Betty Wright: "Every Time I Start Singing They Say It's R&B"
Last week, Miami soul queen Betty Wright opened up about her recent collaborative album with the Roots, Betty Wright: The Movie; her unlikely friendship with Lil Wayne and Birdman; and the meaning of Mother's Day, which she'll honor this year with a co-headlining show at the James L. Knight Center with Monica.
In part two of our interview, the voice behind "Clean Up Woman," "Tonight's the Night," "No Pain, No Gain," and other locally produced soul classics recalls her time as a three-year-old gospel prodigy and an early ambassador of reggae music.
She also shows us how easily she climbs the Mount Everest of vocal gymnastics, the whistle register.
Crossfade: You came into the music industry really young. Is it accurate that you were three on your first recording?
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Betty Wright: I was almost three. It was mid October and I turned three that December. I remember everything about that session. It's really weird. I remember them stacking these fat, fat yellow books -- which, of course, now I know is the Yellow Pages -- in a chair, and my mama said, "Don't let the baby fall." I remember that the sound booth was to the side of my face. As opposed to facing a sound booth, we were facing a wall. I told them everything I could remember about the session, and my brothers and my sister just shake their head, "Well, she must remember it because none of us told her." I remember performing in Miami before I was three, and opening shows for so many gospel acts. When I see these people today, I'm still reminding them that I was that baby.
Like Mavis Staples. I remember working with the Staples Singers at what was called the Longshoreman's Hall [in Overtown]. It's still there, and they rebuilt it. Back in the day, that was where all of the gospel singers came to perform. Everybody would go to what they called "the Singing." The Swanee Quintet, the Soul Stirrers, all the way back to when Johnnie Taylor was singing gospel. I remember all of those groups.
You're a Miami lifer. Have you lived anywhere else?
I lived a year in LA. I lived a year in NY. Two years in Connecticut. But I was always commuting. I guess you could say I've pretty much been in Miami for 95 percent of my life.
Could you get used to being somewhere else?
Don't really want to. When I was on the West Coast, it's much too cold at night for me. I really love Florida. Hot days and hot nights. I am a Miami girl.
You have a lot of connections to Jamaican music. You toured with Bob Marley and your husband, King Sporty, wrote "Buffalo Soldier." How did you meet them?
I was doing Jamaican music long before meeting either one of them. I actually sang on "Tears on my Pillow" for Johnny Nash. I might have been 13 then. I worked with Peter Tosh. And then, of course, through King Sporty I've done records with Dennis Brown, Marcia Griffiths, Toots and the Maytals. I worked with Barrington Levy, Inner Circle. Huge reggae fan. And yes, I did tour the world with Bob.
Did you know Bob well?
Bob and Sporty were like brothers. Bob's mother, God bless her soul, she called Sporty her "son" because they grew up together. I even did a record on Bob's mother, Mama Cedella, called "Listen Up, Lady." I had Mother Booker rapping.
So hip-hop, R&B, reggae -- what would we hear at a BBQ at your house?
If you came to a BBQ at my house you would hear live music. Because at my house, there's always a concert. Somebody would pick up a guitar. And after a while, somebody would pick up a drum. So you would hear a multiplicity of genres. I don't have a preference. Just every time I start singing, they say it's R&B just because I have a soulful tone in my voice. I can sing opera.
When did you realize you could sing in the whistle register?
In the 10th grade.
Do you feel it gave you an edge being able to do something that most people physically can't do?
I didn't know how unusual it was until I saw other people try to do it. When I realized there's only about five or ten people that can actually do it and control it with any success, then I realized how hard it is. I'm laying down now and I'm really tired. 'Cause I did a lot of rehearsing today. But if I start napping and I go "a-ha" ... [Wright says first syllable, sings the second in whistle register.] See, it's there. I think that's one of those God things. My cuteness didn't count or all that other good stuff. So I guess he wanted me to have a little edge.
So you can do those whistle register songs at any show?
At any. I can talk in that register. [Speaks in a succession of whistle sounds].
Betty Wright's Mother's Day Concert with Monica. Sunday May 13. James L. Knight Center, 400 SE Second Ave., Miami. The show starts at 7 p.m. and tickets cost $45 to $75 plus fees via ticketmaster.com. Call 305-416-5970 or visit jlkc.com.
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