Betty Wright was one of the most venerated figures in ’70s soul, funk, gospel and disco — not just a brilliant singer- songwriter, but also an accomplished producer and even an instinctive A&R woman, helping singers and eventual disco stars George & Gwen McCrae sign their first record deal in the late ’60s while just a teenager herself.
While Wright’s multi-faceted career has seen her importance and influence trickle down to future generations in numerous ways — including as liberally sampled source material — what still resounds the most are her classic original songs. Following her death this week at age 66, Billboard takes a look back at here at 10 of our favorites from her towering catalog.
“Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” (My First Time Around, 1968)
Betty Wright’s breakthrough hit on the Hot 100 — hitting No. 33 in 1968 — doesn’t bemoan gender double standards as much as it encourages young girls listening simply to not stoop to the level of their no-good boyfriends. Still, there’s a palpable sadness and impatience to Wright’s attempts to stay graceful in the face of such inequality, and the song’s roaring horns — unforgettably lifted by Beyoncé and Swizz Beatz nearly 40 years later — get sufficiently angry on her behalf.
“Clean Up Woman” (I Love the Way You Love, 1971)
Wright’s signature smash still sounds like one of the truly timeless hits of the ’70s, a sublime guitar chop and bubbling bass line providing the funky foundation for her lament about “making it easy” for the song’s title figure to swoop in and and steal her man. There’s not a wasted or bum note in “Clean Up Woman,” with everything from the refrain’s “uh-huh“s to the extra little post-chorus guitar lick (which also spawned a future pop top 10 hit, why not) hitting at just the right vibration, and even the song’s title is an all-timer — intriguing enough to force you to listen through to uncover its meaning, and inspired enough to enter your general vernacular afterwards.
“Baby Sitter” (Hard to Stop, 1972)
Wright’s follow-up single to “Clean Up Woman” followed a similar theme of her man getting scooped up by an at-the-ready Other Woman, now a 16-year-old baby sitter. This time, though, she’s having too good a time with the cartoonish description of her younger rival’s “skirt up to her waist” and “TRUCK-load of you know what” to sound truly anguished. The horns and guitar definitely get in on the fun too, as both take turns playing the melody to the “Rock-a-bye Baby” lullaby to really drive the point home.
“I Am Woman,” (Hard To Stop, 1973)
Despite the fact that Wright recorded Helen Reddy’s classic ode to maturity when she was just 19 years old, it’s still substantially more convincing led by Wright’s powerful voice and supported by meaty funk horn lines. Her recitation of the classic William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus” gets the track off to a sober start, but it quickly evolves into more of a celebration than a manifesto — the first track on an album full of deeply groovy funk and soul.
“Shoorah Shoorah” (Danger High Voltage, 1974)
The Allen Toussaint-penned single has become one of Wright’s most enduring songs despite initially only finding success overseas. Its perfectly-executed midtempo funk bounce makes the song optimal for any era’s dance floor, and Wright is at the peak of her vocal powers as she “shoo(rah)”s some less than worthy suitor. The song’s home album, Danger High Voltage, remains a favorite among soul fans, despite the fact that it’s relatively rare.
“Where Is The Love,” (Danger High Voltage, 1974)
The proto-disco was in full effect on this upbeat track, which peaked at No. 15 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 1975. Co-written by Wright, her frequent collaborator and Deep City label founder Willie Clarke, and Harry Wayne Casey and Richard Finch (of K.C. and the Sunshine Band), the song won best R&B song at the 1976 Grammys — coincidentally, beating out K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” and “That’s The Way (I Like It).” It would be Wright’s sole Grammy win.
“Open The Door To Your Heart” (Explosion, 1976)
Darrell Banks’ 1966 hit gets a makeover in this fevered, uptempo early disco take, on which Wright encourages listeners to open the doors to their hearts and let the funk run in. It’s dance floor music at its richest and brightest, and is representative of Wright’s mostly forgotten album Explosion — even so, “Open,” the album’s most successful song, was only able to gain traction overseas. Today, the album endures among rare groove enthusiasts.
“Dance With Me” (Peter Brown’s A Fantasy Love Affair, 1978)
“Clean Up Woman” is undoubtedly her best-remembered hit, but Betty Wright’s nearly matched its Hot 100 peak with this collab with disco hitmaker Peter Brown. It’s a little bland lyrically compared to Wright’s personality-driven solo hits, but the song’s thick groove is certainly undeniable, and Wright’s backing “gotta keep on makin’ me high” exhortations provide the song its most memorable hook — one recently borrowed by big beat duo The Chemical Brothers for their irresistible floor-burner “Got to Keep On.”
“Tonight Is the Night (Pts. I & II)” (Live, 1978)
Wright’s 1974 original “Tonight Is the Night” was a winner in its own right, a wide-eyed and genuinely romantic tale of the singer inviting her lover to spend the night for the first time. But by the 1978 live edit of the song — in which Wright tells the story of its creation, now from the perspective of a fully grown woman — “Tonight” had become an entirely different beast, growing into a two-part barnstormer that’s become one of the best-enduring soul songs of its era. Every bit of its spoken intro remains priceless, particularly its retelling of her mother’s horrified reaction to the lyric (“You know baby, the melody, it’s really nice… BUT I KNOW YOU NOT GONNA SING THAT SONG!“) — later immortalized via Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” of all songs.
“No Pain, (No Gain)” (Mother Wit, 1987)
Wright made waves by releasing 1987’s Mother Wit on her own Ms.B Records. The tell-it-like-it-is “No Pain” was the bigger of the album’s two hits, reaching No. 14 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. On the song, Wright flexed not only her impressive vocal range (she gets into her whistle register towards the end) but her ability to adapt to a whole new wave of slicker, poppier R&B.