Phone interview recorded February 2, 2012
There is no one like Betty Wright, the Queen of Miami Soul, a true soul survivor, who has enjoyed a remarkable career rejuvenation over the past fifteen years - working with the likes of Joss Stone, Jennifer Lopez, P. Diddy and others. It's been a while since Betty put out a new album but the wait is over: late last year, S Curve Records released BETTY WRIGHT - THE MOVIE, an amazing collaboration with The Roots that many - including SoulMusic.com's David Nathan - consider the best real soul album of 2011. David catches up with the genial and ever-wise Ms. B. and relishes the opportunity to commune with her...
David Nathan: I say this with almost every interview I do and it’s always true—it’s always true. I always say it’s a pleasure for me to be speaking to whoever it is. In this particular case, I couldn’t even just say 'it’s a pleasure; this is a lady who I have been doing interviews with since… when we say back in the day, we really do mean back in the day. 'I don’t know the exact first interview we did, but I’m going to guess it was around 1975—might have been ’74—and I do remember something very specific, which is the first year that I came to live in the United States in 1975, I saw this particular lady performing. And what I wrote about, because I actually saw this recently, was how she did impressions of different, other singers, including—I’m going to try and get this right—Esther Phillips, Barbara Mason, and there was somebody else but I don’t know who, and I’m going to ask her in a moment who it is. But anyway, without further ado, especially because she has what I consider to be one of the best new albums I’ve heard in a very long time, I am truly excited to be speaking again to Miss B, also known to the world as the Clean Up Woman, but really for soul music fans everywhere, there’s no one else like Betty Wright. So Betty, welcome to SoulMusic.com.
Betty Wright: Well, I’m afraid to speak now. After that introduction I’m trying to figure out how to spell your name on the cheque—you need a cheque after that! Well, David, it’s always a pleasure to speak to you and I don’t feel like there’s an interviewer/interviewee; I feel like this is brother and sister just talking.
Because that’s the way we’ve always dealt with it, and we have dealt with some issues with this music business. Every time I would get frustrated I’d say, “David, why do they say this? Why do they do this? And they don’t know what they want to call us—one year we’re black-oriented, it was soul, now we’re urban… what is it?” And I would be venting. But it’s always good to speak with you. You definitely have your hand on the right plough. Some people come into this soul music thing and they think they know, and they write these hilarious articles, because you can tell that they didn’t get their information from the person. They read bad articles with misinformation and they re-quote some bad information, and then they totally turn people off because people know they didn’t really do their research. It’s always good to talk to you because you always do your research.
DN: Well, thank you.
BW: And it’s always a pleasure.
DN: Well, before we talk about the new album, just satisfy my curiosity since my memory didn’t quite get it right: when you used to do those impressions back in the Seventies it was Esther Phillips, Barbara Mason and who was the other one?
BW: Sometimes during that time…
DN: Sylvia, Sylvia.
BW: Sylvia; yeah, yeah.
DN: Sylvia - Pillow Talk!
BW: I knew it would come to you while I was getting ready to say it.
DN: That’s exactly who it was, exactly. That’s just a memory I always have of seeing you perform in New York, so there you go. Well, let’s talk now about your brand-new album, BETTY WRIGHT - THE MOVIE. The first thing of course I’m sure everyone wants to know is how this album came about in terms of you working with The Roots, but also how the whole process of the album came about. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
BW: Well, before I even finished writing my songs, in the last three years I already knew I was going to call itBETTY WRIGHT - THE MOVIE. For one, there was always this linear view of music that I just couldn’t get past. I would listen to a song and I said, “Okay, nice to listen to, but I don’t see the movie—I don’t see it.” And I would always say, “When I hear a song, I want the song to awaken all my senses. I want to smell the food that they’re talking about, I want to see the people that they’re singing about—I want to be able to see the movie.”
So before I even decided which songs… because trust me, David, I got so many songs that I was going through to get to those that I wanted to use for me. And that’s the disadvantage. I always say God blessed me so richly, but as a songwriter I would write with people in mind: “Oh, this—I want Aretha to do this. Oh, I would love to hear what Al Green would do with this.” And sometimes you would get so discombobulated you wouldn’t finish writing for yourself.
With this album, I kept coming up with songs, kept coming up with songs and after I narrowed it down to thirty I said, “Okay, you can’t put thirty songs on an album. You gotta do fourteen of them, so come on; we gotta script it.” And I was recording every day—once again, disadvantage and advantage, because I’ve got those studios in my house; I’m just cutting every day. Every time I think about a song, I go in and cut it.
So I got it down to maybe about twenty-five songs and then I said, “Well, let me just let Steve hear a couple of the things that I’m doing.” And Steve is, of course, Steve Greenberg at S-Curve Records. We had talked about maybe coming together and maybe putting out a project, because I hadn’t put out a record in so long it was just crazy. Right after my mom died I went to do a show in Boston, and I recorded a song called “Go” which I had done a studio version of, so I thought that maybe… and I think I was talking to Ruben Rodriguez, who of course does promotion now, but at one time he was with Pendulum Records.
DN: Absolutely, absolutely.
BW: Ruben was talking about listening to the song and he said, “You know, Betty, I like it. The only thing that it doesn’t remind me of is the real Betty Wright where you read people.” I’m one of the only—I guess one of the last—people in my age group that do listen to people. I said, “You know, he’s right. It was a good song, but that’s all it was—a good song.” So I began to do it live on my show, I started communicating with the audience and I started thinking of things that would make the song better. By the time I got to Boston to do a show over in Foxborough with my brother Milton, I had come up with a whole other idea for that song.
And when I began to weep on the end of that song: “You wouldn’t want nobody beating up on your mama, you wouldn’t want nobody beating up on your auntie” and the tears started streaming, I didn’t know if it was because the death of my mom was so new or just my emotions were so on fire. And then when I heard that record I hurried up and sent it to the Grammys, because you know in your heart of hearts...and sure enough, got a nomination. So that’s what spawned the whole thing, was after the Grammys we were walking out the door… because Questlove and John Legend actually won the category that I was in.
Now they mix the girls with the guys and the groups… everything is just all together. I said, “Congratulations. At least if I had to lose I lost to my boys,” and I was laughing. And I walked a few more feet… because I was feeling a real, real high. I had just performed with Mavis Staples, Maria Muldar and Cyndi Lauper; we had done “Wang Dang Doodle”, so I was happy: “Yeah, I love the Grammys, but I sang with Mavis.” So I turned around and then I said, “It took ten of y’all to beat me.” And they thought that was hilarious, so I said, “Yeah, Questlove, you and your boys… and not a hundred.” I then I said, “Y’all don’t put no record out, next year I might win!” And from that moment of us walking out that door, never knowing that they’re going to play for the event that night, Steve’s going to get on a redeye and end up sitting next to Questlove. Child, by the time they got home they’d figured out what they were going to do with my album. “She thinks she’s finished with her album, but what we gonna do, we’re gonna get you and you’re all gonna do this together.” This was all Steve, you understand? I just was told, “Hey, Miss B… how about this?” I’d love to take credit because it turned out to be so great, but I can’t take one ounce of credit for putting it together.
DN: That’s amazing.
BW: It was Steve; and you know Steve’s a maniac when it comes to that because his brain catches fire—all the way back to the Joss Stone stuff—his brain catches fire, he gets an idea, and everybody’s like, “Oh my goodness, that’ll never work,” and then you see him get an award for it. Because he can see things that no one else can see but him.
And sure enough it went from, “Well, we might do a couple of songs,” to then maybe a couple more songs. And then he had, I think, as a benefit forJewish Heart For Africa—it’s a Jewish organization that sponsors and they do music and put out records from the kids in the village—and they had an event to raise money. So he asked Nick Jonas, Diane Burge and myself and Quest to do the event, and we did. And we ended up doing that show and we ended up having a meeting and putting together this whole thing we were going to do. That was in May. We started recording in June and we were done in July.
DN: What was it like working with The Roots in the studio? How was it?
BW: It sure was a labour of love, for one. The only setback for me was the studio was about sixty-two degrees, and I’m from Florida. I was sick as a dog, but I wouldn’t tell anybody. I just kept wrapping up in a blanket and getting in a corner and coughing when I had to and just singing. But insofar as the experience and wanting to know how Quest was, he’s a real quirky person, and I learned a lot from watching people who don’t do a lot of talking but a lot of working. And he took those songs and those productions that I had already done didn’t get destroyed or disrupted. He kept it soulful, he kept it with eras in mind that wouldn’t offend me, because if it would’ve gotten too pop, if it would’ve gotten too jazz, if it would’ve gotten too anything, I don’t like things flavoured with all of the above. I’m a soul singer, and the farthest I go out on that limb is gospel, because soul and gospel have subject matter.
And he really took special care of me. I would have to say that he did that thing brothers do when they love their big sisters or they love their aunties—they look out for them. I think he looked out for my songs, he looked out for my music, and all of the cowriters that are in Miami, I think they are very proud of their music, and I know he really loved their writing because he used two of the songs on his album. Fractions of the songs we did there are on his album.
DN: Wow, wow. Well, I’m telling you… look, I’ll be honest: when I heard the album that John Legend did with The Roots, I loved it. I remember telling John Legend that was my favourite album at the time, absolutely. But whatever it is that Questlove does and The Roots do, whatever it is that they seem to bring to a project…
BW: It’s a preservation society. You know what it is: they preserve what we know as soul music. And maybe it’s the Philadelphia water, but because so much music came out of Philly you have to give credit where credit is due, and the one thing you know is that your sound is preserved. He did not expect me to come in there and sing like Barbra Streisand, he didn’t expect me to come in there and sing opera; he knew what I sang and he does study soul music and he is a crate digger, and he is gonna know every song you ever did. He knew what my flavourings were. He was careful to remind me now, “Where is your ‘Tonight Is the Night’?” I said, “I got it, I got it.” we were on the same page, because I had drawn pictures of things—even my album cover is a picture that I drew that they turned into a reality by having someone come in and shoot pictures in Miami of what I drew. The only thing I’m sad about, because I did want Quest on the cover; I wanted him with his Afro pick running through his hair. And he was like, “No, no…” and I think, basically, it was just because sometimes when you’re in a band, you want to make sure everybody gets a shot. I even thought about putting the entire band at the bottom of the screen looking up at the movie, but we were running out of time. I kept coming up with ideas, but… that’s the only thing that’s missing for me, is Quest. So sometimes when I’m just doodling, I draw him by the projector.
DN: Well, let me ask you about a few of the songs. But before I do that I want to ask you, when it was finished and you first heard the final, finished, mastered, this is it, this is the album, what was your reaction when you listened back?
BW: Well, I’m going to be honest with you because I know I can: some days I would hate the album, some days I would love it, and I realized I was the problem. Because some days I would be listening at a tired voice in a song, and it was right before… I’m actually going a little bit before what you were saying about the mastering, but I want to tell you this story. I would listen and I would be like, “I hate this. I don’t even like the song anymore. What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with it?” I had everybody in my house crazy; they thought I’d lost my mind. And really, I would just go from love to hate, love to hate… and it had nothing to do with what I thought—I just wasn’t finished.
I had to finish, because I wasn’t giving myself a fair shot. I was listening to that voice that was in that sixty-two-degree room, and I had to really make myself get down here in this heat and apply myself for that live music and say, “What would I do if I was onstage?” and just go there. Things that you might not say on a regular record: [sings]: “I admit I shed a few tears/but I’ll get over it in the coming years/go fishing/might go with no wishing.” Stuff that you just add on, you’ll vamp. And I had to really, really suss it out. And I said, “There ain’t nothing wrong with what you’ve done. Finish. You’ve gotta take all those parts that are in your head and put them on this record. Any kind of mood that’s missing, any kind of voice that’s missing… add it. But it has to be live.” That was the only prerequisite that I had for this album: I didn’t care if everybody cut it at one time, I still wanted it to be authentic, live music.
We did so much of it in real time.
DN: That is great.
BW: All of the stuff, like with Wayne and with Snoop, I had done all the rest of a year or so before even knowing who was going to end up the record. I already had all my parts. I just knew that missing link, that young man there and them Roots? Oh, Lord, there they are.
DN: Well, let me ask you about a few of the songs. The first one, obviously, that I must ask you about is the first track, “Old Songs”.
BW: Now that was a curious thing... [I had] in my writing camp by the name of Raymond Gordon. He was always telling me I need to put out a record, I need to put out a record… I didn’t even realize it had been ten years. He was engineering in the house; he’s a drummer who happens to be an awesome writer and programmer and producer and stuff. But I heard him in there fooling around with this little track, and it just had this little wah-wah thing, like [sings]: Wah-waaah, wah-waaah. But in my head I heard [sings]: “Old songs… old songs,” because I was excited to do it. Don’t you know the devil stole that track?
But I remembered it in my head—it never went anywhere, it stayed in my head and I was tuned in to whatever that loop was. I didn’t have him try to do it over, but you know how [it is] sometimes but I just had the demo version of it, which was pretty good, and I sang the song and I would just loop it and make it start over and... But what I did was, I would make up parts in the studio [hums part] and have the musicians play what I heard in my head. I just wanted to get the key to get a song that beat them down but loved them up; “Look here, look here—y’all ain’t making no music. Come on, you can make some music. I ain’t saying you can’t sample, but you gonna have to leave something. This is what they left you, now what you gonna leave them?” You’re using recycled music. it’s all right to use some of it, but still pick up a guitar, pick up a horn, go to a piano and learn how to play something, because one day you’re going to be somewhere and the electricity is not gonna work. What are you gonna do? Beat-boxers still can live, rappers can still rap a bit, but you gonna have to have something that you can do. Get an acoustic guitar, get something that you can play and be able to do this. Go to an acoustic piano—play something.”
So I’m just loving them and telling them, “Listen, I’ve seen some of you trying to come through, I’ve seen some of you trying to keep it real, lyrical; I’ve seen you, India; I’ve seen you, Raheem and Jaheim and Ne-Yo, writing real songs—I see.” When you listen to their music, it’s not always samples.
DN: No, not at all.
BW: I tried to tell them, I’m saying this to you because God called the old because they were wise, He called the young because they were strong. You might be able to run faster than me, but I might know a shortcut. You might run round a whole city, and when you get there I’ll be like the rabbit and the tortoise: I’ll be there sitting like the tortoise waiting for you. I’d say, “What took you so long, because I know how to get there.” That’s basically how that got scripted.
DN: Now I don’t want to go through all the songs, or we’ll be on the phone for a very long time—as much as that would be great, because I’ve got other questions—but let me ask you about one other song in particular… well, a couple. Firstly, the song “Hollywould”, which I listened to, and to me it’s very deep—it’s just very deep.
BW: It is. And there is a Hollywould; there is somebody in every town, there’s somebody in everybody’s family who is a sweet girl but just doesn’t know what to keep and what to give away. And that freehearted spirit calls girls to go into a whole other lifestyle where they don’t value who they are and they end up with lack of self-esteem, trying to raise children on their own, and they find themselves caught up in that nightlife—and nightlife is not necessarily the right life. “Hollywould”, when people heard the title they thought it was about out here in L.A.
And I said, “No, it’s about a girl named Holly who would: what the good girls won’t do, she would.” And in that song I’m saying: “How did she get here/look at all those tears drowning/what a predicament she was found in.” and I’m saying she’s addicted to this because somewhere in her early life she may have been molested, she might have seen something she didn’t need to see, she may have seen women that flashed money from…their ill-gotten gains, as we say. For whatever reason, she’s out there and she’s trying to feed her kids because you won’t. So when I thought on how could I say that… I wanted to sing it with sister-love and mother-love; I wanted people to know they gotta pray for her, because she gotta feed her babies. She ain’t lying; she gotta feed her babies, but we gotta show her there’s a better way—we gotta show Holly that you don’t have to do it that way. There’s a better way.
She’s still trying to go make money and give it to a man. I never understood pimping—I never understood it. I hear people talk about it and they act like it’s okay, but I never understood it and ain’t trying to understand it.
That’s something of a very sick situation, that a woman would go and lay down her life and come bring you her money. That’s just real crazy. And if you have to say there’s any righteousness in it—not that any of it is righteous; you’re just looking at the situation to try and understand, like that bale of cotton that black folks used to go pick and get a handful. There’s something wrong with that.
DN: Right. Now you chose another soul legend to work with on one of the tracks—I’m referring to Mr. Lenny Williams, with “Baby Come Back”.
BW: I think that might be one of Questlove’s favourites, because that’s the one that he utilized a part of on his album. And that song, two of the writers in my camp were going to bring me up to speed and knew the sounds of today, so I had to separate myself from the song and write it from another perspective and come back to it. When I thought I was done—I’d done all the music and gone to New York and done the live version—I come back home and tell it to them, and one of the writers, Ralph—there was Shawn McWilliams and Ralph Jeanty —and Ralph said to me, “So, Ma. Ma, you ain’t gonna talk? You ain’t gonna say something?” So I said, “Every time I do a record, people don’t think I’ve done anything unless I talk. Let me think of something I can say.” Because I already knew I wanted to incorporate a male voice. As a matter of fact, we even thought about doing John Legend, and John got so busy he had already told me yes but we could never run each other down and get it done. And then I said, “No,” because that would more so be like me telling a story about his story, acting like the mother and telling this “I can’t believe what she did…” that kind of story.
Then I said, “Hm. Lenny Williams is in my age group, so if we did it we could do it like a scorned lover or love gone bad kind of thing,” and then here he is again and again.” So when Ralph said that about talking, that’s when I put the beginning on there. I said, “Lenny gonna get me,” ’cause Lenny didn’t hear that part—so Lenny didn’t know what we sang. And I said [angrily]: “Oh, who is this calling me? Huh!” } But I did it—I did, I did it from the perspective of me saying, “Look, you had me you didn't want me...”
DN: Right. I assume you know Lenny from way back in the day, is that correct?
BW: Yes, we toured most of ’78 and ’79 together with Teddy Pendergrass. Teddy would come on and I would come on… matter of fact, we sold out every show we ever did. I’m telling you, when I say sold out I’m talking about sold out—the people was 'souled out' S.O.U.L.E.D. out - so you better believe it’s sold out. They couldn’t take all of that “'Cause I Love You”, “Tonight Is the Night” and 'Close The Door' and 'Turn Off The Lights'!
DN: Oh, no, oh, no… no, no, no [laughs]!
BW: They couldn’t take it.
DN: Well, I can understand that. As Bobby Womack said and New Birth said, “I Can Understand It.” well, let me ask you about one more song and then I have a few more questions about other things related to your career, and that’s the song you did with Joss Stone, “Whisper in the Wind”. And of course I know that your association with Joss Stone goes back to, actually, her first record, if I’m correct. So tell me, firstly, just for those who may not know, how did you and Joss Stone hook up at the very beginning? How did that come about?
BW: Another Steve Greenberg story. Steve did introduce me to Joss when she was about fourteen and said she wanted to do a soul record, and she’d heard “Clean Up Woman”. And Steve makes a phone call; he wants for her to meet with me down at… I think it was, yes, at his studio. And he tells me, “She’s a little over fourteen and loves, particularly, soul music. She’s fourteen or fifteen.” And he doesn’t tell me she’s a little white girl; he just says she’s a teenager. So I started laughing.
“Is she gonna do like I did, singing other people’s songs and doesn’t know what she’s singing about?”
And then he told me she was a little white girl from England and I really laughed. I laughed twice as hard. “Oh, this is really funny. But I’ll meet her.” And Steve came down and everything, and when we met, she was hysterical. She couldn’t stop laughing, and she had this pink and green hair on the back of her head. And I was on the phone trying to talk to Chaka Khan about something; when she found out I was on the phone with Chaka, and she laid down like somebody had shot her… she laid down on the ground like “I love Chaka!” So I just instantly fell in love with her… I just instantly fell in love with her. And we sat down and we picked all of these soul songs between her, I think her mom, and me, and Angelo [Morris], my coproducer—we just sat down and went through hundreds of soul songs till we picked what was originally going to be four songs that became six, that became eight, that became ten. We were going to do an EP, and I guess you know the rest is history. So sessions went on for the Mind, Body and Soul, writing and cowriting seven of those songs. Yeah, I’ve been there from the beginning—I put together her live thing...
DN: Wow, wow. So having her on your album was kind of a logical thing to do?
BW: Yeah. I went over for her twenty-first birthday party, and I had this song. And I said, “Joss, I already have a second verse, but if you decide you want to sing on it, I’ll take my verse out and you just write your own verse. You don’t have to parallel it, but you’ve got to parallel the story.” She listened good, she had the paper, we were in her studio at Mama Stone’s and she came up with her own little verse and we came up with background parts and we sang to our hearts’ content. We just kept nipping and tucking over the years, putting it together, and when I finally got to finishing up, Questlove, some of his favourite parts are the fact that our voices are so similar and so contrasting.
DN: I agree.
BW: We both come from that soulful place; again, mine has a grit in it and hers has a height in it, but they all tell that soulful story.
BW: And Joss has never even heard what the ending became, because all of that came after her singing. Angelo came up with that little church organ thing on the end [sings]. He just kept singing and we just let that music fall out.
DN: I love it.
BW: When you hear it, it gives you the impression of how gospel music is done; tuning up with the organ playing up under you. I just love her voice on there—I just love, love it.
DN: And that’s the song “Whisper in the Wind”, right?
DN: Well Betty, I have to tell you, I know that in the last few years many things have happened: I know that you were hired by P. Diddy to do—I don’t know whether to call him P. Diddy, Puff Daddy or Sean Combs, but we know who I’m talking about—to work on the reality show. It seems to me like your career, over the last—at least—ten years or more, has continued to rejuvenate. The fact that you’re working with so many of the contemporary artists, it’s just really quite amazing. Is it amazing to you?
BW: You know what happened?
DN: Tell me what happened.
BW: I have to say this, and it’s the weirdest thing. I always had a relationship, since the Eighties, with Gloria and Emilio Estefan… I promise you, this is the weirdest thing. I’ll tell you how this started. Emilio calls me; he needs some background singers because they’re going to do an opening of Planet Hollywood. I grab my sister and the guy says, “Oh, I’ve got another girl coming in from New York, okay? So I only need one.”
This guy is Barton G., who might be one of the biggest party planners now in the world. He bought the Versace mansion—that gives you an idea of what kind of money we’re talking about, how this guy became Barton G. Barton does this show for Planet Hollywood, everybody comes—Shaq; Shaquille O’Neal—all of these different people. But while we’re rehearsing for the show, I’m down on the ground telling my sister, “They want me to do this and move like this.” So Barton comes behind me—he doesn’t know me from Adam—and he says, “You need to get up there and get with it.” “Oh, no, no, no, I just want to show....” “Listen, I’ll pay you”—he doesn’t know I’m Betty Wright—so I thing this is funny. So I say, she's up there, I'm not going to get up there, she’s already playing with K.C. and the Sunshine Band, that’s where she comes from, so I’m getting up there, like spoofing, and I’m singing. Gloria comes to the show that night and she’s like, “What are you doing up there?” You know my sister; this is her gig and I’m just up here.
So at the end of the night, Barton rails me: “You didn’t tell me you were Betty Wright!” and I didn’t. But Emilio needed us...where we became a part of Bruce Willis’ band The Accelerators, so that’s the part that you don’t know. I toured all over with Bruno and The Accelerators, an all-star band. Sometimes we’d have Whoopi Goldberg singing… I tell you, Patrick Swayze, the Belushi boy, Jim, Pam Anderson… people that you wouldn’t even imagine would sing with a soul band, we had ’em. We had everybody. Sherman Helmsley, George off The Jeffersons… we had everybody. We did openings in Vegas, we did Disney, we did Euro Disney, we did France, we did Holland, we did Germany—we did all over the world.
DN: And what period of time was it?
BW: This is like from ’97, ’98ish, we’re in there. Rob Early and I got to be great friends. and I remember one night even the swag—you know, the stuff we’d all get, the chokers and the jackets from Planet Hollywood—one night they ran out, so he took his jacket off and he gave it to me. It was like we just became family. We would even play: for my birthday Bruce took me tobogganing… on his back, because I was so afraid. Just like that. So all of this time I’m getting this rejuvenated spirit for the music, because now, I’m not only singing Betty Wright music, I’m singing Wilson Pickett… I’m singing those old soul songs. Because you know Bruce Willis, he’s just an old soul singer carrying a harmonica and singing Jimi Hendrix and whatever.
So now, some kind of way in the middle of that, Emilio is doing something on Jennifer Lopez, and Larry Dermer, who is one of the producers down there, calls me in on a session and he says, “Oh, well, maybe not, because I think the girl that was working with her yesterday, everything must be cool.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to show up anyway and just see how it goes.”
We ended up working together, and that’s when we did “Let’s Get Loud”, which got nominated for a Grammy. And I ended up with Jennifer saying she wasn’t going to do her album without me. So I ended up in New York doing On the 6—I did all the vocal production, along with Rodney Jerkins and Corey Rooney and Puffy and at that time, Tone & Poc, the Trackmasters. So once again, I’m getting this rejuvenation; I’m doing the vocal coaching and vocal production. And then right after the Jennifer thing, I started going and helping Puff with his 'Making the Band.' I wasn’t a main character then; I was only just going in every now and then. He was working with the girl Sarah at the time, so I would just do maybe a lesson or two. And then of course, in 2006, that became a real job, where I would do the coaching all together. All in the middle of that I’m doing the Jennifer Lopez, then we come up to Joss… so I would say the resurgence came, really, in ’97.
DN: Wow. It really is amazing, Betty.
BW: Reinventing, reinventing and keeping myself very, very flexible, because sometimes when you won’t bend, you break.
DN: That’s true.
BW: And I learned after watching hurricanes in Miami, all the tall trees, they tried to stand up, and that wind came and they broke. But the coconut tree got a little bit of a bend in it; those that had a little bit of a bend, they lasted—when the wind blows, they last. They lean.
DN: There you go. Well, I have to ask you… I know, as those who really study their soul music know, that you first started recording when you were thirteen. Now I might be wrong; it might have been twelve.
BW: Thirteen, but that’s when my first record started being released.
DN: Right. Did you ever imagine that, when you first recorded, you would be doing what you’re doing now?
BW: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. But you know what I am glad of? I’m glad that I went free-flow, because now I’m able to do all of the above. Everything I thought I wanted to do, like maybe law, like maybe teach physical education—teach something—I’m able to do it all. I teach music, I teach voice, I teach inside my writing class; I do a thing called the Most Fit Club, where I tell them, “In order to do what I do onstage you’ve got to be as fit as I am.” I take ’em out in that backyard and work ’em out…
DN: I love it, I love it.
BW: I teach them how to read contracts—I have lawyers come in and teach class. So I get to do everything I want to do. And of course, I pastor a ministry teaching people how to be spiritually fit. I call it Mustard Seed Ministry: all that you need to be in this ministry is have a little faith like a little mustard seed. We meet on Thursday night, Thankful Thursday. I have to beat the devil to his mess on Friday—because you know, they can’t hear you on Friday or Saturday. So on Thursday night, before they get their party on, I teach them a little bit.
DN: I love it.
BW: It’s like having the best life. I just have the best life, God has been so good to me. He’s been so good to me. You realize, like Jessie J sang, “It ain’t about the money, money/it ain't about the ka-ching ka-ching.”
DN: No, no.
BW: I’m having an awesome time, because I’m doing what I’m called to do.
DN: Well, let me ask you one final question, because I know we could talk for hours, and that would be great for us, but probably for those listening they might… well, I don’t know, because whenever you talk it’s really interesting.
BW: We’re having too much fun.
DN: But let me ask you as a final question, at least for this interview: how has this record been received? The new record, BETTY WRIGHT - THE MOVIE, with The Roots—how have people been responding to it and how do you feel about the response that you’ve been getting?
BW: Well, this is a record that even my enemies say they love. They’re saying, “You know what? She’s not even my favourite person, but I do love that.” You know, people that you’ve had to correct over the years and show them the error of their ways? They really love the record, so it must be good or they wouldn’t say it.
And also, I think, that when you have the difficulty of selecting a single, not because there is no single but because there are so many good songs, I think that’s the first sign you got a smash album, because there are no fillers. Somebody said, “Okay, we want you to put out ‘Baby Come Back’.” Okay. Or, “We want you to put out ‘Grapes On A Vine’.” Okay. Or, “We want you to put out ‘Real Woman’.” Okay. “We want you to put out ‘Look Around’…” it doesn’t matter. There is not a song in there that is not a good song. So you’ve started with something, and it seems that people that are very, very… I always say, I call them for-critique-only; people who critique very hard by saying “This might be your best album, since up to this point, BETTY WRIGHT LIVE was it for me. But what this does, you’ve got twice as many songs and you’re not singing anybody else’s songs. This is so artistic and this is so real and this is so now, and it chronicles what’s going on in the world today.”
DN: It really does, Betty. I have to tell you again… and I have no reason, after all the years we’ve known each other, I have no reason to blow smoke anywhere, trying to be nice about it—but I really don’t, and really, when I first started listening to it, I just started shaking my head. Because I was like, “Wow, this is a real, twenty-first-century soul record, beginning to end.” Really, it is a remarkable, remarkable record, because it’s you as I’ve always known you; it’s real; and the music that The Roots and Questlove provided works… just everything about it works, and I’m really thrilled to see one of my soul music friends making such great music in 2011 and ’12. It is really, really a good feeling.
BW: I’m just glad to be able to even be relevant, because these kids, they deserve a chance to hear us last, so they know there is a future in it. Because their statement is, “You guys used to do this, you guys… where is everybody?” Well, a lot of people died. A lot of people, they didn’t get their songs sung till they were gone on—all the Johnnie Taylors and the Tyrone Davises—
BW: —that should have been brought into these schools for Black History Month to really tell the gospel side of the story, the blues side of the story. We waited too late to herald them, and now there’s only a few of us left.
DN: That’s true.
BW: The Bobby Womacks and people like that, that their story’s getting told.
DN: Well, I tell you, it must be something to do with the name Betty, because there’s only one other Betty... when I think of soul survivors, I think there are certain women—
BW: Bettye LaVette.
DN: [Laughs] You got it before I could say a word.
BW: I have to tell you this, I love Chaka Khan, and they were doing a tribute on television one night and she sang that “Do You Love Me Still”. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t stop crying. And I love Chaka’s version, don’t get me wrong.
But I don’t know if it was the sincerity because Bettye’s been through so much, but when she said [sings]: “I loved you young and I’ll love you old…” Oh, David—I’m telling you, I was weeping. I couldn’t come and sing that song after she sang that like THAT. No! Oh, that was scary. That gave me chills over my whole body, to hear that woman sing that song. And I was just looking at Chaka, and she was listening to it. You have to give credit where credit is due, and that was the most sincere version of a song I’ve heard anybody do in maybe the last ten years. I hear all of the singers—none of them sing that.
DN: Well, as I say, it must be something in the name Betty, ’cause the Bettys got it.
BW: We keep hanging in there.
DN: You do. Well, I want to tell you, it’s been really, really great speaking to you again. I’m so proud of the fact that I’ve known you for so long and that you’ve come up with such a fantastic new album, and I can’t wait to see you back here in the UK performing live.
BW: Very soon, very soon; we’re working on something now.
DN: Good, good. And I know all the people who are going to be listening to this, of course, throughout the world… I have one last thing to say. Everybody who is listening to this interview, if you have not yet purchased Betty Wright and The Roots’ The Movie, you better go find it. Get it at Amazon, come to SoulMusic.com, click on the link, download it legally. Go to iTunes, go where you need to go, because it is truly worth absolutely the investment of any piece of money that you pay for it.
BW: Yes, do it the right way, because I do a class with young people called The Most, which stands for Mounting Of Stars Today, and they use up all my paper towels and toilet paper and everything, so you have to go buy the record the right way so I can keep doing what I do for them.
DN: That’s right.
BW: And you will help me finance it. Yeah.
DN: Okay. Well, Betty, it’s great speaking to you, and look forward to catching up with you again really soon.
BW: Awesome, David.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.