I first met Betty Wright, who passed away from cancer yesterday [May 10], three decades ago when she spoke on a panel at New York’s New Music Seminar. She shared the tale of her 1988 R&B hit “No Pain, No Gain.” Here’s what I remember her saying:
“I sent my record ‘No Pain, No Gain’ to 20 record companies and they all turned me down. So, I started my own label, Ms. B Records, and put it out myself. Well, wouldn’t you know it–no sooner did it start to take off than 20 record companies called me up asking if they could pick up the record. I told them, ‘Sorry. I needed help baking the cake; I can eat the cake all by myself.'”
I was completely blown away by this woman who was willing to buck the system and forge her own path, and who by doing so, became one of the first women to achieve great success on her own independent label.
Betty was the epitome of a can-do person. In 2003, I asked her to co-produce Joss Stone’s The Soul Sessions with Michael Mangini and me after we were turned down by Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper. We were under a deadline and had to commence recording in a week’s time. When Betty said yes, I got the idea of using some of the great musicians of 70’s Miami soul on the record and asked Betty if she could get Latimore, Timmy Thomas and Little Beaver to the studio the next week. She said that would be no problem.
One week later, there they all were in a Miami studio. I didn’t find out until much later that Betty hadn’t spoken to any of those musicians in over 20 years. Plus, she had to track down Little Beaver (he’s the one playing that indelible guitar riff on Betty’s 1971 hit “Clean Up Woman”) at an Amtrak station two hours north of Miami, where he worked as part of the cleaning crew. But that was Betty: She would just make things happen.
Recording that first Joss Stone album with Betty was a magical experience. She brought unbridled joy into the studio every day, and when 15-year-old Joss Stone was having real trouble singing in front of a live band for the first time, Betty saw no reason to stop the sessions: She simply sang the entire album herself with the band, and then flew to New York, where we recorded Joss’ vocals over the finished musical tracks. But that was typical Betty: While she was certainly a star, she was always happy to remain in the background and help another person’s star shine.
Betty was equally comfortable playing the role of singer, songwriter or producer. As a lead artist, she had a string of classic soul singles starting with “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” in 1968, which she recorded when she was a mere 13 years old. Betty lamented to me years later that her school principal refused to let her miss school to appear on American Bandstand and perform that song, but fortunately, the hits kept coming and Betty was a fixture on the pop and R&B scene throughout the 70’s. She had a run of classic recordings on the Alston label including “Clean Up Woman,” “Tonight’s The Night” and “Where Is the Love,” for which she became the first woman to win a Grammy Award for Best R&B song. She was the height of cool in the R&B world, opening for Bob Marley and the Wailers on their Survival tour and becoming a lifelong friend of the Marley family.
Betty showed up quite a bit as a performer on other people’s records as well, including such classics as Peter Brown’s disco anthem “Dance With Me” (“Gotta keep on making me high/keep making me high”) and, memorably, as the spurned wife on Richard “Dimples” Fields’ early 80’s urban radio sensation “She’s Got Papers On Me”, where she steals the show with a 90-second monologue in which she tells off “Mr. Look So Good” in no uncertain terms (“From now on, this house is where you USED to live!”).
As a songwriter, she always kept the sessions light and moving forward; she was so quick with one catchy idea after another. One day at the home of her high school friend Desmond Child in Miami, Desmond’s infant son would not stop crying. She said to him “I know what you’re thinking: ‘I’m just a baby and I’ve got a right to be wrong’.” She then sat down with Desmond and turned that line into a song, with “Right To Be Wrong” becoming one of Joss Stone’s best-known hits.
After The Soul Sessions, Mike, Betty and I became an ongoing production team for a variety of artists, including the great Tom Jones, who had a hard time adjusting to Betty as a vocal producer. “Girls sing like this,” Sir Tom would lament, in a falsetto, “And guys sing like this,” he’d say in a baritone. “It’s just not workable.” Eventually, though, we got the job done, Betty leading the session with her ever-present drumstick in hand, a vestige of the days when she earned her university music degree majoring in percussion. That background in percussion was her secret weapon, instilling her vocals— and the vocals of those she produced—with an impeccable sense of rhythm, always finding the pocket.
Over the decades, Betty became part of the fabric of the R&B community, close friends with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. With her Betty Wright Live album almost de rigueur in African American households of the 70’s, the affection toward Betty from those music lovers trickled down to the next generation, as artists such as Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg and Usher looked up to Betty as a mother figure, having heard their parents playing her records while they were kids. Eventually, she appeared on the albums of many of these younger artists, and she was especially proud of her Grammy nomination for album of the year for her contributions to Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. The Roots were such big fans that they produced an album, Betty Wright: The Movie, credited to Betty Wright and the Roots, without even asking for a production fee. Songs from that album garnered Betty Grammy nominations two years in a row. Betty received six Grammy nominations overall, including one for her great duet, “Baby,” recorded with her close friend Angie Stone.
Betty, Mike and I worked together for the final time last year, when we produced (along with Sam Hollander) the O’Jays’ first new album in over 20 years, The Last Word. Betty brought her usual cheerful vibes to the studio, but she also brought something much edgier: A scathing political song called “Above The Law,” inspired by Betty’s anger toward travesties occurring in Washington and across our society. The O’Jays embraced it and their performance fully channeled its pain. It would be the final Betty Wright composition to be released in her lifetime.
For me, Betty was a collaborator, mentor and friend. She spent hours on the phone with me sharing stories and offering sage advice. She never turned down performing at a fundraiser or speaking to a classroom of students. She was a teacher at heart. Until her final months she spent much of her time giving voice lessons to young people in Miami.
Betty was a giant of the music world, making great records and great friends over the course of over five decades. She had the rare ability to make everyone feel that they could reach into themselves and create magic. The world is surely less magical without her.
Steve Greenberg is founder/president of S-Curve Records.