Saturday, March 17, 2012

Little Miss Super Soul

I somehow had the feeling that some unpolished r&b, possibly in the southern vein, best graces today's post. So I went with the LP of a (relative) newcomer of '68 ... Betty Wright.
Image courtesy of

Born in December (or according to some in September) 1953 in Miami, Betty (legally Bessie Regina Norris) was only 14 when she recorded several sides for the newly-founded Alston label in spring 1968. But it was not her first record stint, because her first 45s were out in 1967, viz. Solid Soul # 3030 and Deep City # 2378 (for a copy see here). Both labels were Miami-based and produced by Willie Clarke and, eventually, Clarence Reid. (You will remember that the Criteria Studios in Miami were essentially Deep City's studio ... Aretha Franklin, James Brown and others recorded here.) Now, both Willie Clarke and Clarence Reid not only produced Betty Wright's first two 45s, they also had discovered her. As the legend goes, sometime in 1965 or 1966 Reid & Clarke overheard her in a Miami record store and first let her sing background on their Deep City productions. She also had won a local singing contest on a radio show (with a version of »What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted«). In Betty's own words (from a 1972 interview):
I had won a singing competition on the local radio station and the prize was a record. Well, I went down to the record store to select it and whilst I was in there, I was just singing along with the record that was playing — not loud, you know, but just to myself really. Anyway, this guy came up behind me and touched me on the shoulder — actually, he frightened me at the time because I didn't expect it. So he said to me that I had a good voice and that I should do something about it. ... Anyway, the next record that was played in the store was Billy Stewart's Summertime and Willie's friend — who is Clarence Reid — said he'd bet I couldn't sing along with that one. Well, I did! So, we went into a local studio and I put my voice down on a few numbers and Willie got excited about it and went round to see my mother, to ask if he could record me. My mother quite naturally didn't want her 13-year-old daughter involved in it all and she refused at first. After a while, though, she changed her mind and she signed over her agreement and I made my first recordings.
Altough still of tender age, Betty was already a pro singer if it is true (which I guess it is) that she started singing at age 2 ... being the youngest of seven children of gospel singer Rosa Akins Braddy-Wright, Betty was, together with her siblings, taught close harmony singing by her mother (who also played guitar on occasion). So, in 1956 prodigy Betty's voice appeared on an album by The Echoes of Joy, their siblings' gospel group (I have never heard this LP nor have seen a trace of it, unfortunately, but for more details see here and here). She then performed as member of this group until the mid-60s, reportedly also appearing together with the Staple Singers. In the Sept. 07, 1959, issue of Billboard there is a short review of Avant # 075 by the »Echoes of Joy« (Didn't It Rain w/ Way Back To God). Betty was later to say, »we used to sing in local churches and halls... and we used to make demo discs of some of the religious songs and we'd sell them when ever we appeared at a local hall. I was actually only three when my mother first got me to sing a little and I stayed within the Echoes until I was about ten, I guess. Then, the group started to split up as people made their own way in life« (from an 1972 interview, read it here). However, the history of the Echoes of Joy is far from clear or well- documented; the group broke up in 1965.

Be it as it may, Betty Wright's early career, from family gospel group to casually-discovered soul singer (preluded by a successful radio singing contest) is very much the epitome, perhaps the truly classical way of how careers got started in the inde- pendent music business during the '60s. If anything, Betty was considerably younger (actually not yet a high school student!) than many of her singing peers who made a similar career. And she was one of the few who succeeded in prolonging their career into our own days ...

Further reading on Betty's early career (up to 1968):
(Click here for a Japanese cover version!)
In August 1968, Betty's first Alston 45 (#4569 »Girls Can't Do What The Guys Do« w/ »Sweet Lovin' Daddy«) charted for the first time; the single eventually went to #15 r&b (and #33 pop). Both songs are, of course, included on Betty's first album, Atco LP # SD 33-260 (My First Time Around) (September 1968). The entire LP was an Alston production manufact- ured and distributed by Atlantic-Atco (that is why it says »Alston Records Series« in the upper left corner of the cover). This album also contains the tunes released on subsequent Alston 45s, viz. # 4571 (»He's Bad, Bad, Bad« / »Watch Out Love«) and 4573 (»The Best Girls Don't Always Win« / »Circle of Heartbreak«), out in 1968 and 1969, respectively. These 45s didn't make it, saleswise.
Label of my copy
It is noteworthy that all the songs on Betty's Alston 45s are originals written by Clarence Reid and/or Willie Clarke, with »Circle Of Heartbreak« credited to Betty herself. But if you listen to the Alston-Atco album as a whole you'll realize that the songs released as singles are the ones more in the pop or pop-soul mould. The remaining six songs on the LP are mostly covers of older or more recent material, mainly ballads (»Just You«, »I'm Thankful«, »I Can't Stop My Heart«), and two of them are fast-paced r&b tunes much reminiscent of what Memphis and Muscle Shoals was putting out at the time and prefigure the later successes of Betty Wright ... you can listen to them below (Clarence Reid's »Funny How Love Grows Old«, first released by The Box Tops in '68, and Penn-Oldham's »Cry Like A Baby«). In any case, this LP is really a »soul gem« (quoted from here) and you may read another very good review of the album by Sam Sweet here.

Finally, some curiosities: Clarence Reid himself is playing piano on the album, albeit not in all songs; Steve Alaimo and Brad Shapiro (both closely connected to Henry Stone, the boss of Alston) arranged the songs. Truly bizarre is this notice on the back cover: »All checks signed by: Henry Stone«. This is good to know ...! Slightly disturbing, if not out of place, also parts of the liner notes, written by Miami DJ Milton Smith (aka Butterball) of WAME radio: »Aside from being a devoted singer, songwriter and musician, Betty is tops in school at Notre Dame Academy for girls. She maintains an A average with an I.Q. of 167, and she loves math« (emphasis mine)! (I invite the readers to tell me of another LP back cover that mentions the IQ of the artist!!) But let's conclude here with Butterball's praise of Betty which seems more to the point: »Some well-known disc jockeys refer to her as "Little Miss Super Soul" and the greatest female vocalist since Aretha Franklin.« Well, so be it!

Betty Wright: »Funny How Love Grows Old« / »Cry Like A Baby« from the Atco LP # 33-260 (1968):


  1. Butterball and Clarence Reid went on to record on Reid's Blowfly LP "zodiac".

  2. "So be it" indeed. One of THE great female vocalists.

    You have to think the lyrical content of many of the songs is at odds with her tender age, but it's a really strong debut album. "Circle Of Heartbreak" is such a great track.

  3. Absolutely! Some songs contrast, as you mention, with the artist, as does the cover photo with how Betty is described in the sleeve notes ...! I think Sam Sweet (in his above-mentioned review) is right in saying that »given the contrast between her powerful, mature voice and her age, Atlantic seems to have been undecided on whether to present Wright as a talented ingénue, or a woman wise beyond her years« ...