Miami Soul Queen Betty Wright Talks The Roots, Lil Wayne, and "Old Songs"

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Betty Wright should need no introduction, especially in Miami. The lifelong 305 resident has been making records in South Florida since 1956 when she sang on an album from her family's gospel band, Echoes of Joy, at age two. A veteran solo act by her late teens, Wright became one of R&B's top female draws in the '70s with soul classics like "Clean Up Woman" and "Tonight's the Night" for local impresario Henry Stone's Alston label.

The godmother of Miami soul is still contributing to platinum albums, most recently Tha Carter III by Lil Wayne, who returned the favor with an appearance on her latest album, Betty Wright: The Movie, a collaborative LP with the Roots. We spoke with Wright as she prepared for her first local concert since issuing The Movie last year.

Crossfade: How did you come to make a whole album with The Roots as your band?

Betty Wright: The Movie was an idea I'd had for years. But the part of joining up with The Roots was concocted on a plane between [Questlove] and Steve Greenberg of S-Curve Records. He's a quirky guy who comes up with these ideas ... I had these songs I thought were finished. But they thought could go to the next level. They said everything should be live. That's always a dream of any artist from the era I come from -- to do things like what we're used to doing.

Who's the tighter band: The Roots or the session players from your days with Henry Stone?

Back in the day, they'd play a lot of fills, a lot looser, like "bop-boom-ba-boom-boom." The drummer got a lot more play. Quest is more like a metronome, or a loop. He locks in. I think both styles are amazing, but very different.

Tell me about working with some of the rappers on this record, like Lil Wayne.

I've been working with Wayne since he was 15. When Wayne calls me, I come. And when I call him, he comes. It's family. Those are all my pups. We say nephews. Snoop, Wayne, Slim, Baby, Diddy -- everybody that has been in my life who are much younger than I am. I just adopt them.

I have to say I've been acknowledged [by hip-hop]. Isaac Hayes, Jerry Butler and [R&B artists] that talked on record -- we were the predecessors to what they do. Some of my biggest records have three minutes of singing and ten minutes of talk. I don't tell anybody how much I love rap music. But I got it bad, boy. I love rap music. Some of the subject matter is a little off-color to me. But some regular songs are off color to me.

At the same time, you have a song on the album called "Old Songs," which has some things to say about sampling.

That's just the way I feel. If you sample someone who sampled someone who sampled someone, there won't be anything original. After a while, it gets to be a derivative of a derivative. I want to inspire people to write. That's why I have a songwriting camp called The M.O.S.T., which means Mountain of Songs Today = Mountain of Songs Tomorrow. I think I'm inspiring them to create. So when people get to a certain age, they won't always have to go back to Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" to have a romantic evening. I'm tryna make 'em mad enough to provoke 'em to do it.

What does it mean to you to play a Mother's Day concert? Do you approach that any differently from a regular show?

Being a mother every day, I think that's an everyday thing. And to celebrate for one day the person that gave you life is kind of a shortchange. If we only have one day to do it, I'm going to do it up big.

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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