With a voice that captures the essence of a wise mother’s advice, soul music icon, Betty Wright has shined both in the forefront and behind-the-scenes of popular music.
Since the outset of her professional career spanning over five decades and the release her signature songs “Clean Up Woman” and “Tonight is the Night”, Wright’s vocals and melodies have been sampled by the apex R&B elites including Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige. On top of earning 15 Grammy Award Nominations and winning a Grammy for Best R&B song of the year for “Where Is The Love”, Wright has remained active as a vocal coach, mentor, producer, painter and spiritual godmother to countless young artists.
In 2011, Wright announced the release of her first solo album since 2001’s Fit For a King, entitled Betty Wright: The Movie. Produced by Wright herself along with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, and Angelo Morris, Betty Wright: The Movie features Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and Wright’s number one protégé, Joss Stone. Displaying a perfect blend of earnestness, the warmth of old soul classics, and all-things-current, the album will be released on S-Curve Records and Wright’s record label Ms. B Records on November 14, 2011. I caught up with Ms. B as she is affectionately called by her godchildren, who include the music industry’s brightest talents, to talk about Betty Wright: The Movie, and the force keeping her continually on the cutting-edge and one of the greatest soul singers of all time.
theGrio: How did Betty Wright: the Movie come into fruition? Was it your idea to collaborate with The Roots?
Betty Wright: The album came to fruition partially as my brainchild, because as soon as I thought it, I knew I could do it. As far as The Roots’ participation, that came about almost as a fluke. We were both nominated for Grammys. I had put out a single called “Go” about domestic violence, and The Roots had a record out with John Legend. The Roots won Best Traditional R&B Performance category (they had done old Temptations or old Motown) I saw them as we were coming out of the building. I had just performed with Cindy Lauper and Mavis Staples and I was happy. I wasn’t happy that I lost, but I was still on my high from performing with people that I love.
I see The Roots and I say “congratulations!” I walked two steps and turned towards them again and said “Yeah, but it took ten of ya’ll to beat me” and they fell out laughing. I told them “ya’ll don’t put out no record next year, let grandma win.” After the Grammys, there was the Grammy party, and The Roots were performing. While they were performing I thought I should go backstage and tell them I love their performance, but they were gone. The guy I work on my label with Steve Greenberg [executive producer for S-Curve Records] and I had decided in October (2010) that we would put our labels together, S-Curve Records and Ms. B Records. Steve spoke to Quest [Questlove of The Roots] and figured it would be a good idea for us to collaborate.
Steve knew what Quest and I didn’t know: he knew what Quest could bring to the table and he knew what I already had in terms of where I was headed with stories and the kind of album I wanted to make. He was thinking in his mind, I could take Betty who is this like dinosaur girl and put her with Quest who gets the dinosaur and merge them together to make something totally new.
In general, how does music make you feel?
It makes me smile, and it makes me happy, and it makes me cry. All of the things that music should make you feel. When I hear a certain song I get angry, or I hear another song…it makes you feel something. Some songs make you feel like getting up and dancing like you’re out of your mind, and others make you feel like wow, that’s what I’m looking for. When I hear the record [Betty Wright: The Movie] it’s like I’m looking at a painting. Every song and story on that album could be a blockbuster movie! I’m looking for all the playwrights to start calling me. I want them to see me about copyrights, and I think we can have ten years of great movies.
Tell me about your first love.
My first love is my mother. She did so much for us as children as a single parent. I watched her make a dollar out of fifteen cents. I thought she was either a magician or she had God’s actual phone number. She wasn’t a motivational speaker; she was an inspirational speaker. It would manifest before our eyes. We could not believe we would go to bed hungry and wake up and have a refrigerator filled will food. She always kept the answer. I still find myself… my mom has been raptured [deceased] over a year and a couple months, and I still pick up the phone when I realize oh, you can’t call her, sista. She would know the answer. She had common sense, which is so uncommon.
How did the concept for your duet with Lil’ Wayne, “Grapes on a Vine” come about?
I tell you a little story about that. I don’t think he’ll mind… I was talking to Lenny Kravitz and he had just lost his father, and I think after that he had lost his grandfather, and he had already lost is mother. I told him you’re always have me as family. It’s a good thing when have a shoulder to cry on, it’s like a vine. I told him “people love you because you’re good people! It’s not like you’ve been this guy that people hate.” And we just hugged. I wrote the song and Lenny was the first person I thought of, one because the guitars are blaring, and two because I wanted him to do it. For him, his mother may have been a calm docile woman and his father may have been an educated Jewish man who didn’t even do music, but Lenny can say, “I am who I am”.
That’s why the lyrics say “grapes on a vine don’t always make sweet wine, it may be bitter but it gets better with time.” Lenny was an inspiration. Then Whitney Houston lost her father and I wanted them to do that as a duet. That was my dream and it didn’t happen, but as singer songwriter, you just sing your song. Somebody else’s loss was my gain, and I was so happy to get Lil’ Wayne because Wayne got it! I didn’t tell him anything about the story, I just said here and he listened, no long thoughts, and it was just done. That lil’ kid ain’t nothing to play with, he’s a genius for real.
How do you deal with stardom?
I don’t think it ever actually gets easy. You just have to realize that no matter how delectable that meal looks, there’s a chance that you might not get to eat it while it’s hot. Some people I meet just love me, and they have to stop and get a picture for their aunt Lucille, or for their cousin who’s overseas, or can you talk to my mom on the phone, she not going to believe I’m sitting next to you at the restaurant. So, there are times I take those chances, and other times, I just get takeout [laughing] Another thing is, there’s always going to be people who have you sized up. They’ve listened to my music and decided that I am the people I sing about. That would make me cross-polar, not bipolar because sometimes I sing about me and next I sing about sin and next one I might sing about flying a kite!
Most people who consider themselves stars, they don’t have the ‘inner star’. The only real star to me is God.
Tell me about the tour; will the Roots, Lil Wayne and other guest be performing with you on the road?
I’m not sure, but we’ve already played some gigs together. We played the Grammy jam, and we played a charity concert in New York. That’s too much for my head right now; I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I put out an album after ten years [laughing] I had a few hits in those ten years, I had two awesome albums with Joss Stone, I worked with Angie Stone, Tom Jones, Diane Birch, I did a lot of work. I’ve been working as vocal trainer, singer songwriter, producer, and choreographer for camp I called the MOST, which is an acronym for “Mountain Of Stars Tomorrow”.
I’m always busy. And I run a ministry. We have church on Thursday nights because a lot of entertainers work on Saturday night and they use that as an excuse for not going to church in the morning. Thankful Thursday! So make sure when you’re in my town, Thankful Thursday, that’s an invitation, Ferrari Elite Sheppard [laughing]
Thank you, Ms B. [laughing] Okay, you’ve done so much already in career, what’s next for Betty Wright?
There are going to be stage plays shooting up off of this album, and I’m going to maybe be acting in some or directing some. I’m always talking to Queen Latifah about doing something. I’m going to be touring. Just keep your eyes and ears open, looking in the sky like you’re waiting on a blessing.