Just a cursory glance at the titles of Betty Wright’s US hit singles during the late-’80s reveals a common theme – pain: the pain of unrequited love, the pain of life and, of course, the pain caused by unscrupulous and heartless paramours. Yes, men. During that era she was the undisputed queen of heartbreak soul, evidenced by a quartet of storytelling Stateside chart entries that focused on betrayal, separation and love’s vicissitudes – there was ‘Pain’ in 1986, which was followed by ‘No Pain, No Gain’ and ‘After The Pain’ (both in ’88) and then, thankfully, the series climaxed with ‘From Pain To Joy’ in ’89. Perhaps the Miami singer’s recordings during that time reflected her own romantic disappointments and relationship problems but talking to Betty Wright in 2012 – speaking to me from what I imagine are the luxurious confines of her London hotel – she is bright, bubbly and optimistic; like someone who has overcome a series of challenging obstacles put in front of her and is now free of heavy burdens. She laughs a lot, too – it’s the philosophical and sometimes joyous laugh of someone who’s experienced both highs and lows in life and now feels she has nothing to fear. At the age of fifty-eight and with forty-seven years in the music business under her belt, she’s seen it all, you’d think. But her appetite to keep working in the music business and her enthusiasm is as keen as it’s ever been. It’s her strong work ethic – ingrained in her at an early age when she had to look after herself while her mum was incapacitated – that is partly responsible for her longevity in what is arguably the most cutthroat business of them all…
Like fellow soul veteran, the recently revived Bobby Womack, Betty Wright has managed to survive while most of her peers and contemporaries have long bitten the dust and either gone to an early grave or premature retirement. She puts her survival down to the divine forces. “It’s definitely because I put God first,” says the singer, who was one of the first female artists to take control of her own destiny by starting her own record company, publishing and production company back in the 1980s. “Also, I didn’t fool around,” she reveals. “I opted not to get high or get drunk and didn’t do any of that. I just opted to stay strong and if I had a problem I chose to face it. If I had to cry, if I had to fight, or whatever it was, I just faced it because going to bed on it won’t make it any better the next day. I just deal with it. If you don’t it will deal with you.”
Wise words indeed. But then Betty has accrued oodles of valuable experience over the years and rather than keep it to herself, she selflessly shares it with younger, up-and-coming singers and wannabe recording stars. When she’s not singing and performing she can be found acting as a mentor to a host of young people (including many from her own family) and tutoring them on how to write songs at a songwriting workshop she calls The Most (which is an acronym for Mountain Of Songs Today). “I learn every time I do something with a new act. We just open a door and we flow through each other. We’re all conduits of some sort so I’m always in both seats: teacher and student.”
An unrepentant multi-tasker and workaholic, Betty was in England recently to play some gigs (including three nights at London’s Jazz Café) and also promote her critically-lauded new album – her first in a decade – ‘Betty Wright: The Movie,’ which is an exciting collision of old and new school soul vibes thanks to the presence of The Roots and in particular the group’s drummer/producer, Ahmet ‘Questlove’ Thompson. In an honest, heartfelt interview with SJF, Betty Wright talks about her new musical venture, as well as other facets of her life and long career.
On the recording front, you’ve been quite quiet lately but finally, you’ve got a new album out, ‘Betty Wright: The Movie.’ What’s the story behind it?
Well, whenever I’m quiet, I’m doing something else! (Laughs) I might be quiet on the forefront but I’m definitely always working in the trenches. What’s going on with ‘Betty Wright: The Movie’ is that it shows my life as it evolves and shows what my musical career is like now because I always say my life’s like a movie ‘cos I do so many things. I’m painting while I’m singing and training other artists and I’m producing and I’m writing so I had to make the album on the run meaning the album had to be done while I was doing a million other things. So I just called it ‘Betty Wright: The Movie.’ The connection isn’t about one particular thing; it’s a multiplicity of events and all kinds of things, from dance to slow to mid-tempo songs; there’s no particular view except that the concept is like a day in my life and each day of my life you could write a movie for each hour and never repeat yourself.
How did your collaboration with The Roots come about?
It was really the brainchild of (executive producer) Steve Greenberg. He went to the Grammys when we were nominated for the song ‘Go’ (a 2010 single and which is the closing song on ‘Betty Wright: The Movie’) and he got talking to Questlove on the way home on the plane to New York and they came up with the idea that all the tracks should really be live because the ‘Go’ song was a live song. So that was really a major, major impetus for whatever we were doing next and they looked for that kind of vibe on this record. And sure enough, it worked (laughs).
What was the experience working with The Roots like?
I worked with Questlove on an earlier Joss Stone record (‘Soul Sessions’) so I was very up to speed with him. I arranged the Jack White song for Joss ‘I Fell In Love With A Boy’ and showed Questlove what the flavour should be and took Jack White’s song and rewrote it actually – and they tell me that even Jack White actually does that White Stripes’ song the same way now. Questlove is really easy to work with. He was always smooth. He doesn’t say much but he does a lot of playing and a lot of focusing. A person that’s that busy has to micromanage. He slipped me into a slot that didn’t even exist because he does a TV show now (with The Roots) called ‘Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.’ Literally, he would come off stage from that TV show and he’d get dressed, cleaned up, and then boo, we were in the studio.