R.I.P. Betty Wright
The world has a little less soul today: Betty Wright, who belted out “Clean Up Woman” and other classic R&B hits, succumbed to cancer yesterday at the age of 66.
“The Warner Music family is deeply saddened to hear the news of Betty Wright’s passing,” said Kevin Gore, President of Global Catalog, Warner Music Group. “Her powerful voice was undeniable from a very young age, as Wright released her ATCO/Atlantic debut album, 1968’s MY FIRST TIME AROUND, when she was just 14, featuring her first hit, ‘Girls Can’t Do What The Guys Do.’ The following years would see more successful albums and hit singles for Wright, including the classics ‘Clean Up Woman’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night.’ Her lasting impact and influence on R&B, soul, and funk is undeniable. She spent recent years serving as a mentor to young, up-and-coming vocalists, while continuing to see her music regularly sampled by modern hip-hop and R&B artists.”
Born Bessie Regina Norris on December 21, 1953 in Miami, Florida, Wright actually started her career at the age of two, believe or not, as a result of her siblings – she had six of ‘em, and she was the youngest – starting a gospel group called the Echoes of Joy. When the group called it quits in 1965, 11-year-old Betty turned from gospel to R&B and scored her first record deal as a solo artist the following year, releasing two locally-successful singles: “Thank You Baby” and “Paralyzed.” But Betty had a gift for hearing other people’s talent, too, and she helped discover George and Gwen McRae.
Betty’s commercial heyday took place during the ‘70s, thanks to the aforementioned “Clean Up Woman” as well as follow-up singles like “Baby Sitter,” “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” “Where Is the Love,” “Shoorah! Shoorah!” and “Pure Love.” She also found herself singing on a Stephen Stills album, duetting with Alice Cooper, and opening for Bob Marley. If the ‘80s weren’t as commercially gratifying, you couldn’t tell from the music, which was still top of the line, as were her collaborators, which included Stevie Wonder, Peter Tosh, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, and Jimmy Cliff. Plus, she made history in 1988 with her LP MOTHER WIT, becoming the first black female artist to score a gold album on her own label.
Wright made the TV rounds many times during the course of her career, making appearances on The Helen Reddy Show, Top of the Pops, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, American Bandstand, Soul Train, and – more recently – The Mo’Nique Show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Jools Holland’s Annual Hootenanny in 2012.
One of the most unique TV appearances Wright made during the course of her career came in 2012, when she unexpectedly popped up in an episode of the STARZ drama Magic City as a singer in a Miami nightclub. Rhino reached out to series creator Mitch Glazer to ask him for a little insight into how Wright found her way onto the program, and he was happy to oblige with a few reminiscences via email.
“I adored Betty! And getting her to sing in our Magic City Liberty City nightclub circa 1959 was one of the joys of life for me. I was born and raised in Miami and, as Betty and I were the same age, became aware of her greatness when she was a teen. I later interviewed Betty for a Crawdaddy Magazine piece on TK Records in 1976 and was told the story of Betty's discovery at 12, singing in an Overtown Record store, by the very man who discovered her — the great Clarence ‘Blowfly’ Reid!
“When I started writing the second season of Magic City, I always knew I had to have Betty, the Queen of Miami Soul, on camera, singing from the very Overtown nightclub (The Knight Beat Club in the Sir John Hotel) that Betty's brothers used to sing in when she was a little girl. It was just too perfect. I asked and to my eternal delight, Betty said, ‘Sure.’ My old pal Danny ‘Kootch’ Kortchmar (James Taylor, Don Henley, Jackson Browne) suggested the old Ike and Tina Turner song ‘I Idolize You,’ which Betty loved, and I had my dear friend Steve Jordan, who I met through John Belushi on SNL and have known and loved since the Blues Brothers band, to fly down from NYC and produce and record the track. We went to a Miami home studio Betty dug, and she had her daughters singing back-up, her husband on bass, and a great Miami band. Oh man, she crushed the song. That day, watching Betty cut that tune, was goose-pimples, Miami magic for me. Days later we shot the nightclub scene, and like all of Magic City, it was a perfect time machine. Betty and her daughters were dressed in beautiful period finery and brought 1959 Overtown R&B back to glorious musical life.
“Betty was a proud, beautiful stunning artist with a warm sense of humor, a wicked laugh and a huge heart. I feel so blessed to have worked with and known her.”
We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention that one of the reasons in particular that Wright was making the talk-show rounds in the early 2010s is that she teamed up with The Roots to release the 2011 album BETTY WRIGHT: THE MOVIE , which included collaborations with Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, Joss Stone, and Lenny Williams. The LP earned Wright a Grammy nod for Best Traditional R&B Performance for the song “Surrender,” and it was more than warranted, because it’s arguably one of the most underrated R&B albums of the decade. In fact, if there’s any close competition, it’s probably with the album she released in 2014, LIVING LOVE LIES.
Upon the announcement of her passing, Rev. Al Sharpton called Wright “one of the mothers of funk and modern soul music,” proclaimed that she had provided “the soundtrack for an entire generation of black women who identified with her phenomenal voice and relatable songwriting, and then closed by reminding everyone that “she had swagger.” Boy, did she. To honor Betty, we’ve put together a playlist which contains 66 songs worth of her work as both a solo performer and as a backing vocalist, and while we know you won’t be able to sit still while you’re listening, we hope you can still concentrate enough to walk away – or dance away – having learn a little more about her as an artist, a songwriter, and an R&B legend. And with that said, we’ll let Kevin Gore have the last word: “Warner is honored to have been part of her legendary career, and we are sending our deepest love and gratitude to her family, friends, and dedicated fans across the globe. Rest in peace, Betty.”