RIP: Betty Wright

Posted May 12, 2020 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Beloved Miami soul singer and songwriter dies at the age of 66

bettywright-00Southern soul titan Betty Wright, 66, best known for hits like “Clean Up Woman,” “Tonight Is the Night” and “No Pain (No Gain),” passed away on Sunday, May 10.  According to Billboard magazine, Wright died from cancer at her home in South Florida.

Born Bessie Regina Norris in Miami, Wright got her start at a very early age putting out regional singles for Deep City Records, but quickly got the attention of thriving music mogul Henry Stone, the figurehead that developed TK Records. Thanks to her mature-sounding voice and the ability to turn a raw soul production into something from an Aretha universe, she found her home on the Alston imprint. And at the tender age of 14, she dropped “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” a grown-folks song penned by Clarence Reid that Beyonce later sampled on her 2006 hit “Upgrade U.” The mature content from Reid’s pen continued to dominate Wright’s succession of hits, but none matched the velocity of 1971’s “Clean Up Woman.” The song tells the story of the cheating misses that comes in and steals the man up from under a naïve girlfriend. Charting at number two R&B and rising to the Top Ten on the pop charts, the gold-certified single ended up being the best-selling single released from Stone’s label up to that point. It singlehandedly turned Wright into one of the label’s earliest superstars.

Several minor R&B hits followed, including “Let Me Be Your Love Maker,” “Baby Sitter,” “Shoorah! Shoorah!” and “Pure Love,” but none of them reached the Top 40. In 1975, Wright – with the help of KC & the Sunshine Band – found her next big hit with “Where Is the Love?” Not to be confused with the Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack tune, this upbeat, junkanoo funk-teased gem penned by the songwriting team of Henry Wayne Casey and Rick Finch put her back near the top of the charts (#15 R&B, #2 disco, #25 UK and #96 pop). It even earned her a Grammy for Best R&B Song, beating out her fellow labelmates KC & the Sunshine Band, who were nominated twice in the same category for “That’s the Way (I Like It) and “Get Down Tonight.”

The 7" single of "Tonight Is the Night" cover bith A and B-sides. In total, the song plays for eight minutes.

The 7″ single of “Tonight Is the Night” cover both A and B-sides. In total, the song plays for eight minutes.

It wasn’t until 1978 when Wright returned to the Top 40, this time as a guest artist on Peter Brown’s dancey disco anthem “Dance With Me.” It rose to number 8 pop, giving Wright yet another Top Ten hit and her last one. But that didn’t stop Wright from shining as a R&B songstress. That same year, her  Betty Wright Live album lit up the charts with a “live” version of an overlooked 1974 composition “Tonight Is the Night,” which dented the R&B Top 40. With a five-minute rap detailing the song’s intimate origins and a soulful climax containing excerpts of another earlier single (“Pure Love”), the song exploded as a huge urban radio hit, peaking at number 11 R&B.

With a tighter grip on her producing and songwriting skills, Wright re-emerged as a powerful figure for the TK label by laying down tracks for artists such as Gwen McCrae (Melody of Life) and Beverly Johnson (Don’t Lose the Feeling). And thanks to her fine work on Brown’s “Dance With Me” and “You Should Do It,” she also picked up steam as an incredible in-demand backing vocalist for Johnny Nash, Timmy Thomas, Stevie Wonder, Peter Tosh and Stephen Stills, even appearing alongside Alice Cooper’s “No Tricks.” But by 1980, TK Records had shuttered due to the rise of anti-disco sentiment in pop culture, leaving Wright without a record home. She moved over to Epic, but had very little success there.

It wasn’t until she managed to develop her own music label appropriately named after her: Ms B Records. From there, Wright established an identity in the flourishing world of Southern soul and grown folks’ blues on her 1987 LP, Mother Wit. From that gold-certified disc came the tag team singles “After the Pain” and “No Pain (No Gain),” two singles forever enshrined for becoming bold empowerment anthems for women. The latter, possibly Wright’s songwriting magnum opus, ended up reaching number 14 on the R&B charts. And it’s from that track that the public gets to hear Wright fully enter the whistle register, a zone that only a few pop singers exercised. Think Minnie Riperton, Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande. Wright wouldn’t see that far up on the charts again until 2007 when neo-soul giant Angie Stone paired up with her on “Baby”, a track that reached number 22 R&B and number 3 on the dance charts.

Wright continued to record albums and tour regularly, most notably overseas where her music was being rediscovered by fans of rare groove and the revival of Northern soul. But during that time, her catalog was being worshipped by a new generation of soul music lovers in the world of progressive R&B and hip-hop. In 1990, the swag-heavy quartet Color Me Badd used musical excerpts, even portions of Wright’s unforgettable rap, from “Tonight Is the Night” on their platinum-selling hit “I Wanna Sex You Up.” The song, featured on the soundtrack of New Jack City, also stormed the R&B charts, holding down to the number one spot for two weeks. But Wright didn’t give them permission, resulting in a lawsuit and an outcome in Wright’s favor which included 35 percent of publishing royalties. Other notable artists that sampled Wright included 2Pac, Mary J, Blige, SWV and Chance the Rapper.

Betty Wright featured on 2020 airing of 'Unsung' episode

Betty Wright featured on 2020 airing of ‘Unsung’ episode

Of her last works, Betty Wright: The Movie, produced by Questlove and released on her label, featured backing instrumentation from the Roots and guest appearances from Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, Lenny Williams and Joss Stone. The disc is considered to be Wright’s most essential album. In an album review for, contributing writer J Matthew Cobb wrote “in the year of 2011, Betty’s still feisty in all the right places.” One of the album’s tracks, “Surrender,” was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Traditional R&B Performance. She also managed to work with a number of high-profile artists, including Sean “P Diddy” Combs who hired her as a vocal coach for emerging group Danity Kane on his hit reality-TV show, Making the Band. Another Grammy nomination, this time for Best Pop Album, came her way for her production work on Joss Stone’s Mind Body & Soul.

In late April, Wright was the subject on a deserving full episode of TVOne’s Unsung, which featured interviews from Wright, family members along with Khalid, Lil Wayne, Harry Wayne “KC” Casey, Regina Belle and others. Weeks later, soul & funk icon Chaka Khan posted a tweet encouraging fans to pray for her. “Calling my #PrayWarriors. My beloved sister, Betty Wright @MsBettyWright, is now in need of all your prayers,” Khan wrote.

Betty Wright | “No Pain (No Gain)” (1987)

Upon word of her passing, online eulogies and accolades lit up the Internet, praising Wright’s musical impact and legacy. “#BettyWright was one of the very best to ever do this thing called music! A beautiful spirit who will truly be missed,” wrote Patti LaBelle on Twitter. In an exclusive obituary editorial for Billboard magazine, S-Curve Records president Steve Greenberg described Betty as “a giant of the music world and…had the rare ability to make everyone feel that they could reach into themselves and create magic.” And on Rev. Al Sharpton’s Monday program of MSNBC’s PoliticsNation, he said that “her songs were a soundtrack for an entire generation of black women who identified with her phenomenal voice and relatable songwriting, and she had swagger.”

A small selection of penned tributes is laid below:


Betty Wright | “Clean Up Woman” (1971)

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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