By Michael E. Miller
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Rosa Wright named her seventh and last child Bessie Regina, after her own mother, a deeply religious woman from Cairo, Georgia, who sang like an angel. Bessie Regina Akins tended a house and garden in Perrine when her grandchildren were growing up. She'd cut off pieces of sugar cane for them to chew, and they'd feast on mangoes and guavas and pineapples from her garden. But for all that sweetness, she was a forceful woman who never permitted secular music to be played in her house and who once became angry when Betty's eldest brother Charles couldn't bring himself to wring the neck of a chicken she wanted to cook.
Bessie Regina Wright (her mother called her Jean but everyone else called her Betty) was five when her grandmother died. Later, she says, she grew to look, and sing, strikingly like her. Betty's father, MacArthur Norris, didn't live with the family, though she saw him often up until his death in 1984. When Betty was very young, Rosa Wright wasn't around much, either. Every morning Rosa took the three-bus ride to Miami Beach, where she worked as a maid. At the time, blacks were allowed across the causeways only to work, and then only with a special police permit.
Rosa Wright attended nursing school at night, but she had time on Sundays and during the week to get herself and the children to the Firstborn Church of the Living God, a Pentecostal congregation that would be torn down later when the I-95 expressway divided Overtown. By the mid-Sixties she had finished nursing school and had a job at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Long before Betty was born, Rosa had put together a family gospel group, the Wright Spiritual Singers. She'd sit the children down on the long gold velour sofa in their living room to rehearse, and they'd sing to her guitar accompaniment. If someone hit an off note, there would be a little flick of a belt to point it out. The Wright Spiritual Singers sang at churches, at nursing homes, at Jackson Memorial Hospital. After Betty's birth, Rosa recounts, she changed the name of the group to the Echoes of Joy. "I was sleeping," she says, "and that name just came to me as if it were written in space."
Betty sang with the other five children (the eldest had died shortly after birth) from the time she learned to talk. Rosa recalls her youngest winning a singing contest when she was just two and a half; the prize was an Easter bonnet and a matching purse. "As far as singing, it was like drinking water," says Betty Wright. "We were what you call church babies. It gets in your blood. You wake up singing." At home, gospel music from the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, Shirley Caesar, the Swan Silvertones, poured unceasingly from a big stereo console. That stereo, its wood panels now worn, still sits in the living room of the spacious house north of downtown Miami that Wright bought for her mother in 1973.
Wright's older brothers and sister had begun their own musical careers at tender ages. Jeanette, four years older than Betty, sang with a local group, the Twans, in the mid-Sixties; as a singer for the phenomenally successful KC and the Sunshine Band, she helped usher in the disco era. She still tours and records as a backup singer for her sister. Michael, Rosa's youngest son, writes songs and has also recorded with his sister Betty.
Phillip, now 47, started as a guitarist and singer in a calypso group at thirteen; the band played the legendary Knightbeat club in Overtown (opening for luminaries like Barbara McNair and family friend Flip Wilson) and at hotels on the Beach. He and Milton, 48, also acted in plays and theater productions. Milton eventually opted for a career as a lawyer. For twenty years now he's lived in Boston, where he directs a church choir and is known as "the singing lawyer." Charles, now 50, also played guitar in a calypso ensemble. He and Phillip went on to play and tour in a popular regional rock-R&B band of the Sixties, the Afro-Beats. Now both brothers work for Dade County Schools, Phillip as a security supervisor and Charles as a teacher's aide. They talk without regret but with lingering excitement of their first careers. "They were with it for quite a while," Rosa Wright says of her sons. "But things were so different then, and maybe by Betty being the youngest child, I guess she was in the right place at the right time."
Charles and Phillip were professional musicians in an era vastly different from Betty's, though the times were only a decade apart. "I'd get home from school Friday, do my homework, go work at the Fontainebleau, and come home around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.," Phillip recounts. "And then on Saturday morning I'd get my guitar and go play at pool parties on the Beach." Sometimes he and other musicians would want to take in a movie. They knew American blacks weren't admitted to Miami Beach cinemas, Phillip says, so they'd walk up to the ticket window speaking Spanish, and they always got in.