Johnny Wright, a country music pioneer who had hits as a singer in the duo Johnnie and Jack and guided the career of his wife, Kitty Wells, died early Tuesday. He was 97.
Close family friend Eddie Stubbs said Wright died of natural causes around 1 a.m. at his home. He had been in failing health for some time. Stubbs said that as a lifelong Nashville resident, Wright was a witness to most of country music's greatest moments.
Wright remembered WSM going on the air in 1925 and heard the first broadcast of Uncle Jimmy Thompson, an event that would evolve into the Grand Ole Opry. Later he started his own career and married Wells, the first woman to break through as a star in country music, in 1937.
"With the passing of Johnny Wright, it really brings an end to an era," said Stubbs, a WSM radio host who came to town as a fiddler for Wright and Wells. "He saw it all happen right in front of his very eyes, then got to become an active participant in the music, too."
His death was first reported by The Tennessean newspaper.
Wright came to fame as a member of the country duo Johnnie and Jack, which recorded hits such as "Ashes of Love," "I Get So Lonely," "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" and "Poison Love" in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Jack Anglin, who was married to Johnny Wright's sister, died in a car crash in 1963.
Wright changed the spelling of his name from Johnnie after it was misprinted on a record, then began a solo career with a No. 1 hit "Hello Vietnam," later featured in the 1987 movie "Full Metal Jacket."
Wells and Wright had three children: two daughters and a son, Bobby, who also was a singer and actor. He played the part of Willie, a Tennessee moonshiner, on the TV series "McHale's Navy."
Wells was known as "the queen of country music" after she became the first woman solo singer to have a No. 1 country record, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," in 1952. The couple's 74th anniversary would have been Oct. 30.
"He managed her career and put her career ahead of his own," Stubbs said. "Despite what you read in all these tabloids, Kitty Wells is still the queen of country music, and he managed her career, found all her songs. He guided her career. All the women of country music owe this debt of gratitude to Kitty Wells. Had it not been for Johnny Wright guiding her, there would not have been a Kitty Wells. He's an extremely important man. The billboard hits don't tell the story."
AP writer Joe Edwards in Nashville contributed to this report.