Wright Reborn

First came teen superstardom, then years of troubled obscurity. Now Betty Wright is seeking to balance music, family, and faith.

Betty Wright is talking about being born again when she's interrupted by the beeping of her phone, a high-heeled pink pump with pushbuttons. On the other end is a girlfriend, crying and nearly hysterical. "He just did that?" Wright asks in a low voice. "Well, you got to live for you, and if he wants to act up, there's nothing you can do. If it's right, he'll come back to you."

One of soul's greatest singers is curled up like a cat on her bed, wearing a long leopardskin print shirt and matching dangling earrings. She is tall and long-limbed, and she takes up still more space with her voice and presence. Her pink-walled bedroom is lit only by Wheel of Fortune on TV, the volume turned all the way down. Her five children are all at a Saturday-night birthday party, and the plant-hugged house in northeast Miami is quiet. "Now what you've got to do is stop crying," Wright insists, her voice taking on a hint of song, like a preacher's. "Put a cool cloth on your face. And pray. The Lord can alter a man's heart, you know. He's done it before."

This is a woman who has been counseling and exhorting, one way or another, for nearly all her life. In the early Seventies, she advised her female listeners against allowing the "Clean Up Woman" to pick up their men; she told them to "buy some sizzle pants and baby-sit your baby yourself" or face competition from a man-getting "Babysitter."

The person behind that worldly, sassy voice was a studious thirteen-year-old tomboy from the James E. Scott projects in Overtown when she made her first record in 1966. Nourished for more than a decade by the creative talents of songwriter Clarence Reid and producer Willie Clarke, Wright laid down scores of funky testimonies to passion and obsession, raw music about love and sex. Pure soul music, rhythm and blues with gospel, Latin, and Caribbean flavorings, later to be labeled the Miami Sound. By the time she turned eighteen in 1971, Wright had toured the world, had co-hosted a pop music show on local television, and was watching "Clean Up Woman" race up the charts to become one of the biggest hits of the year.

But once at the top, Wright was looking straight at the dizzying fear that comes with success, with having to sustain success. In a matter of a few years, her hard-core brand of rhythm and blues was being overtaken by slicker, smoother disco, born in the same Miami studios where she had recorded. Wright tried disco herself for a while, with some hits, but her heart was in soul music. She always returned to her trademark stories, pre-rap raps about living and loving and losing and overcoming. She won a Grammy Award in 1975 for writing "Where is the Love," a modest hit for her and a huge hit for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Every few years she'd hit the charts, with songs like "Tonight is the Night" in 1978 and "Pain" in 1986.

These days Wright incorporates some of the reigning hip-hop and rap sounds into the pop music she writes and performs -- music that not long ago many record executives told her was "too black." But she eschews labels and says she's finally learned to be content with the style that has come naturally to her all along. She also works as a vocal coach and arranger for other artists, among them Gloria Estefan. (That was Betty Wright, essentially uncredited, directing the choir behind Estefan and Whoopi Goldberg at last September's Hurricane Andrew relief concert at Joe Robbie Stadium.) Her albums sell well and she tours regularly, but somehow Betty Wright never became the superstar many had predicted. Associates and friends complain she hasn't received the recognition she deserves; some hint she's become embittered. But at the ripe age of 39, having been to the mountain, Wright declares she has made peace with her place in the world and in music.

"This is what I do. If I didn't make a living from it I'd be on a corner somewhere, singing real good," she says, her head slightly lowered and eyes fixed, direct, luminous. "I gig when they pay me, I gig when they don't pay me. That's probably why I don't live in Beverly Hills."

Wright sings for love. "She don't think commercial," says Jerry Rushin, general manager of WEDR radio and a Miami music industry insider for twenty years. When Rushin's father died four years ago, he recalls, Wright stood up to sing, unaccompanied, at the funeral. "The funeral was going fine until Betty got up there," Rushin says. "She had everybody in tears."

"To me, Betty Wright is one of the most underrated singers who ever lived," says Steve Alamo, a singer and producer who for 30 years has played key roles in scores of national hits out of Miami. "The only person in [Wright's] league is Aretha Franklin," Alamo contends. "The world may not know that, but I'm very opinionated and tough on singers, and I don't think anybody's come close."

In fact, the world does not know much about Wright, and she doesn't insist that it know. She doesn't have a manager to remind the public of her past glories or to position her among the voices striving for stardom today. She handles most of her own business affairs, and recently canceled a show in California because, she says, she felt it was more important to stay in Miami and help out a distraught friend. "I belong in the Bible days," Wright says. "I'm an anachronism."

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