Wright Reborn

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

That summer Wright took her mother along when she toured parts of Europe and Latin America. Because Rosa Wright was paying for Milton's college education, Betty vowed to earn the $75 per month tuition at Notre Dame. At first she worked in the Elisa Star wig shop downtown on Flagler Street; later her record royalties kept her in the school. She'd just begun her first semester as a music theory student at Miami Dade Community College when "Clean Up Woman" was released in late 1971. The record became a million-seller, and the next year Wright embarked on a lengthy world tour.

In 1973 Henry Stone and Steve Alamo formed now-legendary TK Records, which over the next decade would help put Miami on the music industry map, despite the city's distance from major recording centers. The TK studio in Hialeah is known as the birthplace of disco. (George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby" and KC and the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight," among scores of subsequent sensations, originated at TK.)

A former jazz trumpeter in New York who moved to Miami after World War II, Stone cultivated a family-type operation in which the young artists worked on each other's sessions, and one in which, according to some, earnings from hit records would be distributed as Stone decided. Stories abound about Stone's paternalistic treatment of his artists; one, related in Fredric Dannen's 1990 book Hit Men, tells of Stone handing over the keys to his new Cadillac when George McCrae complained that he was owed thousands of dollars. After McCrae had driven off, Stone explained to a friend who'd witnessed the scene that the car was rented. "Henry Stone reminded me of a college professor," says Willie Clarke, now an art teacher at Glades Middle School. "He gave you the opportunity to get a great education, but you were definitely going to pay for it."

Clarke, a trim man with a pencil-thin moustache, was more than a decade older than Wright. As her manager and producer -- and, as Wright puts it, a "surrogate father" -- he kept her under a tight rein. "I didn't allow Betty to have too much to say as far as her music should go," Clarke says now. "She'd have all the input she wanted, but she wouldn't have the final say." He complains now that Wright doesn't give enough credit to the people who got her started. (Unfurling several yards of computer printouts, Wright retorts that Clarke gets plenty of credit -- 25 percent of the royalties from several songs she wrote during his tenure as her manager.)

Clarke's and Wright's close association turned romantic for a time, before they split -- personally and professionally and bitterly -- in the late Seventies. Wright also terminated her association with TK Records before the company went bankrupt in 1980. "When I asked for my release from Henry," she recalls matter-of-factly, "it was on the grounds of incest, 'Because you're my father and you screwed me.' That's what I wrote."

At 21, Betty Wright had been singing professionally for more than seven years. "She stopped listening to me," Clarke says, his eyes shadowed behind tinted glasses. "She started listening to other people, and she went to Epic [Records]. When we broke up, I suffered. But regardless, my time with Betty is one of the highlights of my life."

Whatever the reasons for the breakups, they represented an inevitable departure from a younger, more dependent phase of Betty Wright's life and career. But growing up was hard to do. When she returned to Miami after a 1975 tour of Europe and Africa, the disco craze had taken hold. For a while Wright says, she lost her musical and spiritual bearings. "I never can remember being scared of anything but God or the Devil," she explains. "And one other thing: Failing at anything. And this hurt, when the disco era came in and everything was dance. Words didn't matter. I didn't know what music to record, to tell you the truth. I felt like I was getting left behind."

In the early Eighties, Wright recorded two albums for Epic Records. The first, Betty Wright, contained "She's Older Now," a Top 10 hit on the R&B charts. The second, Wright Back Atcha, had the bad fortune to be released the same day in 1983 as Michael Jackson's Thriller, the best-selling record of all time, also on Epic.

Wright says she was depressed for months afterward, believing Epic had dumped her. (She says she later discovered that her management company had pulled her out of the contract with Epic, and signed a more lucrative deal -- for the management company -- with another label.)

In 1976 Wright had married educator Jerome McCray, whom she'd met at church. Their daughter Aisha was born at the end of that year, but the marriage ended in divorce four years later. Now, as the second Epic album floundered, a three-year marriage, to gospel pianist Patrick Palmer, was crumbling, too. (Daughter Patrice, who's almost ten, and son Patrick, eight, came from that union.) They had been living in Connecticut, where he was working. She was pregnant, and he left her for another woman. She wrote a song called "Pain," and went to New York to try to sell it.

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