Like not a few young women before her–Carla Thomas at Stax was another prime example–Betty Wright was instrumental in establishing a scene/label/genre which proceeded to drop her by the wayside on the way to bigger things. In Wright’s case her decidedly un-hip 1968 hit “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” was a foundation record for the burgeoning Miami scene which, following her 1971 monster hit “Clean Up Woman,” became a major player in 70’s funk, soul and disco. Her label, Alston Records, spun off TK (home of the McCraes–whom the teenage Wright discovered–and KC and the Sunshine Band) and the rest was history. In funk central’s move from Memphis to Miami, Wright was a major player.
She never had another hit as big, but it wasn’t for a lack of making great records, a fate she shared with a lot of fantastic R&B female singers who were her contemporaries: Stacy Lattisaw, Ann Peebles, Candi Staton. One or two shots at the mainstream, then back to the modern chitlin circuit or the gospel highway or a bit of both.
Twenty-five years ago I came up with a home-made mix-taping concept called Radio Free America that eventually turned into about forty home tapes (later reconstructed for CD). The idea was to compile records from every conceivable rock ‘n’ roll genre, as long as they had the beat, the beat, the beat. Those mix-tapes ended up providing me with about as good a definition of rock ‘n’ roll as I’ve ever come up with–whatever the girls on Shindig and Hullabaloo could dance to. Of course, any concept needs to start somewhere and after about two minutes, I knew where those forty tapes had to start:
Betty Wright passed away from cancer on May 10 at the age of 66, mostly forgotten everywhere except Black America…and my house.
“While You’re Out Looking for Sugar” The Honey Cone (1969) Billboard Pop: #62 Billboard R&B: #26 Recommended source: Greatest Hits
The Honey Cone, Edna Wright in the center
I came across an item on Facebook today which claimed it’s Edna Wright’s 75th birthday. I wasn’t able to confirm the date anywhere else (though she is listed as being born in 1944) but I’ll take any real or imagined occasion to celebrate her and her great group the Honey Cone’s not-so-little and all-too-forgotten place in the history of Rock and Roll America.
When the titanic writing/producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland split with Motown in 1968, they set out looking for artists to fill the rosters at their new labels Hot Wax and Invictus. The first act they signed was a trio of girl group veterans consisting of Wright (Darlene Love’s sister–the vocal and visual similarities were striking), Carolyn Willis and Shelly Clark.
The group’s history soon became an old, familiar one. Like the Chantels, Dixie Cups and Shangri-Las (among others) before them, they were the soul and success of their new label, made fabulous records, had a modest but indelible run of hits and were abandoned to their fate when the record company went out of business. Like those other groups, their identity remained largely obscure, except when they opened their mouths to sing. For the Honey Cone, that musical identity consisted of a nudge forward in what their label mate Laura Lee would soon term “Women’s Love Rights.”
Their biggest hit, “Want Ads,” was, even more than Lee’s hit, the culmination of the process–a new style of assertiveness that married the old girl talk timbres (vulnerable, yearning) to soul and blues themes that had mostly been left to males. The ethos could be summed up in a simple phrase: You better watch yourself!
But the road to “Want Ads” and similarly themed records like Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” (out of Miami, where she, too, would be the foundation stone for yet another process of somebody else making a lot more money than she did), began with the Honey Cone’s first Hot Wax release, “While You’re Out Looking for Sugar” (1969) a fine soul side that did just well enough on the charts to confirm H-D-H’s faith in bigger and better things to come.
It was a bold leap. There were scant role models at the time for the kind of sly but forceful pushback Edna and her group were insisting upon. No more pleading, no more begging, no more daydreaming and no more prizing the church over the street.
Once they got going, the new woman was here to stay, and not just on the Pop and Soul charts. Like all the great girl groups before them, including those H-D-H had guided at Motown (even the mighty Supremes), they were often dismissed as puppets.
Like all the great girl groups before them, it was never that simple. Put it this way: Except for “Want Ads,” Honey Cone’s entire catalog could qualify as its own subcategory of Diamonds in the Shade. There was a reason why, when Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland went looking for the foundation of their own vision, they signed Edna Wright first.
As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.
Then again, there’s the music.
The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.
What a happy journey that’s been!
I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.
Or maybe politics.
I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?
I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.
I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?
Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?
I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.
And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.
The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.
All very typical.
Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.
All still pretty typical.
Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.
It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.
Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.
[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]
From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”
And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.
Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.
Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?
Of course it was.
But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.
A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.
Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.
Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?
The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.
A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.
Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.
A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.
Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.
By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.
Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.
Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.
Speak to me ’75!
And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.
“Shoorah! Shoorah!” was not out of time. The writer, Allen Toussaint, was as hot as a pistol and specialized in southern funk with a slightly Caribbean undercurrent. His “Lady Marmalade,” cut with LaBelle, was one of the era’s signature hits.
Betty Wright herself was the founding queen of Miami’s soul scene. (One of these days I’ll have to do a post on the phenomenon of young women establishing a scene and then being forced to hang on by their fingernails when the boys step in to take over.) She had a hit at fourteen with “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” then turned into a teen talent scout who eventually brought both Gwen and George McCrae to her label, Alton. Alton was the springboard producer/exec Henry Stone used to put Miami on the map, not with either of the McCraes or the later arriving KC and the Sunshine Band, but with Wright’s own “Clean Up Woman,” an across-the-board smash in 1971.
Like a lot of rough-voiced soul singers (especially those never associated with Memphis or Motown) Wright maintained a steady, if unspectacular, presence on the R&B charts, but barely dented the pop charts after her one big hit.
The failure of “Shoorah! Shoorah!” to make much noise even on the black charts while her disco-fied label-mates and fellow scenesters were conquering every chart and scene in sight, circa 1974/75, must have been….depressing. Here’s Wright on her attitude at the time: “I used to sit down and think of all the weird things I was gonna do to make me explode–chopping up a plane or something.”
A little extreme maybe, though maybe telling of the crucible that black life in America can be. And when you think about some of the records that have been hits over the years, you can see where she might have felt pushed against the wall.
What does it take to get a hit in this world!
…Just on a personal note, I once did a series of mix-tapes designed to cross all genres of beat music that ran to thirty tapes at ninety minutes each. “Shoorah! Shoorah!” wasn’t just the first record on the first tape. It was the record that gave me the idea. After the great CD selloff of 2002, when a few years passed and I was trying to find an organizing principle for re-constituting my CD collection on a limited budget, I decided to start by acquiring the music on those tapes.