Goodbye to Betty Wright, Miami’s Clean Up Woman

Betty Wright in London in 1975.
Betty Wright in London in 1975. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images
click to enlarge Betty Wright in London in 1975. - PHOTO BY CENTRAL PRESS/GETTY IMAGES
Betty Wright in London in 1975.
Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

Miami has lost one of its most prolific music icons. Betty Wright, Miami's first lady of soul, died this past weekend after a long battle with cancer. She was 66.

Born Bessie Regina Norris in December 1953, Wright seemed destined for stardom from an early age. One day when she was 11, the precocious Wright, who'd been singing with her family's gospel group, the Echoes of Joy, since she was 3, strode into the neighborhood music shop, Johnny's Records, to claim a prize for winning a singing contest staged by a local radio station. Owner Johnny Pearsall and Pearsall's partner Willie Clarke heard Wright perform the winning song, "Summertime," through a wall and promptly signed her to their independent record label, Deep City Records, which showcased homegrown R&B talent. A year later, Wright released her debut single, "Paralyzed," written by Clarke and his writing partner Clarence Reid.

After a dispute over the direction of Deep City Records, the partners split, and Clarke took Wright to Henry Stone and TK Productions. At 13, she recorded her first album. The opening track, "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do," became a smash hit in Miami and reached number 15 on Billboard's R&B chart.

Wright, the youngest of seven siblings from Liberty City, never looked back.

Over a career that spanned nearly a half-century, Wright had more than 35 songs that charted on Billboard. She's most famous for her 1971 track, "Clean Up Woman," featuring iconic guitar licks by Willie "Little Beaver" Hale. A crossover hit, "Clean Up Woman," peaked at number six on Billboard's more mainstream Hot 100 chart, and was Wright's first track to sell more than 2 million records. She was 18 at the time.

In 1975, Wright won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for "Where Is the Love," which she co-wrote with Harry Wayne Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band, another TK Productions artist. She followed with dance-club hits "Tonight Is the Night" and "Dance With Me," providing background vocals for Peter Brown on the latter.  

Even as classic soul and disco fell out of favor with mass audiences, a new generation of fans discovered Wright's classics in reimagined and recycled form. Her music has been sampled by 2Pac, Chance the Rapper, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, and even the alternative rock group Sublime. In 2003, Wright returned to her roots when she agreed to participate in Joss Stone's Soul Sessions album. Most recently, she contributed to contemporary tracks, lending her chops as a background vocalist for DJ Khaled, Kendrick Lamar, Rick Ross, Nas, and the Game.

On his Instagram account, DJ Khaled shared a tribute to Wright, typing in all caps: "We made beautiful music together! Betty Wright is [an] icon! And the mother of Miami! Betty Wright is legendary! God loves you! Long live Betty Wright! I love you forever!"

But it was her classic soul vibe that she will most be remembered for.

"She was the foundation of funk in the Miami sound," says Willie Clarke, who had a special relationship with Wright dating back to that first meeting in the mid-1960s. "It's a super loss to me. I will never ever stop loving her. It's going to be so hard for me. Tomorrow will be the hardest. Tomorrow is the realization. Our baby is gone."

Clarke last worked with Wright on her 1976 R&B single, "If I Ever Do Wrong," but continued to follow her career. He praised her fierceness and determination and her incandescent vocal talent.

"The girl was a God-given, blessed person for me, Deep City [Records], and TK Productions," Clarke tells New Times. "God bless her. Rest in peace. And I will always love her. Always."

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