WHEN Atlantic recommences battle in this country following the switch from Polydor to Kinney's distribution, one of the records that will receive maximum support is Betty Wright's recent American Gold Disc winner, "Clean Up Woman".
Betty, who was born in Miami, Florida — where she still lives — on September 21, 1953, was introduced to the art of singing when only three. Her family constituted the major part of a local gospel group, the Echoes Of Joy. "We used to sing in local churches and halls," Betty fondly recalls. "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."
Then, when Betty was 13, she accidentally made the switch to Soul: "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. Then he introduced himself as being Willie Clarke and he asked me my name. When I told him, he asked if I was a relation of Philip Clarke, who is my brother. It was then that I remembered where I'd seen him before — my brother plays guitar and I'd seen Willie come by the house to pick Philip up for a session. 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. The first two records I made were actually released on a little label down in Miami that Willie was involved with; it was called Deep City Records and one of them, "Mr. Lucky", which Willie also wrote, was quite successful in Southern Florida, around home.
"Then we switched to Henry Stone's distribution in Miami and that's when I went on to Alston. Clarence and Willie wrote a song called "Girls Can't Do What The Guys Do" and we recorded that but the company turned it down. Actually, they preferred the other side at the time but once I put my voice down on the track, they decided to go along with it. In the summer of '68, the record began to break around the country and finally in the fall, it made the Soul Top 10 in the trade magazines. The one thing that was the biggest help to me was that another company came out with a cover on the record — I think it was Buddah (Editor's note: it was!) but I know the artiste was Judy White, who is Miriam Mekeba's daughter. Anyway, it made Atlantic sit up and take some notice and they had to work hard and fast to come out with the winner. The record ended up by selling a little over half a million and it opened the door for me to the better clubs.
"After that, I had a few little hits but things went quiet for a year or so until we came up with "Pure Love", which was the last one on which Brad Shapiro was producer. It was then that Atlantic took Brad as a full-time producer for them. So, Willie took a crash course in learning how to produce and it was he and Clarence Reid who have produced me ever since. The first thing they did was to record me on "I Found That Guy", a 'B' side of an earlier Jackson 5 hit. It sold very well in the south and it paved the way for the next one, "I Love The Way You Love". That one became a very big R&B hit for me and it took me into another bracket within the business and it was then that I started to play on shows with James Brown, Jerry Butler, Al Green, Clarence Carter, the late King Curtis…even Tiny Tim. Actually we recorded that song for a special contest that I took part in. It was a special music festival down in Caracas, Venezuela — I was the first Black American artiste to ever take part and it helped me to gain prestige — you know, when an artiste plays dates outside the country, people here tend to think more of them. The contest, though is a big thing down there; it costs $22 (£9 nearly) just to get in to see it. And I did some TV dates down there.
"Then came "Clean Up Woman" — I must admit that I didn't like it too much at first. This time it was me who preferred the other side. I certainly didn't like it as much as "I Love The Way You Love" and I didn't expect it to be a hit for me. But I did recognise that the title and the beat were catchy and that the public could like at least those two things about it. It was a funny record, though, because it didn't really seem to need promotion. A DJ would just play it because he liked it and people would buy it because they liked it. People could dance so easily to it — especially the soul sisters! Now its sold more than a million copies: my manager tells me it's close to two million now. When the record started breaking, I was working for the local TV station as co-hostess on a weekly two hour show called "The Now Explosion". The show ent out in Southern Florida ever Saturday night and it was a semi-talk show with dancing and artistes in between.
"But "Clean Up Woman" has given me my biggest break so far. I'm now playing the Apollo Theatre in New York and this is my first time here. I nearly played here before but, honestly, the money isn't enough unless you have a hit record going for you. Anyway, that's especially true when you have to come up from Florida — you spend your whole earnings on the air-ticket and the cost of a hotel room. But I'm excited about the Apollo — I think it must be the only theatre with atmosphere to it. The first day I was here, I just sat down in the auditorium before the people came in and you could sense the spirit of the place. The place is a legend — every R&B act of the last twenty or more years has walked out on that stage. Every week, there's a whole new show here with a whole new lot of people. It really is fascinating. And the audience here is so critical; if you win here, you can win anyplace. There's so much happening in New York that if they don't like you, they go to the opposition. I am using the house band although my brother, Philip, is with me playing guitar. I do three numbers — "Rock Steady", "I Love The Way You Love" and "Clean Up Woman", which I usually do twice. Philip was playing with King Curtis' Kingpins until Curtis died and then he joined Junior Wlaker's All Stars but when my record broke and I had to have a resident band, Philip came back to Miami and formed my band.
"Another thing about New York — I'd never seen snow until I arrived here and I'm wondering now whether it will affect my voice in any way.
"Now that the new album is out, people have been wondering whether my follow-up single is on it. The truth is that we're all not really sure. The radio stations — especially the DJ's who have their own record stores — insist that "I'm Gettin' Tired Baby" is the one and that they're getting requests for it all the time. On the other hand, we have a new one in the can called "Is It You Girl" which is funky and in the groove of "Clean Up Woman", although it's completely different in every other way and is, to me, a better record than "Clean Up Woman". But we shall have to wait and see because nobody is too sure at this moment what it will be."
In the meantime, Betty is likely to be in Europe before too long because a tour is being set up right now for her.