Soul singer Betty Wright mentored young artists

Betty Wright.
Betty Wright.

MIAMI • American R&B and soul singer Betty Wright who had a breakout hit single when she was 17, then went on to become a key player in the Miami funk sound of the 1970s, and worked closely with singers and rappers in the following four decades, died on Sunday at her home in Miami. She was 66.

Her death was confirmed by president of S-Curve Records Steve Greenberg, who said Wright was found to have endometrial cancer last autumn.

"She was an incredible writer, producer and mentor to young artists," he said.

Wright's 1971 hit, Clean Up Woman, anticipated funk music's transition into disco, and its syncopated, soulful sound created a template that found great chart success for the rest of the decade.

Clean Up Woman peaked at No. 6 on the singles chart. Though she never again matched that mainstream success, Wright established herself as a regular on the Billboard R&B chart. As a lead singer, duet partner or prominent background vocalist, she placed 20 singles in its Top 40.

She was also one of the first pop vocalists to sing in the stratospheric "whistle register", a technique also used by singers Minnie Riperton, Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande.

Wright had an enduring career as a songwriter, arranger and producer. She had worked with musicians Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Stephen Stills, David Byrne, Alice Cooper, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine and Erykah Badu, among others.

Bessie Regina Norris was born on Dec 21, 1953, in Miami, the youngest of seven children born to Rosa Lee Akins Wright, a registered nurse who was active in the Pentecostal church. Her father, McArthur Norris, worked in lawn service.

Rosa Wright taught her children to sing gospel music, backed them on guitar and wrote a song, I'll Keep Toiling On, which they released under the name Echoes Of Joy.

Betty Wright made a transition into secular music despite the objections of her mother. In 1968, she had a hit with Girls Can't Do What The Guys Can Do, written by two successful local musicians, Clarence "Blowfly" Reid and Willie Clarke.

It reached No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, but she had to decline an appearance on the television programme American Bandstand because the principal at her all-girls school would not let her take a day off.

She got a second chance to appear on American Bandstand, thanks to Clean Up Woman. When the host Dick Clark asked if she had been a church singer, she replied: "Absolutely. I still am."

Wright is survived by four children, Namphuyo Aisha McRae, Patrice Parker, Chaka Williams and Asher Williams. A son, Patrick Parker Jr, was shot and killed in 2005. She is also survived by four siblings: Charles Wright, Milton Wright, Jeannette Wright and Phillip Wright.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2020, with the headline 'Soul singer Betty Wright mentored young artists '. Print Edition | Subscribe