By Michael E. Miller
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"When you try to come back, baby, they make it hard," Wright declares, clenching her fist and bringing her chin down sideways. "If you ever had a gold record, won a Grammy or an American Music Award and you try to come back, they say, 'Aha, I can hurt you now.' I went from record company to record company, label to label. It was the dead of winter in New York. I was pregnant; my coat wouldn't close. I was getting the same vibe from everybody. They'd say, 'Betty honey, I love your singing, you're really singing, but it's too black.' Some would use a euphemism like 'raw.'"
In 1985, buoyed by the encouragement of friends, Wright formed her own record company, Ms. B Records. She founded a music publishing company, Miami Spice Publishing, too, and she recorded "Pain" independently. Noel Williams, a musician and a long-time friend whom she married that same year, co-produced the song. (Wright has since separated from Williams, the father of son Chaka Azuri, seven, and daughter Asher, five.) When "Pain" began to get good airplay, Fantasy Records distributed that single, as well as an album, Sevens. By the next year, Steve Alamo, along with partners Ron and Howard Albert, had founded Vision Records in North Miami. Wright signed a distribution deal with Vision, whose roster includes Jimmy Cliff, Dion, Stephen Stills, Prince Rahiem, and teen prodigy Shana, among others. Wright has recorded her three most recent albums there, at Audiovision Recording Studios.
A new album is in the works, tentatively titled B Attitudes. As with Wright's previous several efforts, she has written most of the music and is clearly in charge. Bassist Angelo Morris is co-producing. But this time Nick Martinelli, a producer from Philadelphia who's worked with Phyllis Hyman and Gladys Knight, has produced one song and has been acting as a consultant-critic on the other cuts.
It may be a good idea, say Wright's old friends Steve Alamo and Jerry Rushin, for her to take less charge, to spread herself less thin. "Most people achieve success by specializing," Rushin says. "Betty writes so many lyrics, she produces, she arranges. What you've got here is one big gigantic ball of talent, and which do you focus on to achieve true success? She must focus on one to achieve greatness."
If true success and greatness mean superstardom, though, Alamo wonders if Wright has what it takes. "I think to be a superstar, a performer has to be a lot more self-absorbed than Betty is capable of being," Alamo says, adding that a lack of well-directed management has perpetually kept Wright from becoming more prominent. ("I don't have enough vengeance," the singer herself asserts.)
Still, Wright is capable of directing her energy agressively when she wants to. Last year, for example, she mounted a campaign to secure credit and royalties for artists whose records are 'sampled' (their parts electronically snipped out and rerecorded) by rappers. Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up" had hit the charts; the song is a copy of Wright's "Tonight Is the Night." One line from her recording is repeatedly sampled throughout. Originally, Wright wasn't credited. Now, however, Wright and Willie Clarke, both of whom were listed as writers on "Tonight Is the Night," share in the proceeds of "I Wanna Sex You Up."
Back in the early Eighties, as Wright was struggling to keep up, her best friend invited her to attend church at the House of God Miracle Temple, where Mother Anna Stevenson was holding forth. "That woman was preaching about sin," Wright recalls. But it was more than that; to Wright, Mother Stevenson's sermons were about hope and conciliation. Although she had grown up going to church, Wright says, she had become disillusioned early in life, when her niece died shortly after birth. Now she was seeing through different eyes.
"She got born again -- I guess that's how they do it," says Steve Alamo, with affectionate bemusement. "It saved her life, it really did. It gave her a reason to go forward. She just changed."
Today Betty Wright calls herself an evangelist. Local churches frequently invite her to preach and sing, and in her newer work, she often alludes to prayer and faith. Two years after her separation from Noel Williams, she is preparing for her third divorce, but she refuses to dwell on the negative. "I married good men," she says. "Some great man is waiting for me."
And for the time being, there's work to do on the new album. One song, "For Love Alone," which she co-wrote with Angelo Morris, is about risking the unknown for love. During a recent session, Wright prowled the carpeted studio at Audiovision as the musicians worked out the melody and the transitions. Finally, they were ready to tape, and Wright closed herself behind the glass door of a microphone booth. "I never stop to check it out," she sang, fists thrust into the pockets of her black jeans. "I never look to see/Where my life is going/What's up ahead of me."
The song is jazzy and melodic, and Wright's voice came out sometimes like a sonorous second guitar. Then the musicians bought down the volume, and Wright went into a rap, a little like a sermon. "...Go on and cry, girl. Sometimes you gotta hurt for love. But it's all right. Keep giving love...." And the music came back up, and Wright went back to the chorus, her voice running and jumping and swimming with the sound.
"We bought some different notes in there," she said through the mike when it was over, her leopard-patterned earrings bobbing as she nodded her head. "Some of us were shopping at Wal-Mart and some of us were shopping at Kmart. But the Mart was all right.