Profile: Betty Wright (1953-2020)

Bessie Regina Norris (December 21, 1953 – May 10, 2020), better known by her stage name Betty Wright, was an American soul and R&B singer, songwriter and background vocalist, who rose to fame in the 1970s with hits such as “Clean Up Woman” and “Tonight is the Night”. She was also prominent in regard to the use of whistle register.

EARLY LIFE AND CAREER

Born in Miami, Florida as Bessie Regina Norris on December 21, 1953, Wright was the youngest of seven children of Rosa Akins Braddy-Wright and her second husband, McArthur Norris. Wright began her professional career at the age of two when her siblings formed the gospel group, the Echoes of Joy. Wright contributed to vocals on the group’s first album, released in 1956. Wright and her siblings performed together until the mid-1960s.

In 1965, following the group’s break-up, 11-year-old Wright, who was already using the name Betty Wright, decided to switch musical styles from gospel to rhythm and blues, singing in local talent shows until being spotted by a local Miami record label owner, who signed her to her first label (Deep City Records) in 1966 at twelve. She released the singles, “Thank You Baby” and “Paralyzed”, which found Wright local fame in Miami.

In 1967, the teen was responsible for discovering other local talents such as George and Gwen McCrae, helping them sign with the Alston Records label, part of Henry Stone’s TK recording and distribution company. My First Time Around, her first album, was released when she was still 14. Her first hit single was “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do”. While still in high school in 1970, Wright released “Pure Love” at the age of sixteen.

BREAKTHROUGH

About a year later, Wright released her signature song, “Clean Up Woman”, written by Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke when she was 17. The record reached number two on the R&B charts, where it stayed for eight weeks. It crossed over to the pop charts, peaking at number six and staying on the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks. It eventually sold over a million copies and was certified gold on December 30, 1971, nine days after the singer turned 18. Wright struggled with a successful follow-up until 1972 when the single “Baby Sitter” (one of Wright’s first compositions) reached the top 50 of the Hot 100 and peaked at number six on the R&B charts. Another hit that emerged during this early period was 1973’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker”, which peaked at number 55 on the Hot 100 and number 10 on the R&B chart, it was also the first instance (after “Baby Sitter”) where Wright showed off her powerful whistle register vocals. Another successful composition was the proto-disco number, “Where Is the Love” (co-written by Wright, with producers, Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch, from KC & The Sunshine Band). This peaked at number 15 on the R&B chart, number-two on the dance charts and crossed over to the UK, peaking at #25, leading Wright to perform overseas. Wright later won the Best R&B Song Grammy Award for composing “Where Is the Love”.

A second prominent overseas hit was another proto-disco number, “Shoorah! Shoorah!”, issued on Alston and written by Allen Toussaint. Both songs appeared on one of Wright’s most popular albums, Danger! High Voltage!, released in late 1974. It would be on this album that Wright would have her most successful composition, with the smooth soul ballad, “Tonight Is the Night”, which Wright attributed to her first sexual experiences. The original version peaked at number 28 on the R&B chart. Four years later, Wright released a “live” version of the song. The remodeled version, which included a now-famous monologue and portions of Wright’s 1970 hit, “Pure Love”, peaked at number 11 on the R&B chart in 1978.

In 1977 Wright discovered musician Peter Brown and sang background on Brown’s hits, “You Should Do It” and “Dance With Me” (where her vocals were prominently featured alongside Brown’s) from the successful LP ‘A Fantasy Love Affair (Do you wanna get funky with me?)’. In 1978, she performed a duet with shock rocker Alice Cooper on the song “No Tricks” and a year later, opened for Bob Marley on the reggae star’s Survival Tour.

1980S AND 1990S

Wright’s other albums at the end of the 1970s were less successful and by 1981, as TK began to struggle, she moved on to a bigger label, signing with Epic where her self-titled album was released. The album was notable for the minor Stevie Wonder-composed hit, “What Are You Gonna Do With It”. That same year, she contributed vocals on Richard “Dimples” Fields’ Dimples album, especially on the hit, “She’s Got Papers on Me”. In 1983, she released the album Wright Back at You, which featured compositions by Marlon Jackson of the Jacksons. In 1985, Wright formed her own label, Miss B Records, issuing the album, Sevens the following year.

In 1988, Wright made history as the first black female artist to score a gold album on her own label, when her 1987 album, Mother Wit achieved that certification. The album was notable for the come-back hits “No Pain, No Gain,” which returned her to the top 20 on the R&B chart for the first time in a decade, and “After the Pain”.

2000S

In 2001, a compilation album, The Very Best of Betty Wright, was released, along with her first studio album for several years, Fit for a King. In 2008, Wright was featured on a Lil Wayne track titled “Playing With Fire” however, due to a lawsuit the song was removed from the album online.

In 2006, Wright appeared on the TV show Making the Band, appointed by Sean Combs as a vocal coach for new female group Danity Kane. She now mentors several young singers and has done vocal production for such artists as Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez and Joss Stone. Along with co-producers Steve Greenberg and Michael Mangini, Wright was nominated for a 2005 Grammy Award in the “Best Pop Album” category for producing Joss Stone’s album Mind Body & Soul.

Wright, Greenberg and Mangini also produced two tracks on Tom Jones’s 2008 album 24 Hours: a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Hitter” and “More Than Memories”, written by Stax legend Carla Thomas. The trio also produced the debut album by Diane Birch in 2009. In December 2010, Wright was given another Grammy Award nomination for the song, “Go”, on the Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance. In January 2011, it was announced that Wright would release her first album in ten years. The album Betty Wright: The Movie, credited to Betty Wright and the Roots, produced by Wright and Ahmir Questlove Thompson was released November 15, 2011 on Ms. B Records/S-Curve Records. Betty Wright: The Movie also included collaborations with Joss Stone, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne and Lenny Williams. “Surrender”, a track from the album, was nominated for a 2011 Grammy in the “Best Traditional R&B Performance” category. “Grapes on a Vine”, another track from the album, was sung by Lola at first at her official site.

On New Year’s Eve 2011, she appeared on the UK’s BBC Two television channel, on the Jools’s Annual Hootenanny show, backed by the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blue Orchestra. She performed her singles “Clean Up Woman” and “Shoorah! Shoorah!” alongside “In the Middle of the Game (Don’t Change the Play)” from Betty Wright: The Movie.

DEATH

Wright died on May 10, 2020 in Miami. A cause of death was not revealed.

LEGACY

Several of Wright’s works have been sampled over the years by hip hop, rock and R&B musicians. The riff from “Clean Up Woman” has been sampled by acts such as Afrika Bambaataa, SWV, Mary J. Blige, Sublime, Willie D, and Chance the Rapper. Wright’s first hit, “Girls Can’t Do What Guys Do”, was sampled for Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U”. In 1992, Wright sued the producers behind Color Me Badd’s breakthrough hit, “I Wanna Sex You Up”, after claiming they used the sample of her live version without clearance and without permission, and sued for royalties. Wright won her case, winning 35 percent of royalties for writing the song.

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