Wright Reborn

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

Audiences at the Knightbeat got used to seeing little Betty, no more than eight or nine, pop up on stage with her brothers. "I would rush home between sets and pick her up, go back to the club and let her sing one song, and then rush back home," Phillip recalls. "Eventually the club owners in Miami knew I had a little sister who could sing."

The Afro-Beats were the house band at Porky's, the Fort Lauderdale club that became famous as a spring break hot spot, backing up big pop acts like Frankie Vallee and the Four Seasons, the Chiffons, and Jerry Butler and the Impressions. Phillip and Charles tell of high-powered agent types courting the Afro-Beats, taking tapes of their songs and promising recording deals. They never saw the tapes or heard from the agent types again. They never were paid for a tour in Canada, they remember, because their management company went bankrupt. The band members drifted apart as the Sixties ended, and Phillip got a gig with legendary sax man King Curtis and the Kingpins; later he toured Europe with another great R&B saxophone band, Junior Walker and the All Stars.

In Miami, Betty Wright scored with a few minor hit records. She was attending Notre Dame Academy, a private high school, coming of age in the era of the Vietnam War and the civil rights and women's movements. Overtown's first race riot overtook Wright one summer evening in 1968, as Willie Clarke, her producer, drove her home from a recording session. They came up on a police barricade, she remembers, and tear gas assaulted them through the open car windows. As the rioting played out over the next few days, Wright remembers, their home on 62nd Street was tear-gassed. "They had bayonets and they were marching through our yard," she says. "There were tanks in our street." Three people died in the violence.

Today 62nd Street is named after Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated a few months before the 1968 riot. Though more would die in later Overtown uprisings in 1980 and 1982, this was the one that marked the end of peaceful, segregated Miami. Before then, Overtown was a bustling, vibrant black enclave, where people of all races flocked to see the nation's best black performers in booked-to-capacity all-night clubs. Steve Alamo, a New Yorker who moved to Miami in 1957 to attend the University of Miami, began his singing career at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach, but he used to sit in with the bands at the Knightbeat. "I'd go to Overtown in a convertible, throw the keys to the guys outside, sit in with the band, and come out and drive home," he recalls. "Those were great days. Now it's gone. The whole world has changed."

There are a few different takes on the story of how Betty Wright was "discovered." As Clarence Reid tells it, he'd been rehearsing with an all-girl singing group called the Rollers. In those days they would practice wherever they could find a piano, and one afternoon they had gathered at an Overtown apartment, where Reid was trying to teach the girls "Paralyzed," a song he'd recently written. As usual, a crowd of neighborhood kids gathered outside to listen and play. The Rollers were having trouble learning Reid's song. "I heard some little girl out there singing her butt off. She'd already learned the song," remembers Reid, a tall, softspoken man whose show business alter-ego is the funky, foul-mouthed Blowfly. "So I went around there, and there was the cutest little shy girl. Well, to make a long story short, it was Betty Wright."

Wright herself remembers winning a radio "name that song" contest and going down to Johnny's Record Rack on NW 60th Street and 22nd Avenue to choose a record for her prize. She picked "Summertime" by Billy Stewart, with its spirited brrrrrup-up's and other vocal pyrotechnics. Reid and Willie Clarke, friends of the shop's owner, were there, and challenged the pigtailed eleven-year-old to sing the song. She did, pyrotechnics and all, and they decided they wanted to record her.

Phillip Wright remembers hearing a record by Little Beaver, a singer and guitarist whose work Reid and Clarke produced. One of the background voices sounded just like Betty, he says; he didn't know she had been working with Reid and Clarke. "She wasn't supposed to do that by law, according to her age," Phillip says, "but they used her voice. It was the first record I'd ever heard with Betty singing on it." In 1967 Wright recorded Reid's "Paralyzed." At age thirteen she had her first, albeit modest, hit.

Shortly thereafter Reid and Clarke introduced her to Henry Stone, a record distributor who was branching out into the recording business. It was Stone's Hialeah studio where, legend has it, he and Alamo were the first to record unknown artists like James Brown and Sam and Dave. Wright's next several records were released on the Alston label (a merger of Alamo-Stone). Some were hits in Europe; one Reid-Clarke composition, "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do," reached number 33 on the U.S. pop charts in August 1968.

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