Trailblazing singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, producer and music activist Betty Wright died of cancer at home on Sunday in Miami. She was 66.
Born Bessie Regina Norris, Wright grew up in a musical family. She began her professional career in the entertainment industry with her family’s gospel group, Echoes of Joy. After switching genres to become a R&B and soul singer, Wright was discovered by a record label owner at a local talent show at the ripe age of 12.
While she released her first album, “My First Time Around” when she was 14, Wright made her biggest waves in the music industry with her 1971 hit “Clean Up Woman” at age 17. Some of her other hits include “Tonight Is the Night” and “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do.”
Her signature voice, vibrant personality and powerful ability to sing in the whistle register earned Wright chart-topping hits and six Grammy nominations – one of which she won for “Where Is The Love,” voted Best R&B song.
Wright eventually became an independent artist with her own label, Ms. B Records to have more creative and financial control. She made history in 1988 by becoming the first Black woman to have an album reach gold status on their own label.
Her songs inspired other artists who sampled her “infectious, straight-no-chaser music,” according to her friend, broadcaster Dyana Williams, who wrote a tribute to Wright in Essence.
Her songs have been sampled by Beyoncé on “Upgrade U,” Mary J. Blige on the “Real Love” remix, Chance the Rapper on “Favorite Song,” SWV on “I’m So Into You” and many more, according to Essence. Wright also heavily influenced, worked with and was sampled by many hip-hop artists.
Dubbed the Godmother of Miami Soul by the Miami New Times, Wright toured up until as late as last year. She sold out London’s Barbican Centre and was a headliner at her hometown’s multi-day Jazz In The Gardens (JITG) festival in 2017. During JITG’s Film Music Arts and Culture (FMAC) Conference, Wright spoke about how important it was for her to mentor others.
Before her death, Wright was celebrated for her immense impact on the industry on TV One’s “Unsung” series. The first viewing aired April 5, then again on May 10.
When news of her death was announced by her niece on Mother’s Day, tributes poured in for the woman many affectionately knew as Ms. B and Auntie B.
Ledisi tweeted her appreciation to Wright for being a trailblazer. “Thank you for being a master teacher, a friend and one of the greatest female soul singers in our industry. You were so much more than your music. We were blessed to be around royalty. Thank you. I will never forget,” she wrote with a queen’s crown emoji.
Writer Peter Bailey shared how Wright stopped what she was doing to give him an interview while she was on a cruise in the Caribbean after her son Patrick was killed in 2005. He said she “looked past her own pain to ensure that as a Black writer I got what I needed to further my career.”
In an Instagram post after Wright’s death, DJ Khaled called Wright an “icon and the Mother of Miami,” along with a picture of the two together.
John Legend echoed many young artists’ sentiments when he tweeted Wright “was always so loving and giving to younger artists. Always engaged, always relevant. She will be missed.”
Wright was preceded in death by her husband, Noel “King Sporty” Williams in 2015. King Sporty co-wrote Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier.”
She is survived by three daughters and a son as well as a host of other family, friends and loved ones. The family has asked for privacy during this time.
Known for her candor and authenticity, Wright dropped countless gems of wisdom throughout her life. Here are 20 quotes from the iconic songstress.
On being authentic
“I don’t feel like I need to tell any lies. You get to an age where you get tired of hiding behind whatever people think is correct. You just say what you have to say, and if they don’t like it, it’s OK.”
On making good music, vocal coaching and competition
“Sometimes when you have a song, you listen to it and say, ‘It’s OK. It’s music to drive to.’ But then there are songs where you can actually hear it as a movie.”
“I’m tired of people disturbing the peace, getting on the radio and sounding a hot mess. If I can tell what the note really is, why let them go to the note they think it is? I’ve got that mama vibe. I don’t look at it with an ego.”
“’Pain’ is more indicative of what I like to do. I’m lyric-conscious. I like to tell stories, give advice. Instead of writing a ‘Dear Abby’ column, I do it on records.”
“I love competition because I’ve always run faster when somebody was running next to me.”
On love and legacy
“As long as you keep yourself in love with people, you can transcend time.”
“I believe in legacy. And I believe in making the radio sound better. If I gotta listen to it, I want it to sound good.”
“I’ve just learned that love is a very fleeting thing, so (when) we have it, we need to hold on to it but hold on to it in a gracious fashion. Not in the smothering but more so just a covering kind of love.”
“Compassion, not passion, keeps a marriage together.”
On faith and family
“My first love is my mother. She did so much for us as children as a single parent. I watched her make a dollar out of fifteen cents. I thought she was either a magician or she had God’s actual phone number. She wasn’t a motivational speaker; she was an inspirational speaker.”
“All of my babies know that I preach all day. … I ain’t trying to hide no light under no bushel. Everybody needs a little light in their life, and when they need prayer, they know where to come because they know I love them all, and I ain’t judging nobody.”
On women artists
“I respect women that have a voice and use it for a proper reason.”
“There have always been female artists and singers putting bands together all the time. But we were not always getting credit for that because we didn’t know any better.”
On celebrating the next generation of artists
“I used to hate sampling, but it was basically because everyone was getting paid but us. But when they began to do the legislation and get it right, I realized that the kids just did something that, if maybe we were smart enough, we would have done it as well.”
“I have to tell you that I love people. When I see the kids coming up and see what they have done with the music, it’s amazing.”
“Hands down, Rick Ross is a genius. Hands down, Diddy is a genius. Hands down, Kanye is a genius. All of them.”
On enjoying life and relationships
“I would say I am viewed as the oldest teenager in my family because they say I never grow old. I mean, I am stern in my own way – I am not one to let children run over me – but I am very, very good with children, and I can usually get what I want out of them.”
“If you learn this secret of how to forgive, a longer and better life you’ll live!”
On staying in Miami and the ‘Miami Sound’
“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.”
“You’ve got a little Cuba, a little Jamaica, and a little Haiti; you’ve got a large Jewish culture and you’ve got calypso,” Wright told Billboard magazine. “Then you’ve got people who were born here or came from South Carolina, where they’ve got a heavy African culture too. It’s a very rhythmic roots music. Even the white acts that come out of Miami tend to be very soulful. We’ve got that serious, serious conga rhythm.”
“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.”
Written by Isheka N. Harrison