Betty Wright was born Bessie Regina Norris on December 21, 1953 in Miami, Florida. She was the youngest of seven children of Rosa Braddy-Wright and McArthur Norris. Wright’s career began when she was two years old as a member of Echoes of Joy gospel group along with her siblings. Echoes of Joy released their first Gospel album in 1956. The group officially broke up when Wright was eleven years old, and this formally launched Wright’s solo career. Wright’s strong gospel influences led to her experimenting with the R&B music genre before getting signed to a record label. The first label that signed Wright at twelve years old after being spotted in local talent shows was named Deep City Records.
Betty Wright’s first breakthrough record was entitled ” Clean Up Woman”, and was written by William Clarke and Clarence Reid. She recorded the record while she was still a young seventeen years old. “Clean Up Woman” reached a peak of number 2 on the R&B charts and held its position for eight weeks. The record enjoyed fame on the pop charts for fourteen weeks and became a certified gold record December 30, 1971.
Betty Wright enjoyed a solid career with the subsequent hits “Baby Sitter”, which peaked at number 6 on the R&B charts and “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker”, which peaked at number 0n the R&B charts. Wright also won a Grammy award for composing “Where Is the Love”.
“Tonight Is the Night” was another successful soul ballad that peaked at number 28 on the R&B charts. In this song, she details her first sexual experiences.
Wright went on have other albums that weren’t as successful a her first breakout singles, but that never deterred her. She achieved sprinkles of hit duets and arranged music until her untimely death, and eventually mainly performed a a live act. She also served as a mentor to several young singers and did vocal production for various artists such as Jennifer Lopez and fellow Miami native, Gloria Estefan.
Her last public appearance was on the television show Unsung, which aired April 5, 2020.
The legacy of “Clean Up Woman” extends today as it has been sampled by artists Sublime, Afrika Bambaataa, and Mary J. Blige. Controversially, she sued the R&B musical group Color Me Badd for unauthorized use of her work in the single, “I Wanna Sex You Up” and consequently won thirty five percent of the royalties for writing the single. There are countless other samples of her work, which is unsurprising because Wright’s musical style has been uniquely described as the amalgamation of a vocal powerhouse and delicate songbird. Most notably, Wright is a pioneer in the execution of the delicate whistle register in her music. One of her famous records that showcased this talent was “No Pain, No Gain”, which served as a comeback hit that earned Wright a top 20 hit on the R&B charts after a decade in the album “After the Pain”.
A common thread established throughout Wright’s music is the experiences of a young Black woman through her life’s journey. This trajectory is understandable as she entered the music industry professionally as a small child. Her artistry is that of a woman learning her personality and her intersectionality as a Black woman experiencing romantic relationships with Black men. Wright’s artistic voice celebrates the growing pains of maturing and experiencing love and heartbreak for the first time, and served as a soundtrack to the lives of many native southern Black women, including myself.
Grammy Award for Best R&B Song award for composing “Where Is the Love” – 18th Annual Grammy Awards, 1976
Nominated for Grammy award for Best Pop Album for Joss Stone’s album “Mind Body & Soul” in 2005
First Black female artist to receive a gold album on her own label with “Mother Wit” in 1987
Wright married three times and had five children. Her last husband, Jamaican musician Noel Williams, known as King Sporty, died in 2015. Together Wright and Williams had two children, and her other three children were born to her two previous marriages. Wright died from cancer on May 10, 2020 at the age of 66. In popular culture, before her death, Wright appeared in the competition reality show “Making the Band” at the request of rap start Sean ” P.Diddy” Combs as a vocal coach to the contestants. Her technical skill and message of perseverance through hardship will always be cemented on the show and in the hearts of Soul and R&B lovers all over the world.
Betty Wright served as an archetype of a young Black woman growing up in the south and used her music to explore the intersectionality of developing into Black womanhood while experiencing Black love. Her soulful artistry will live on forever and reverberate through the hearts of blossoming Black women.