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Meet Big Jim Wright, the musical mastermind behind Mariah Carey’s hit Vegas show

Last updated: August 18, 2016 at 11:58 am. Posted by in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas Shows. 7 Comments on Meet Big Jim Wright, the musical mastermind behind Mariah Carey’s hit Vegas show.

Mariah Carey Las Vegas Show at Caesars Palace

There’s no doubt about it—Mariah Carey’s resident Las Vegas show at Caesars Palace, “Mariah #1 to Infinity,” is a certified hit. The Los Angeles Times wrote that Carey is “right at home” in Vegas, with her show offering “plenty of knockout moments.” The glitzy, career-spanning production—which returns to The Colosseum on Feb. 2—is a showcase for Mimi’s stratosphere-shattering vocals (and glittering wardrobe), but she’s not alone on stage. “Mariah #1 to Infinity” features a slamming live band backing up the five-time Grammy Award-winning singer. And the leader of that band is Carey’s longtime collaborator and music industry veteran James “Big Jim” Wright.

Wright not only serves as bandleader and music director for “Mariah #1 to Infinity,” but he’s also worked as a producer and arranger on a number of Carey’s albums. The multi-talented musician has written, produced or played on albums from dozens of pop music’s top artists, including Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Carey’s fellow headliner at The Colosseum, Celine Dion. We recently talked with Wright—who lately has been dabbling in television production—to talk about his career, his collaborative relationship with Carey, and just what exactly a music director does on a show like “Mariah #1 to Infinity.”

Growing up in suburban Chicago, Wright was surrounded by music from a young age. His family exposed him to funk, R&B and blues music, but it was in the church where he moved from music lover to music maker. He sang in the church choir as a young child, and then started exploring different instruments, eventually playing in various symphonic and jazz bands throughout junior and senior high school. Wright says he was “just music crazy.”

What was your first exposure to the professional music industry?

There was an R&B artist from the ‘70s named D.J. Rogers who had left R&B and went into the ministry, and I started working with him. I was also working with a pastor who was really connected in gospel music. He took me around a lot of professional gospel acts, so I was around that music and was really inquisitive about how the business worked. And then, also, Ann Nesby—a superstar singer and songwriter in her own right—I was accompanying her at a young age. She and I made a pact that whichever one of us made it first would bring the other one into the game. Ann Nesby got with [legendary Minneapolis music producers] Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and she told Jam and Lewis about me, and she brought me to Minneapolis and I met Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and from there the rest was somewhat history.

How did you move toward specializing in music production and session playing?

I was always into production, because just looking back, my organ teacher at my church, he was into Maurice White [of Earth, Wind & Fire] and Quincy Jones—he was a big fan of their production. After rehearsal, I’d be sitting in his car and he’d be schooling me on these recordings. That was being instilled in me at a young age. And so at the top of the ‘80s, when Jam and Lewis made the behind-the-scenes producer become the hip thing—you know, Jam and Lewis were in the videos with Janet Jackson and they were producing records. I had the opportunity to actually be in the same room with them and somewhat had carte blanche because of Ann Nesby. I was told I could just come to the studio anytime I want and I could just walk in the door and just be here. I was like, “great,” so I would just come into the studio, and I would sit in the kitchen, just watch television and have a Snickers bar. And then Jimmy Jam may walk out of his studio and say “Hey, Big Jim, you out here, man? Get in here, come in here and do this, man.” I’d come in, and he’d be working on Janet Jackson or something and have me play some keyboards or something on that. Same with Terry, “Hey man, come in here and let’s work this idea up.” And that’s how it started.

Mariah Carey Las Vegas Show at Caesars Palace

You’ve worked with some of the biggest talents in pop music—from Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson to Beyoncé and Usher—but your work with Mariah comprises a huge chunk of your resume, and on Twitter, you once wrote, “She’s like a little sister to me; I’ll always be there for her.”  What makes “The Boss,” as you call her, so special?

I think over the years, I’ve just fallen in love with Mariah Carey. We’ve developed a brother-sister relationship. There’s a mutual respect for each other, and I care about that woman like I do my own flesh and blood. We found a connection with each other musically—we just get it. She’s somewhat of a musicologist, like I am, and I think we recognize that in each other.

What’s the songwriting process like with Mariah? How does she choose who to work with when it comes time to record?

Mariah stays current with who’s hot on the scene, [but] with certain music producers like Jermaine Dupri and myself, she remains loyal to and has had success with, so she sees that it’s not broke, so no need to fix it.

Mariah sings into her phone whenever she has a melody. She’s always writing. Or she’ll go in and just record the idea so she can log it. And then she’ll refer to it when it comes time to work on an album or if she gets in the mood and wants to go into the studio and start recording, and then at that point we’ll start developing those ideas.

Me, I’m pretty much a walking computer with music. My memory with ideas we just do in the spur of the moment. My philosophy is if I remember it, it’s going to be a hit.

A lot of people probably have no idea what a music director does. Can you explain your role in “Mariah #1 to Infinity?”

I guess for regular music directors, they deal with the repertoire that’s going to be performed, but because of my music producer background, I incorporate a lot of that into my music direction. Because I’ve actually produced records for this artist in the studio, I kind of have a sense of where she’s coming from live in the performance, and I know how we’ve enhanced her in the studio, so I’ve tried to take that experience from producing music with her in the studio and I direct it live on stage. I think that’s what makes Mariah’s show a little different from a lot of performers. Because a lot of music directors are not music producers. But the regular role of a music director is gathering that repertoire, putting the band together, and then kind of the point person with the other components of the production, and seeing to it that all the music glues together with all of the other elements of the production.

All those No. 1 hits we’re performing? Those were written by Mariah Carey. That’s why when she performs them, her execution of them is so heartfelt, because that’s where they originated from: her heart.

The backing band for “Mariah #1 to Infinity” is solid—Daniel Moore and Derrieux Edgecombe on keyboards, Josh Baker on drums, Tim Stewart on guitar, Lance Tolbert on bass, plus Trey Lorenz, Maryann Tatum and Takeytha Johnson on backing vocals. Did you put the group together specifically for this show?

I put the band together. I did inherit the bass player from one of her previous tours, but the majority of the band I put together. I don’t micromanage, so the type of musicians I work with, I like for them to have a music production background as well. I hired guys like that who know how to work in the studio, because they know how to implement different textures to complement the performances. A lot of musicians don’t have a concept when it comes to playing as a unit, so the music director generally has to say, “You do this, you do this and you do this.” When you work with musicians who are music producers, they get conceptually how their role should be on a particular part they’re playing, so it sounds like a recording you would use in a music studio. That’s my approach.

Given all the big set pieces and moving parts in “Mariah #1 to Infinity,” how much room for improvisation or spontaneity is there on stage, if any?

One thing Mariah requests is that her fans recognize her material. I dare say that working with me, she’s giving me a little more leeway, just because she knows and respects my creativity, and she knows anything I do outside of her recording is going to complement her material. On any given night, especially in between songs, when you hear her and I going back and forth, trading riffs, that’s really spontaneous. Because when she’s up talking, she may talk her dialog or she may begin to sing her dialog, but it’s really she and I writing a song, like we do in the studio. That’s how we’ve created all these years—sitting at the piano, going back and forth, trading melodies, coming up with a chord progression.

Every night is different. There might be one night where we come up on a combination of chords and she just kind of riffs in, humming some notes, and she’ll say “Big Jim, I like that, remember that,” and in the future, you may hear that as a song. It’s a very creative environment working with Mariah Carey, because she’s a brilliant songwriter, and I don’t know if people really know that. All those No. 1 hits we’re performing? Those were written by Mariah Carey. That’s why when she performs them, her execution of them is so heartfelt, because that’s where they originated from: her heart. Those songs started with her—aside from the cover songs, and even those she made her own—all those No. 1s she wrote herself, and it was in her musical spirit that this is what she’s feeling, and that’s her way of expressing it through music. That’s why those fans feel it, because what comes from the heart reaches the heart.

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About The Author

Pj Perez is a longtime Las Vegas resident and UNLV graduate who has been writing about his adopted hometown for a variety of travel guides, websites and magazines since the 1990s, which isn't possible, because he's not that old. When not jockeying behind a keyboard, he can be found with a bass guitar in one hand and a gin cocktail in the other.

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7 Responses

  1. Rocco Jweinat

    Loved this article! My dream is to be front row at Mariah’s #1toInfinity! If there is a contest I can try to win! Don’t forget about Mariah’s Number One Fan! #Lambily!!

  2. Ronald Ballard

    Being a lifetime friend of big jim we here in the Midwest from his hometown are very proud of him and personally glad to say he’s a great person and great friend!

  3. Tonya kegler

    Great article about Big Jim. I was wondering why there were no photos of Big Jim after all the story was to showcase him?

  4. Danny LeGuen

    I saw him at Mariah’s Christmas show at the Beacon Theater in NY. He’s mega talented and the best parts of the show are when they start improvising in different directions

  5. Bianca Befly

    I went to the show as a young admirer of Mariah, only knowing We Belong Together and her hits that followed. I came out a fan and I’ve been obsessed with her back catalogue ever since. Can’t wait for her and Big Jim to be back in Vegas.

  6. That’s awesome, Bianca. Thanks for sharing your story!

  7. We tried to get a photo of him, but he likes to stay behind-the-scenes! Glad we were able to at least shine a bit of a spotlight on this legend. Thanks for reading.