On Sunday, May 10, we lost an R&B icon and pioneer in Betty Wright.
She sang songs from a woman’s perspective about situations in life and love.
Wright told the audience that “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” and to beware of the “Clean Up Woman.” At a young age, Wright’s voice led her down the highway to success as a singer. Her songs came from a real place and in turn, touched her fans in a personal way. Wright set the bar for many African American female vocalists that came after her and was a present-day inspiration for new artists.
She was born Bessie Regina Norris to Rosa Akins Braddy-Wright and McArthur Norris on December 21, 1953, in Miami, Florida. The youngest of seven, Wright performed in the family’s gospel singing group, Echoes of Joy from the age of two until she was 11-years-old.
Going now by Betty Wright, at the age of 12, Deep City Records noticed her at a local talent show in the Miami. At the age of 13, she was singing backup on other artist’s songs. At 14, Wright released her album “My First Time Around” with Atco Records, leading to her first hit single “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” which scored a spot on the Top 40.
It would be several years until her next hit “Clean Up Woman,” in 1971, which stayed at number six on the pop charts and number two on the R&B charts for eight weeks. “Clean Up Woman” is Wright’s signature song, and has often been sampled by other artists. She followed that success in 1972 with “Baby Sitter,” which reached the top 50 of the Hot 100 and peaked at number six on the R&B charts.
She would release albums throughout the decade, including “Danger High Voltage,” which featured three R&B hits including “Tonight Is the Night,” which was inspired by her first sexual experiences. The original version of the song peaked at number 28 on the R&B chart. In 1976, Wright won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song with “Where Is the Love.” In 1981, she did a collaboration with Stevie Wonder, “What Are You Gonna Do With It?”
In 1985, Wright created her own record label, Ms. B Records, in response to gender pay gap issues in the music industry. In 1987, she released the album, “Mother Wit,” under her label and made history becoming the first Black woman artist to earn a gold album on her own record label. The album was notable for hits “No Pain, No Gain,” which got on the top 20 R&B chart and “After the Pain.”
In the early 1990s, she hit high notes in her career with a duet with Grayson Hugh on a remake of Champaign’s 1981 hit “How ‘Bout Us” and arranged the harmonies for Gloria Estefan’s “Coming Out of the Dark.” She released more solo material into the 1990s including album “B-Attitudes,” which featured a remixed duet of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover.”
In addition to singing and songwriting, Wright continued worked as a mentor and vocal coach for numerous artists in addition to doing background vocals, vocal production, and engineering work on albums for artist including Erykah Badu, Regina Belle, David Byrne, Jennifer Lopez, Joss Stone, Angie Stone and Lil Wayne. She also worked on Diddy’s Press Play and appeared as a vocal coach on the Making the Band series. In 2011, she collaborated with the Roots on “Betty Wright: The Movie,” her first solo album in a decade.
Wright passed away on Sunday morning, after a battle with cancer.
Her niece added in a tribute on Twitter: “My auntie was a legend … she helped me get my first paychecks singing background … and I didn’t make it to see you this past week and that’s going to haunt me …. R.I.P. Betty Wright.”
Here are some of the posts from social media in reaction to the R&B singer’s passing:
“My friend, a sweetheart of a woman … A BEAUTIFUL Soul and human being #BettyWright … she embraced me in every part of my journey … she loved the Lord and his people. She has transitioned to Heavenly places. This is an example of the joy she brought us”—MC Hammer
“Some #songwriters write great songs, but the best write songs that help you tell your truth. #BettyWright was one of the best. #RIP Ms. Betty. Now you can say to the angels, “I know you’re not gonna sing THAT song!”—Siedah Garrett
“Thank you for being a master teacher, a friend and one of the greatest female soul singers in our industry. You were so much more than your music. We were blessed to be around royalty. Thank you. I will never forget.”—Ledisi
“#BETRemembers R&B Singer the legendary #BettyWright, may she Rest in Peace. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.”—BET
From an early age, Wright had a maturity and delivery that won over audiences all over. Together with her prominent whistle register and thought-provoking songs, she will always be remembered as one of the queens of R&B.