Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Betty Wright: From The Roots Up

Betty Wright
Betty Wright Betty Wright

Whether it is the familiar story of a girls 'first time' on "Tonight Is The Night," the warning to women about "The Secretary" who can steal your man when he is at the office, the encouragement to stick to relationships through good and bad times in "No Pain, No Gain," or the simple in your face track "U-R-A-Ho (And You Don't Know It)," Betty Wright is the real deal; she can sing about it, write about it, heck I am sure she can even preach about it.

With over 40 years in the music industry Betty Wright is one of the few artists who rather than slowing down in their autumn years, has rather put her foot on the gas pedal and is busier than ever. Having already had a long solo career and worked with people like Bruce Springsteen, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan and Angie Stone - new album "Betty Wright: The Movie" has kicked open the door to a new legion of fans who want to know more about the lady with the big afro, who is jamming hard on stage with The Roots without breaking a sweat.

"Betty Wright: The Movie" is a collaboration with The Roots which has drawn huge critical acclaim, and even nabbed a Grammy nomination in 2012. Before Betty Wright sets off on a summer European tour, she spoke with Blues & Soul 'Sweet Boy' Ricardito, about how the album came about, why she has been kicking down signs in book stores and what she REALLY thinks about Joss Stone.
B&S: What do you do to prepare for a tour?

BW: Because this is something I have been doing most of my life its like brushing my teeth, I get up and I sing everyday anyway. So whether I am preparing for a tour OR not, I pretty much have the same regime; I just do a lot more of the physical part of it - like standing in front of the microphone, rehearsing with the live band, that's the only difference. Also checking out. Check what songs are popular in what area, sometimes you do a song and people look at you like you are crazy because they may like the song but they may not recognise it. So I try to study the background of the country I am in and what were my hits there, so I can at last give them some of what they want. It's like a wedding - give them something old, something new, something borrowed and definitely something blue!

B&S: Does it feel like you have been in the music business for over 40 years?

BW: Only when I see the lack of knowledge in other people in the things they do or say, or just straight knowledge of the business - that's when I recognise how long I have been in it, because things that come naturally for me seem to be difficult for other people. Or when people say "Oh she can hit Mariah's notes", things like that. People don't know you have records older than people (laughs).

B&S: What was the music industry like back when you first started?

BW: I was in about in the 8th grade when I started recording R&B, so much of what was on was the Motown sound, and The Beatles had pretty much come over and taken America by storm. So it was more of a poppish R&B. Then you had the good old rootsy R&B like Aretha, James Brown and Wilson Pickett, so I had a very broad background of R&B. My singing prowess didn't come from any of the above; it was from church and listening to my mother and grandmother singing. She trained us, and all the while we were singing gospel, so we knew harmony because everything about gospel had to do with being perfected. So a lot of time when I hear people on the radio now its scary, and I wonder if I am being punked; no variety.

You know one day I saw something in the store that made me livid. It was a sign front of a bookstore and it said "African American Interest," so I definitely wanted to see what these books were about especially as they had the big sign. Every book was just sex, sex, sex. Oh I went off! I knocked the sign down and dared the guy in the store, I said "Please call the Police so I can be on the evening news and tell them what you are doing in here. You won't get another dime of my money!" I said "What you are doing is drawing a negative spirit to me, because if that's what you think I am about, I am SO much more!" And that's how I feel about radio, [no variety] I feel like it�s gone to hell.

B&S: How do the family view you? Are you "the fun one" or "the stern one?"

BW: I would say I am viewed as the oldest teenager in my family, because they say I never grow old. I mean I am stern in my own way, I am not one to let children run over me, but I am very, very good with children, and I can usually get what I want out of them. I am definitely everybody's aunty, even people who are near my age call me "aunty" or "mom."

B&S: Tell us your thoughts about Angie Stone

BW: Angie is like talking to myself; if you are not listening closely and watching our mouths talk you will get confused because we have the same tone of voice, and we think and write alike. I just love her as person; she is a real mother to her kids Diamond and Little Mike. I respect women that have a voice and use it for a proper reason. Like I love that song "Black brother" where she talks about all the different jobs you could have, and she talks about the ones incarcerated, and she tells them that she loves them and she didn't forget them. I just love those songs when a woman is telling a man she is there for them no matter what, and that he is a king, a father, and a son and everything; helping a man who is sometimes downtrodden and beat up on is a big thing. Like I said we think alike, and we know that the brother needs a hand up. I love music that helps you get from Monday to Tuesday, and she does that.

B&S: What about your relationship with Joss Stone

BW: Well I met her at the tender age of 15. So when she finally stopped laughing I realised that she is a very gifted young person; gifted far beyond her years. I always say if gifted people hang around other gifted people they will become even better, like iron sharpens iron. However sometimes iron runs into water makes rust, and you find yourself not as sharp as someone else, whereas if you had kept going in a certain path you would be. In September I went into the studio and we did 12 songs with her for her album. I don't know when it's is coming out, so I have no idea if my songs are on there, but her voice was in great shape.

B&S: How did the collaboration with The Roots come about?

BW: Well I had been part of the pre-Grammy show; the one that is not televised, as I was nominated and performing. We were in the same category that year and they won, and they were real happy. So as I was going out the door I shouted to them "Well it took 10 of ya all to beat me. Don't put a record out next year let grandma win!" So I left it at that, not knowing that on their plane ride home they had discussions about to work with me. So "The Movie" album was completed, but they got in touch and figured a way of coming onto it, re-recording and adding them. I thought I am really able to do this, but hearing them apply their stuff sometimes it was real enlightening; simple as that. You know Questlove is a detailed person as I am, so that helped. I told him that country music was the rap music, its true.

B&S: What songs on the album are your favourite?

BW: I only record songs that I absolutely love. I don't do the ones I like, I don't do the ones I kinda/sorta think might be. So if I went straight down that album I could say I love "Old Songs," I love "Real Woman," I love "Grapes On A Vine," I love "In The Middle Of The Game (Don't Change the Play)." I can actually say that, I can tell you every song on there to me is a movie. I believe you can play it anywhere. You don't have to close your ears OR make your kids leave the room, and I believe there are a lot of 'help songs' on there. There is one track on there that we did from scratch, which was not on the original "The Movie" before it went it to Questlove, which is "You And Me, Leroy." Out of that song to me is hope - so no matter how bad the economy gets, as long as I have you here we can live in a tree! You know we can go out and bathe in the lake if we have to, but if you are with me and I am with you we can do this. I think those are songs that people need to hear now.

Final Three:

Three songs that take you back to your childhood?:

Oh there a Shirley Temple song, some song about shoes (sings) "Have my you seen new shoes? I wearing them..." or something like that? And "Good Ship Lolipop," all Shirley Temple song comes to my mind. We weren't allowed to listen to hardcore R&B and home so it would be Shirley Temple. Oh and a song called "Dr Jesus," I believe was by the Swanee Quintet. Yeah Dr Jesus!

Three songs that have you running to the dance floor?

Anything by Frankie Beverly, I don't care what it is, ANYTHING! There is a song called "Lets Fool Around" by General Johnson that's like my favourite, I'm gonna maybe do it on another album. And anything be James Brown (sings) "Get Up Offa That Thing!" Ow! Yeah! Anything by James Brown or Michael Jackson that will make me dance.

Three songs you by others that you wish you had written?

I wish I had written "I Hope You Dance," and I wish that I wrote "Sometimes When We Touch." Oh and "Adore You" by Prince.

Betty Wright and The Roots album "Betty Wright: The Movie" is out now on S Curve/Ms B Records

You can also catch Betty Wright in action at the HMV Ritz in Manchester on July 10 and London's Jazz Cafe on Wed 11, Thu 12 and Fri 13 July.
Words Richard 'Ricardito' Ashie

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