I didn’t know Betty Wright but I grew up feeling like I did. I remember hearing the song “Clean Up Woman” on a regular basis back in 1971 when Miami radio stations played the song almost ad nauseam. Who knew she was a teenager? She sure sang and talked like she was grown.
The lyrics didn’t really resonate with me because I was just a pre-teen, but the beat was engaging. When word spread that Wright was from Liberty City it made the beat seem even cooler. Liberty City back then for a boy from Opa-Locka was what was happening.
Wright, like practically every Black singer of that generation, came out of the Black church. She had sung gospel music in a Pentecostal church since she was three, even singing in a group organized by her mother. And it makes sense looking back on it.
Gospel music soothed, it comforted, and gave you an excuse to pat your feet. The only difference between it and soul music was with soul music, you could get up and dance to it and you didn’t have to go to church to appreciate it.
And instead of talking about a God which many of us could not really relate to—especially considering all the hell Black folks were catchin’ in the 1960s—the lyrics referenced real life. Tales of courtship, love, lovemaking, and everything in between, as evidenced by Wright’s first real hit single.
When Wright recorded her first song of note “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” I remember asking one of my classmates, ‘What’s that song talking about?’ He said, “Man, you know.” I had no idea. The song from her debut album “My First Time Around” debuted in 1968 and reached the top 40 in the U.S. Wright was 14 at the time.
When “Tonight is the Night” dropped in 1975, it was clear that Miami had yet another soul singer on its hands, the caliber of Sam and Dave who had been the best-known soul singers from Miami up to that point.
And soul music was the right expression because it reverberated with a rhythm, a sound, a beat, even a feeling that came from someplace deep in the Black experience. Soul was an apt name for it.
But Wright took soul to another level; she was first of what became known as the Miami sound. Yes indeed, in those high heady days of the early 1970s, Miami had its own sound. Wright described it best in an interview with Billboard Magazine.
“You’ve got a little Cuba, a little Jamaica, and a little Haiti; you’ve got a large Jewish culture and you’ve got calypso,” said. “Then you’ve got people who were born here or came from South Carolina, where they’ve got a heavy African culture, too. It’s very rhythmic roots music.”
Wright would go on to sing a few other songs of note after making such a big splash at such a young age. I remember fondly “Dance with Me” from the disco era and “Loving is Really My Game.” Probably her most remembered and biggest hits since her early career was the 1988 classic “No Pain, No Gain.”
Behind the scenes, she helped mentor other artists and helped KC and the Sunshine Band and Gwen and George McRae get their “Miami sound” disco on. She wrote and co-wrote hits and won a Grammy for penning the song “Where is the Love.”
She was an independent-minded woman and dissatisfied with the limitations of Epic Records. In 1985 she formed her own label, MsB, in Miami, which was unheard of at the time. She spent quite a bit of the rest of her career producing and co-writing with the likes of Gloria Estefan.
Wright’s influence stretched far and wide, one can hear a little bit of Betty in Mary J Blige, DJ Khaled, and even Beyonce. Her music can be heard in the beats and samples of many songs and by lots of artists including Queen Bey. She worked with a surprising variety of artists over the years, including The Roots, Rick Ross, Angie Stone, and Lil Wayne.
Years ago, I got to hear Wright in concert in Miami and she introduced her song “Tonight is the Night” with the signature opening that is on the “Betty Wright Live” LP when she quoted her mother’s objections. “‘I like the music, you know, baby, the melody? It’s really nice, but I know you not gonna sing that song!'”
Betty Wright sho could sang and she was from the hood of Miami Liberty City where mothers just didn’t play.
She passed last week from cancer in her Miami home at the age of 66.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.