‘An amazing talent.’ Miami soul icon Betty Wright dies at 66
Betty Wright, a Miami soul icon who inspired a generation of R&B singers and worked with everyone from Gloria Estefan to Stevie Wonder, died Sunday at home in Miami.
Wright was 66 and had been battling a form of blood cancer, said her friend Joyce Moore from the Coral Gables home she shares with her husband, Overtown-born Sam Moore, who, as one-half of R&B duo Sam & Dave in the 1960s, recorded classics like “Soul Man.”
“We were just friends because of her relationship with Sam, which went back basically to when she was born and she was a small child and she started singing with her family on the street corners [in Miami,]” said Moore.
“He would occasionally get on the orange crate or a soda pop crate and if she saw her ‘Uncle Bubba,’ which is what she called Sam, she said to him, and we laugh about it to this day, ‘When I get grown I want to sing just like you Uncle Bubba.’ She gave me the title of being her Auntie Bubba.”
Singing the gospel
Wright was planning to record a duet for a gospel album Moore, 84, is recording with producer Rudy Perez in Miami. But the COVID-19 pandemic put the sessions on hold, Moore said.
Wright learned quickly from mentors like her “Uncle Bubba.”
Born Bessie Regina Norris in Miami on Dec. 21, 1953, Wright was the youngest of seven children and is said to have started singing with her siblings when she was only 2.
After singing on gospel music albums with her family in the 1960s, Wright would release her signature hit, “Clean Up Woman,” in November 1971.
Wright was also a known mentor and vocal coach for younger artists. In 1985, her passion for paving the way for women in the music industry led her to found her own record label, Ms. B Records. Her songs have been sampled by singers like Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige and Chance the Rapper.
Hitting big with ‘Clean Up Woman’
She was only 17 and had already released her debut solo album, “My First Time Around,” when she was 14, a few years before “Clean Up Woman” became a smash.
The song, written for her by Miami songwriter Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke, turned into a million-selling Top 5 single on both the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart and R&B singles chart.
Wright, a leading talent in the TK Records label and distribution company run by Henry Stone out of Miami, helped develop TK’s other artists like a fledgling Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch, who would go on to score five No. 1 singles from 1975 to 1980 as KC & the Sunshine Band.
She also helped get husband and wife George and Gwen McRae signed to a Miami-based label imprint and guided their careers when she was still in high school. Both would go on to score made-in-Miami hits, “Rock Your Baby” and “Rockin’ Chair,” respectively, homegrown in Miami recording studios.
The TK artists became a musical family. Casey and Finch wrote George McRae’s No. 1 hit, “Rock Your Baby,” in 1974. The rhythmic, percolating tune was a precursor to the disco sound that would soon sweep the nation.
The TK family
Wright was indispensable in the studios for not only her voice but for her arranging talents and camaraderie.
“I am shocked to hear of Betty’s passing,” Casey said. “I had heard a week ago that something was going on but had no idea it would lead to this.
“In the beginning of my career Betty would let me do a couple of songs before she came on,” Casey said. “Eventually, I would end up handling her travel and bookings. Co-writing songs with Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke, doing backgrounds and playing some keyboards here and there. Then I wrote ‘Where Is the Love’ for her, which earned a Grammy Award for best R&B song of 1975. I had a lot of wonderful moments with Betty. We were like family. She will be truly missed.”
“She was an amazing talent,” said Joe Stone, son of the late Henry Stone.
“I knew her since I was a little boy and she would cornrow my hair at the TK Studios and, man, I remember that cornrows on a little blonde boy hurt like heck!” Stone said. “She was super sweet with me and I love to hear her sing. Wow, what a voice. My dad used to tell me what an incredible talent she was, and Henry was not one to hand out compliments like that often.”
A soulful voice
Wright’s legacy extends well beyond the music industry.
On his Facebook page, Teddy Harrell Jr., assistant director of Miami’s African Heritage Culture Center, said: “Being a native of Miami, and fan of the sensational music artists to emerge from our neighborhoods and communities, the ‘Clean Up Woman’ Betty Wright stands as one of the GREATEST R&B artists to represent our region. Her powerfully soulful voice that also possessed the use of a whistle register that beautifully propelled chart topping hit songs such as ‘No Pain, No Gain’ and ‘After the Pain.’
“I am blessed to have lived in a time that those songs were playing on the radio, in the clubs and trying, as a little boy, to sing along to her unforgettable, hit song, ‘Clean Up Woman’ which played in rotation on black Miami airwaves,” Harrell wrote.
Wright would go on to arrange the backing vocals for Gloria Estefan’s 1991 No. 1 single, “Coming Out of the Dark,” and she sang background vocals on Stevie Wonder’s 1980 album, “Hotter Than July,” and on Jennifer Lopez’s 1999 debut album, “On the 6.”
Wright was so versatile, she even sang a duet with shock rocker Alice Cooper on the song, “No Tricks,” in 1978, around the time she discovered and sang with pop/disco singer Peter Brown on his hit, “Dance With Me.”
Many of the singers and musicians with whom Wright collaborated paid tribute to her on social media on Mother’s Day.
I am so sorry to hear of the passing of Betty Wright, yet another bright star from our galaxy of performers. I knew her to be a talented artist and a lovely person. My heartfelt condolences to her family, friends and fans. May she Rest In Peace. ️ pic.twitter.com/NtOmUmkE1D
— Gloria Gaynor (@gloriagaynor) May 10, 2020
Wright’s survivors include her children Aisha, Patrice, Chaka, and Asher. She was predeceased by her son Patrick. Services information is unavailable.