Betty Wright, a six-time Grammy nominee known for the hits “Clean Up Woman,” “No Pain (No Gain),” and “Tonight Is the Night” and for her incredible range and whistle tone, passed away at age 66 on Friday. Wright’s niece first confirmed the news on Sunday morning; Billboard reports that the cause of death was cancer.
Wright was born in Bessie Regina Norris in Miami on Dec. 21, 1953. The youngest in a musical family of seven children, it seemed she was born to sing: Her career began at age 2, when she contributed vocals to the debut album by her siblings’ gospel group, the Echoes of Joy.
Wright went solo at age 11, switching from gospel to R&B and performing at local talent shows. She landed a deal a year later with indie label Deep City Records, releasing a couple singles before moving on to Alston Records and releasing her full-length debut, My First Time Around, at age 14. That album yielded her first chart hit, “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do.”
The singer was still a teenager when she released “Clean Up Woman,” which went to No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, eventually selling more than a million copies. Although “Clean Up Woman” became her signature song, Wright cracked the charts another two-dozen times during her career, notably with the 1974 Best R&B Song Grammy-winner “Where Is the Love?” and 1981’s Stevie Wonder-produced “What Are You Going to Do With It.” In 1988, she became the first black female artist to achieve gold status with a self-released album, with her 12th LP, Mother Wit, on her own Mrs. B Records label.
Wright was also successful behind the scenes. She was a background vocalist for Erykah Badu, Regina Belle, David Byrne, Jimmy Cliff, Alice Cooper, Gloria Estefan, Stephen Stills, Peter Tosh, Stevie Wonder, and many others, and worked as a vocal coach, writer, producer, and/or engineer for the likes of Estefan, Kelly Clarkson, Keyshia Cole, Destiny’s Child, Michael Jackson, Tom Jones, Jennifer Lopez, and Joss Stone. She was introduced to a whole new audience when “Clean Up Woman” was sampled on Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” and her music was also sampled over the years by Afrika Bambaataa, Beyoncé, Chance the Rapper, Sublime, SWV, and many more. (She successfully sued the producers of Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” for royalties after they sampled her without clearance or permission.)
Wright continued to earn new fans as a regular on Sean Combs’s reality show Making the Band, on which she served as the vocal coach for Danity Kane, and through her musical collaborations with Combs, Ace Hood, Big Sean, DJ Khaled, the Game, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Nas, Rick Ross, and Angie Stone. Her final album — and her first after a 10-year recording hiatus — was 2011’s Betty Wright: The Movie, a joint album with the Roots. Co-produced by Questlove with all tracks co-written by Wright, the album featured guest spots by Joss Stone, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, and Lenny Williams, and its track “Surrender” earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional R&B Performance.
Wright is survived by her four children, Aisha, Patrice, Chaka, and Asher.