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."

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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