing against a wall on the way to the dressing room with two guys who are white. And somebody will walk by asking for Britney's manager. They'll walk right by me -- and go up to one of the guys I'm with. And one of them will say, "No, that's him right there.' And the person will say, "Ohhh, you're Johnny Wright.' It's happened."
Wright says he spends little time thinking about such incidents, preferring instead to focus on business. He senses that MTV may be shifting back toward an emphasis on rock but is convinced teen pop will survive with the help of the Disney Channel, Radio Disney, Nickelodeon and the Internet. That's one reason he is turning his compound into a self-contained record production site and building an Internet radio station there next year to do live international broadcasts.
"So if you're in Germany, you can go on your computer and see Justin (Timberlake of 'N Sync) and request a song, and even talk to him live, one on one," Wright says. "I guess you could say I'm going back to my radio roots."
His party has been over for hours when Wright finally makes it back to town from the MTV awards. He lands after midnight, gets some sleep at his home near the compound and arrives at the arena around 4:30 p.m. for Spears' concert in downtown Orlando.
In 1998, after Spears landed a deal with Jive Records, her attorney asked Wright if he would consider taking her on tour with 'N Sync. He didn't hesitate.
"I knew her song (Baby One More Time) was going to be a monster, and there was no dominating female at that point," he says. "The market was ripe."
Spears' huge impact has been accompanied by frequent criticism of her often provocative attire -- such as her MTV awards get-up.
"I will say, I'm more used to dealing with guys than girls when it comes to fashion," he says. "I can go to 'N Sync and say, "Guys, that looks tacky, why don't you change that?' But with Brit, it's kind of hands off. When she comes up with some of these wild costumes, I have faith in her, and I don't want to dictate something to her that she might not like."
Inside the arena, Wright is a man in constant motion. He hugs friends, meets with colleagues and a Fox production crew, huddles with Spears on stage during her sound check, escorts her around the arena to greet young, awestruck fans. Just before she takes the stage at 9, Wright takes his place with engineers at the sound board, joined by his fiancee. Young girls recognize him and shout his name. He smiles and signs autographs. Then the lights go down. Moments later, in an explosion of pyrotechnics, Spears appears on stage, and the thousands of teens let loose ear-piercing screams.
It's one more night in the teen-pop universe, and the world is all Wright.