Bessie Regina Norris (December 21, 1953 – May 10, 2020), was known as Betty Wright, and was an American soul and R&B singer, songwriter and backing vocalist.
Born in Miami, Florida, Betty Wright was the youngest of seven children of Rosa Akins Braddy-Wright and her second husband, McArthur Norris.
Betty Wright began her professional career at the age of two when her brothers and sisters formed a gospel group called “the Echoes of Joy”, and she contributed to the vocals on the group’s first album which was released in 1956. “The Echoes of Joy” performed together until 1965, when Betty was 11 years old.
Following the group’s break-up, Betty Wright switched musical styles from gospel to rhythm and blues, singing in local talent shows until she was spotted by Deep City Records label owner, who signed her to her first recording deal in 1966, aged 12. She released the singles “Thank You Baby” and “Paralyzed”, and then her first album, “My First Time Around”, was released when she was just 14 years old. Her first hit single was “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” and in 1970, while still in high school, she released “Pure Love”.
In 1971, Betty Wright released what would become her signature song “Clean Up Woman”, which was written by Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke and recorded when she was still only 17. The record reached number two on the R&B charts, and stayed there for eight weeks, and also crossed over to the pop charts, reaching number six, and staying on the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks. It eventually sold over 1 million copies and was certified gold on December 30, 1971, just after the Betty turned 18.
Betty Wright struggled with a successful follow-up until the single “Baby Sitter”, which was one of her first compositions, reached the top 50 of the Hot 100 and peaked at number six on the R&B charts, in 1972. Another hit that emerged during this early period was 1973’s “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker”, which peaked at number 55 on the Hot 100 and number 10 on the R&B chart, and showed off Betty Wright’s powerful whistle register vocals. Another successful composition was the proto-disco number “Where Is the Love”, which was co-written by Wright, with producers Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch, from KC & The Sunshine Band. This peaked at number 15 on the R&B chart, number-two on the dance charts and crossed over to the UK, peaking at number 25. Betty Wright also won the Best R&B Song Grammy Award for composing “Where Is the Love”.
A second major overseas hit was another proto-disco number “Shoorah! Shoorah!”, which was written by the legendary Allen Toussaint.
Betty Wright’s most popular album, “Danger! High Voltage!” was released in late 1974, and included her most successful composition, with the smooth soul ballad “Tonight Is the Night”, which Betty Wright attributed to her first sexual experiences. The original version peaked at number 28 on the R&B chart and four years later, a “live” version of the song was released, which included a now-famous monologue and parts of her 1970 hit “Pure Love”, and this version eventually reached number 11 on the R&B chart.
In 1977, Betty Wright sang backing vocals on Peter Brown’s hits “You Should Do It” and “Dance with Me” from the successful LP “A Fantasy Love Affair”, then in 1978, she performed a duet with rocker Alice Cooper on the song “No Tricks”, and a year later, opened for Bob Marley on the his Survival Tour.
In 1981 she moved to a bigger record label, Epic, where her self-titled album was released which included the Stevie Wonder-composed hit, “What Are You Gonna Do with It” and she also sang vocals on Richard “Dimples” Fields’ Dimples album, especially on the hit “She’s Got Papers on Me”. In 1983, she released the album “Wright Back at You”, which featured songs by Marlon Jackson of the Jacksons. In 1985, Betty Wright formed her own label, Miss B Records, releasing the album “Sevens” the following year. In 1988, Betty Wright made history as the first black female artist to have a gold album on her own label, with her 1987 recorded album, “Mother Wit”, which included the hits “No Pain, No Gain,” which returned her to the top 20 on the R&B chart for the first time in a decade, and “After the Pain”.
In 1990, she had a hit duet with Grayson Hugh on the remake of Champaign’s hit “How ‘Bout Us”, and later arranged the harmonies for Gloria Estefan’s “Coming Out of the Dark”, which reached number 1 in 1991.
Over the years several of Betty Wright’s songs have been sampled by hip hop, rock and R&B musicians, and in 1992, she sued the producers of Color Me Badd’s first hit “I Wanna Sex You Up”, claiming they used the sample of her live version of “Tonight is the Night” without clearance or permission. Wright won her case and was given 35% of royalties for writing the song.
The compilation album “The Very Best of Betty Wright” was released in 2001 along with “Fit for a King”, her first studio album for several years.
Betty Wright mentored several young singers and did vocal production for artists including Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez and Joss Stone, and was nominated for a 2005 Grammy Award in the Best Pop Album category for producing Joss Stone’s album “Mind Body & Soul”, along with co-producers Steve Greenberg and Michael Mangini.
In 2006, Betty Wright appeared on the TV show Making the Band, appointed by Sean “Puffy” Combs as a vocal coach for new female group Danity Kane.
Wright, Greenberg and Mangini also produced two tracks on Tom Jones’s 2008 album “24 Hours”, the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Hitter” and “More Than Memories”, which was written by Stax legend Carla Thomas. They also produced the debut album by Diane Birch in 2009.
In December 2010, Betty Wright was nominated for another Grammy Award for the song “Go” on the Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.
The album “Betty Wright: The Movie”, which was credited to Betty Wright and the Roots, and produced by Wright and Ahmir Questlove Thompson was released November 15, 2011, and included collaborations with Joss Stone, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne and Lenny Williams. “Surrender”, a track from the album, was nominated for a 2011 Grammy in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category.
On New Year’s Eve 2011, Betty Wright appeared on the UK’s BBC 2 television show “the Jools’s Annual Hootenanny”, backed by the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blue Orchestra, performing her singles “Clean Up Woman”, “Shoorah! Shoorah!” and “In the Middle of the Game (Don’t Change the Play)”.
Betty Wright’s last TV appearance was on the show Unsung on April 5, 2020.
Betty Wright died from cancer, on May 10, 2020 at her home in Miami, aged 66.
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