Betty Wright, Soul Singer Who Mentored a New Generation, Dies at 66

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Betty Wright, a powerful singer who had a breakout hit single when she was 17, went on to be a key player in the Miami funk sound of the 1970s, and worked closely with music stars in the following four decades, died on Sunday at her home in Miami. She was 66.

Her death was confirmed by Steve Greenberg of S-Curve Records, who said Ms. Wright had been diagnosed with cancer in the fall and underwent chemotherapy.

“She was an incredible writer, producer and mentor to young artists,” Mr. Greenberg said. “It’s an incredible loss.”

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 remained a mainstay on the Billboard R&B chart, and as lead singer, duet partner or prominent background vocalist, placed 20 different singles in the R&B Top 40.

As recently as 2007, she was on the R&B and dance charts with “Baby,” a duet with the next-generation soul singer Angie Stone.

“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.”

“Betty can lay greater claim to being the voice of ‘every woman’ than, say, Chaka or Aretha,” Nick Coleman wrote, reviewing the album for The Independent in the U.K. James Reed in The Boston Globe called it “smart, probing R&B for grown-ups,” and an extension of “the fierce, funky sound that made Wright so irresistible in the 1970s.”

Ms. Wright had an enduring career as a songwriter, arranger and producer. Her list of credits includes Stevie Wonder, Stephen Stills, David Byrne, Alice Cooper, Jennifer Lopez, Erykah Badu, Bob Marley, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, Keyshia Cole, P. Diddy, Kelly Clarkson and Nas, among others.

She was known as an adviser to a new generation of soul artists, helping produce albums by the British singer Joss Stone, carrying on a legacy of mentorship that began in her career’s early days. As a teen, she helped George and Gwen McCrae sign to Alston Records; in the late 1970s, she boosted Peter Brown and sang backing vocals on his hit “Dance With Me.”

Bessie Regina Norris was born on Dec. 21, 1953, in Miami, the youngest of seven children. She began singing professionally when she was 2, in the Echoes of Joy, a gospel group her siblings founded.

In 1978, Dick Clark interviewed Ms. Wright on “American Bandstand.” When he asked if she’d been a “church singer,” she replied, “Absolutely. I still am.”

A full obituary will follow.

Ben Sisario contributed reporting.


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