R.I.P. Betty Wright

Music News
Janice Headley
At the 2017 Jazz in the Gardens Music Festival in Miami Gardens, Florida // photo by Mychal Watts/Getty Images

Grammy Award-winning soul singer and songwriter Betty Wright died in her Miami home at the age of 66 yesterday, Sunday, May 10th. The influential artist had been diagnosed with endometrial cancer last fall, confirms Steve Greenberg of S-Curve Records to The New York Times. Greenberg, who had worked with Wright over the years, called her "one of the most significant women in the history of R&B music, period."

"She and I worked together on so many projects, ranging from Joss Stone to Tom Jones to the O’Jays, to her own album, Betty Wright & the Roots," he told Billboard. "She was a triple threat as an artist, writer and producer and she always got something extra special out of the singers she was producing. Her mere presence brought a studio to life and she had the gift of making everyone feel confident in their ability to create something magical."

Wright was born in Miami in 1953 as the youngest of seven children. Her siblings formed the gospel group Echoes of Joy, and Wright made her musical debut at the age of two, appearing on their debut album. She stayed with the group until she was 11-years-old, when she branched out to a solo career, signing at age 12 with Deep City Records. She released her first full-length album, My First Time Around, when she was 14, with hit singles "Girls Can't Do What Guys Can Do" (later sampled by Beyoncé in "Upgrade U") and "Pure Love."

At 17-years-old, Wright wrote and released what would become known as her "signature" song, the 1971 hit single "Clean Up Woman." The song made it to number six on the Billboard singles charts, and was later sampled by Chance the Rapper, Mary J. Blige, and Afrika Bambaataa. Her 1975 single "Where Is the Love" was co-written with K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and won her a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.  

In 1988, Wright launched her independent record label Ms.B Records, and when her 1987 album Mother Wit went gold, she became the very first black female artist to score a gold album on her own label. Throughout the '90s, she continued to release solo albums, while also producing music for artists like Tom Jones and Joss Stone, which earned her a 2005 Grammy Award nomination in the Best Pop Album category. She appeared on the ABC/MTV show Making the Band in 2006 as a vocal coach. And in 2011, she collaborated with The Roots on the album Betty Wright: The Movie, which featured guest appearances from Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne. The track "Surrender" landed her yet another Grammy Award nomination in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category.

Her many accomplishments and her desire to mentor younger artists made Wright a huge musical influence. Ledisi wrote on Twitter, "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." Wyclef Jean wrote, "Betty Wright undoubtedly changed the lives of so many with her undeniable talent and charm. Gone too soon, her soul will continue to inspire and live on in song." Questlove wrote this long, loving tribute on Instagram:

"It’s not enough to dub her the First Lady of Henry Stone’s Miami empire. In working on her last album I slowly realized you can’t even be an artist in Miami without runnin into her. And if you run into her? Make room cause she is gonna wind up on your album (if youre really not careful you will wind up on HER record lol) Her powerhouse singing abilities haven’t been praised enough (that Mariah whistle high octave sound? Betty was flaunting that skill LONG ago). Her down to earth sista girl persona was FAR from the posh Motown charm school of the day. Wright hit jackpot in singing “grown folk” topics that her contemporaries weren’t able to sing and capitalize on. I mean at 17 her much sampled “Clean Up Woman” & her legendary singles “Baby Sitter” “Girls Can’t Do What The Guys Do” “Secretary” “Slip & Do it” pushed the envelope FAR & still found an audience—-that was not an easy feat for black women in the 70s writing & singing songs with the freedom that men could flaunt and not have to be looked down upon or judged—-Millie Jackson paid a price for that realness. Marlena Shaw paid a price. Linda Clifford paid a price. Betty Davis wasn’t even granted the freedom to step to the counter to pay that price!! So it was a slippery slope talking about your first time or being the other woman or callin the shots in the relationship. Not to mention being her own label—-I learned so much about her career while working with her—I had no clue in the early 80s she owned and operated Ms B records (she went gold w 87s Classic “No Pain No Gain” 1st black woman to hit that feat as label ceo. and occasionally RAPPED!—-she never let anything hold her back or limit her. That was her spirit. She KNEW who she was and carried herself as a royal. Her most hilarious story was Stevie Wonder calling an impromptu 1am background singing session w Walter & Eddie of the Ojays, Michael Jackson & Betty for his remake of“All I Do” 🤯 —she was a staple at our jam sessions & brought the house down everytime. She will be missed. Rest In Melody Queen Wright."

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