INDISPENSABLE (Betty Wright, R.I.P.)

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.

..And maybe Rock and Roll Heaven.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Betty Wright Up)

“Shoorah! Shoorah!”
Betty Wright (1974)
#28 Billboard R&B, #27 UK
Recommended source: The Best of Betty Wright

bettywright1

“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!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2h93Pyo9r2Q

…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.

It took me ten years. It also kept me sane.

Thanks Betty.