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She had her first hit, “Clean Up Woman,” when she was only 17 and became a key player in the Miami funk sound of the 1970s.
Betty Wright, a powerful singer who had a breakout hit single when she was 17, then went on to be a key player in the Miami funk sound of the 1970s, and worked closely with singers and rappers in the following four decades, died on Sunday at her home in Miami. She was 66.
Her death was confirmed by Steve Greenberg, president of S-Curve Records, who said Ms. Wright was found to have endometrial cancer in the fall. “She was an incredible writer, producer and mentor to young artists,” he said.
Ms. Wright’s 1971 hit, “Clean Up Woman,” anticipated funk music’s transition into disco, and its syncopated, soulful sound created a template that found great chart success for the rest of the decade.“Clean Up Woman” peaked at No. 6 on the singles chart. Though she never again matched that mainstream success, Ms. Wright established herself as a regular on the Billboard R&B chart; as a lead singer, duet partner or prominent background vocalist, she placed 20 singles in its Top 40. She was also one of the first pop vocalists to sing in the stratospheric “whistle register,” a technique also used by Minnie Riperton, Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande.
“She is a superbly rhythmic vocalist, pushing against the beat and negotiating the music’s tricky rhythmic crosscurrents with ease,” wrote Robert Palmer, reviewing a 1977 live show for The New York Times. “Her gospel melismata are employed in a conservative, musical manner, not as mannerisms or tics.”
Ms. Wright had an enduring career as a songwriter, arranger and producer. Her list of credits includes Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Stephen Stills, David Byrne, Alice Cooper, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine and Erykah Badu, among others.
Bessie Regina Norris was born on Dec. 21, 1953, in Miami, the youngest of seven children born to Rosa Lee Akins Wright, a registered nurse who was active in the Pentecostal church. Her father, McArthur Norris, worked in lawn service.
Rosa Wright taught her children to sing gospel music, backed them on guitar and wrote a song, “I’ll Keep Toiling On,” which they released under the name Echoes of Joy. Betty “was not even 3 years young yet, but she could sing with a strong, loud, and clear voice on key,” her older brother Phillip later wrote.
She made a transition into secular music despite the objections of her mother, who once told James Brown he couldn’t hire her children because “they only sing gospel music.” In 1968, Ms. Wright had a hit with “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Can Do,” written by two successful local musicians, Clarence “Blowfly” Reid and Willie Clarke. It reached No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, but she had to decline an appearance on “American Bandstand” because the principal at her all-girls school wouldn’t let her take a day off.
She got a second chance to appear on “American Bandstand” thanks to “Clean Up Woman.” When the host, Dick Clark, asked if she’d been a “church singer,” she replied, “Absolutely. I still am.”
But in her songs, she specialized in raucous bedroom dramas and sexual politics. Her 1974 song “Tonight Is the Night,” which she and Willie Clarke wrote, is the nervous but eager monologue of a girl about to lose her virginity in her parents’ house.
Even as a teenager, Ms. Wright started branching out into other roles. She helped the local singers George and Gwen McRae sign to Alston Records, and both later had Top 10 hits. Enrolling at Miami Dade College, she picked percussion as her major, which influenced her aggressively rhythmic singing. She boosted singer Peter Brown and enlivened his Top 10 hit “Dance With Me” by adding a key background vocal.She was pragmatic and adaptable, and changed with the times. After recording on a major label in the early 1980s, she launched her own label, Ms. B Records, wrote and produced a comeback hit, “No Pain, (No Gain)” and became the first woman to have a gold album on her own label.
When the vocal group Color Me Badd sampled “Tonight Is the Night,” without permission for their 1991 smash “I Wanna Sex You Up,” she pressed them into a financial settlement. From there, she made peace with sampling, and after Puff Daddy put a “Clean Up Woman” sample in his remix of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” she became his good friend.
Over the years, she mentored younger singers and rappers, whom she called “my babies.” “I ain’t trying to be in their sandbox — I built the sandbox, but I watch ’em play in it,” she told The New Yorker.
Ms. Wright was married three times, to Jerome McRae, Patrick Parker Sr. and Noel Williams, a reggae musician known as King Sporty.
She is survived by four children, Namphuyo Aisha McRae, Patrice Parker, Chaka Williams and Asher Williams. A son, Patrick Parker Jr., was shot and killed in 2005. She is also survived by four siblings: Charles Wright, Milton Wright, Jeannette Wright and Phillip Wright.
In the early 2000s, Ms. Wright helped produce albums by the British singer Joss Stone, and went on to collaborate with fellow Floridian phenoms DJ Khaled and Rick Ross. She’d sung professionally since age 2, had succeeded in just about every aspect of the music business, and had no interest in retirement.
In a 2017 interview, she said, “Once Usher told me, ‘Ma, when you die, they gonna have to pry that microphone out of your hand.’” Recounting the story, Ms. Wright laughed. “I said, ‘What makes you think they gonna get it then?’”