Like the sassy friend who doles out advice, Betty Wright's blues-inflected voice warned women of straying men. Her messages may not exemplify today's feminism, but her vocals come from a woman who has experienced life's rollercoaster and wants to share her hard-won lessons with fans. Best known for her 1972 hit "Cleanup Woman," Wright scored other hits including "Tonight Is the Night" and the 1974 thumper "Secretary."
Born in Miami in 1953, Wright started singing in her family's gospel group Echoes of Joy. By 13 she transitioned into secular music by singing background on other recordings and embarking on a solo career. She finally released a hit in 1968 with "Girl's Can't Do What the Guys Do" and subsequently recorded her debut album My First Time Around. Three years would pass, however, before she would achieve mainstream success with the infectious "Cleanup Woman." Featuring a memorable guitar riff and a tough vocal by Wright--recorded when she was only 18- the song peaked at number six on the Hot 100 and number two on the R&B chart.
Wright would never experience such crossover success again, although she continued releasing classic jams that performed well on the R&B charts. One such single, "Secretary," delivers a cautionary tale for women and relationships. The lyrics may not exude feminism, but her strident delivery and the incredible drumming by Ivan "Breeze" Olander make for some deep funk. Playing a similar role as in "Cleanup Woman," Wright warns a woman that if she doesn't treat her man right, his secretary will. While one can quibble with the lyrics, her blues-drenched voice is undeniable. "It's very ordinary for the secretary / To take a man away from his wife," Wright forthrightly states. The lyrics are written from a male point of view, however (thanks to co-songwriters Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke), as she chastises women for nagging their husbands and greeting them "with your hair in rollers." Indeed, Wright dismisses the wives' looks and behavior as "outdated and so childish."
Before condemning the songwriters and Wright for seemingly misogynistic lyrics, however, the ending lyrics add a twist. "Life's a bowl of cherries / For all the secretaries," Wright proclaims. She states that the secretary's life is "merry," but is that because she does not live with the husband full time? Does she have an easier life than the wife? Thanks to Wright's "tough love" delivery, she may be suggesting that the blame for failed relationships falls on multiple sides.
Wright would cap off her 1970s work with a 1978 live version of one of her early compositions: "Tonight Is the Night," a tale of a young woman anticipating making love for the first time. She was also featured prominently on the Peter Brown track "Dance with Me' and even performed a duet with Alice Cooper called "No Tricks." She is an incredible talent who has worked with everyone from Bob Marley to Gloria Estefan, and should be appreciated for more than just "Cleanup Woman." Her blues and gospel-inflected voice and confident delivery proved ahead of her time and set the stage for modern talents such as Mary J. Blige.