Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard "Rick" Wright wasn't the band's best-known member – his name recognition lagged far behind that of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters or David Gilmour.
But Wright, who died five years ago today at the age of 65, was one of the band’s most important contributors. One of Pink Floyd's founders, "his spacious, somber, enveloping keyboards, backing vocals and eerie effects were an essential part of (the band’s) musical identity," The New York Times noted in his obituary.
"He was an integral part of the band, but often underrated," music critic and editor Mark Blake said in an interview with Legacy.com. "He was the only formally trained musician in the group. I think this was a great strength, especially in the band's early years with vocalist/guitarist Syd Barrett. Wright brought a lot of melody and structure to their sound.”
Wright formed Pink Floyd in 1965 with drummer Nick Mason, bassist Waters, and Barrett on vocals. In those early days, "Wright was seen as second only to Barrett as the musical force in the group," according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. Rolling Stone magazine noted that "Wright's organ work (was) one of the trademarks of the band's 1967 debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn."
By 1968, the troubled Barrett was out of the band, and David Gilmour was in. Wright could have stepped into the spotlight. He didn't.
"He was overshadowed by Waters and Gilmour because he had a less forceful personality than those two," said Blake, whose books on Pink Floyd include Pigs Might Fly and Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd. "They were very much the alpha males in Pink Floyd. That wasn't Wright's character."
Pink Floyd’s late-1960s and early-1970s albums "mingled pop songs with extended pieces," the Times noted, "like the 23-minute ‘Echoes,’ which begins with single notes from Mr. Wright’s keyboard, on 1971’s Meddle."
In 1973, the band released The Dark Side of the Moon. One in four British households is said to own a copy of the album, which sold more than 23 million copies in the United States. Wright co-wrote much of the album, including "Us and Them" and "The Great Gig in the Sky." On the group's next highly successful album, Wish You Were Here, Wright co-wrote "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," a tribute to Barrett .
"Without 'Us and Them' and 'The Great Gig In The Sky,' what would The Dark Side Of The Moon have been?" Gilmour told The Telegraph after Wright's death. "Without his quiet touch the album Wish You Were Here would not quite have worked.”
And then came The Wall. As The Telegraph wrote, "Wright’s relationship with Waters had never been an easy one, and as Waters consolidated his hold over the group’s musical direction tensions rose to the surface. In 1979 Waters fired Wright and allowed him to play only as a sideman during live concerts for the album."
"He'd never had an easy relationship with Waters," Blake said. "I think that because he wasn't as forceful a personality, he gave in – and resigned."
Wright made three solo albums, none of which were big sellers. When Waters left Pink Floyd in 1985, Wright rejoined Gilmour and Mason, first as a studio musician and later as a full-fledged band member.
After a 24-year-break, the line-up of Waters, Wright, Gilmour and Mason performed one last time together during the Live 8 concert on July 2, 2005 in London.
But when talk of a full reunion surfaced, Wright quashed it.
"Everyone who loves Pink Floyd wants it to happen. But I don’t feel I need it, not musically and not personally," he said. "Maybe if Roger comes back as a different person – charming and nice, with really good ideas."
Wright stayed close with Gilmour, however. In 2006, he played keyboards and sang background on Gilmour's solo album On an Island, then joined Gilmour's band on the U.S. and European tours .
"I think this reminded fans of how important he was to Pink Floyd's sound," Blake said. "His voice worked very well with Gilmour's, and his keyboard playing was very subtle and understated, but absolutely integral to the sound of albums such as Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle and Wish You Were Here."
Gilmour's blog archives still contain the post he wrote the day he learned Wright had died. It's titled, "Richard" and reads in part, "I really don’t know what to say other than that he was such a lovely, gentle, genuine man and will be missed terribly by so many who loved him. And that’s a lot of people. Did he not get the loudest, longest round of applause at the end of every show in 2006?”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."