Music News

Happy Birthday, Betty Wright!

Bessie Regina Norris, better known to the world as Betty Wright, is a South Florida home girl, one who's gone from our local environs to international stardom. Born on December 21, 1953, she first started singing at the age of two, joining her siblings in a gospel group called the Echoes of Joy, with whom she stayed with the until their break-up in the mid '60s. That's when she switched directions, going from Gospel to R&B and subsequently scoring a pair of singles -- "Thank You Baby" and "Paralyzed" -- which brought her first real taste of homegrown fame.

By 1967, she had temporarily switched from singing to talent scout, signing George and Gwen McCrae to Alston Records, a label that fell under the umbrella of TK Records. TK was the brainchild of Henry Stone, a Miami music maven who would go on to build a sizeable recording empire in the '60s and '70s by riding the crest of the nascent disco/dance movement. KC & The Sunshine Band spearheaded TK's success, scoring several hits overseas before consolidating their following back home. TK also built a sizable roster around other distinctive R&B artists (George and Gwen McCrae, the Hues Corporation, Benny Latimore, Timmy Thomas, Jimmy "B" Horne) who would go on to score their own hits for the company and its various offshoots in the wake of KC's success.

Wright became one of Alston's mainstays when she scored her first hit at the age of 14 via the provocatively titled "Girls Can't Do What Guys Do," and then following it up with the song "Pure Love" two years later. However it was her tune "Clean Up Woman" that became her signature song at the still tender age of 17. The single climbed to number two on the R&B charts, residing there for nearly two months. It would go on to sell over a million copies and was certified gold nine days before Wright's 18th birthday. The song alludes to an unnamed "Clean Up Woman" forced to clean up the love other women leave behind when their men are dumped in the street. The extended album version found Wright referencing several well-known soul singers by singing short snatches of their better known songs and imitating their signature styles.

While she struggled to achieve that same degree of success, she did release several other singles that helped maintain her hold on the charts -- a self composition entitled "Baby Sitter," the track "Let Me Be Your Lovemaker" and "Where Is the Love," co-written by Wright with Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch, the two men who helmed KC & The Sunshine Band. The two songs brought her her biggest hit since "Clean Up Woman," earning her a Grammy nod in the process.

Wright would continue to see success throughout the '70s and into the early '80s, scoring the hit album Danger! High Voltage! in 1974 and another big single with the ballad, "Tonight Is the Night", which supposedly recounted Wright's first sexual experiences. She later went on to collaborate with another TK protégé, Peter Brown, perform a duet on the song "No Tricks" with Alice Cooper, and to open on tour for Bob Marley.

When TK closed its doors in the early '80s, she jumped to Epic Records where she released several more well-received albums that added to her performing pedigree. After forming her own label, Miss B Records, in 1985, she revisited the charts on several other occasions while maintaining a singular live stage presence for the duration of the decade. In 1991 however, Wright began an extended hiatus that kept her out of the public eye for the better part of ten years.

Her comeback began in 2001 with a compilation album, The Very Best of Betty Wright, and her first new studio album in recent memory, Fit for a King. She further affirmed her profile in 2006, when she made a guest appearance on the program "Making the Band" in the role of -- what else? -- a vocal coach. She also garnered another Grammy nomination in 2005 in the "Best Pop Album" category for producing Joss Stone's Mind, Body & Soul, a recording that directly referenced the early TK R&B style Wright proffered in the late '60s.

Other efforts followed -- a production credit for two tracks on Tom Jones's 2008 album 24 Hours, work on the debut album by newcomer Diane Birch in 2009, and another Grammy nomination for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance in 2010. Last month, she released her first new album in a decade, Betty Wright: The Movie, a collaboration with The Roots that also featured guest appearances from Joss Stone, Snoop Dogg, Lil' Wayne and Lenny Williams. A gritty, old-school soul album, it combines Wright's sultry vocals in tandem with the Roots' emphatic instrumental support. It was just announced that Wright was up for yet another Grammy in the best "Best Traditional R&B Performance" category, this time for a track from the album called "Surrender".

Al in all, it appears Miami's hometown heroine is back and better than ever. Because when it comes to accolades, the "Clean-Up Woman" lives up to her name.

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Lee Zimmerman