(May 11, 2020). When news of soul music icon Betty Wright’s death hit the music world on Mother’s Day, the first song many of us thought of was her signature tune, “Clean Up Woman,” that 1971 classic about the hired porter who – when it came to Betty’s man – had more on her mind than washing his dishes and folding his clothes.
“Clean Up Woman” was easily Wright’s biggest hit, spending an agonizing eight weeks at No. 2 on Billboard’s Soul Singles chart beginning Christmas Day of 1971 and lasting until Valentine’s Day 1972 behind two soul and pop classics – Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
And while Sly Stone and Al Green sang of relationships with perspectives spanning both infidelity and commitment, respectively, Betty Wright’s runner-up hit vividly painted a picture from the woman’s point of view, a woman who in this case realized she was making it too easy for another woman – the maid – to make moves on her man.
Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough for the young singer, the follow-up single, “Baby Sitter” – a cautionary tale about another experience with a 16-year-old sitter who shows up at her house in a skirt “up to her waist” and “a truckload of you know what, and all of it in place” – became Wright’s second consecutive top-10 soul chart hit in 1972.
That Wright had consecutive hits about the hired help who provided more in-home services than just floor-sweeping and diaper-changing was probably no accident. She had already laid the foundation for her scorned woman persona by giving men a free pass with her first hit, “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” a 1968 single that reached the top 40 on both the pop and soul charts.
In that song, which she recorded when she was only 14 years old, Wright warned other girls of the perils of trying to match guys who “wander” and “go out and play sometimes.” She told them, you can’t do what the guys do “and still be a lady,” while seemingly letting guys off the hook by alerting girls of the painful risks they take when they give their love away to a man whose “least little wrong seems like dirt.”
Perhaps the warnings Wright gave on “Girls” should’ve been heeded by the protagonists in her future hits, because she found herself on the wrong side of various love triangles in each of the four biggest recordings she had before her 19th birthday. In the fourth of those – a 1972 top-20 “Clean Up Woman” soundalike called “Is It You, Girl?” – Wright asks rhetorically “who’s satisfying all your man’s love needs” when you’re out doing your stuff? “Is it you, girl?,” she asks. “Can you swear it’s you?”
Given her previous hits, Wright might as well have been asking herself the question. But the twist with “Is It You, Girl?” was that the woman in that situation was out having her own fun, something the other girls in Wright’s stories could not claim.
Things didn’t improve much for the women Wright portrayed in her songs as we dig deeper into her catalogue. On the 1970 single “Pure Love,” for example, she seems to confuse legitimate love with the feeling of euphoria her man gives her, despite warnings from her friends that he’s “just using her.” This confusion plays out again in her other signature tune, “Tonight is the Night,” the classic slow groove Wright says was inspired by her first sexual encounters.
In that 1974 song’s lyrics, Wright sings about the jitters she feels as she anticipates giving in to her man for the first time – after making him wait a year. As the situation unfolds, she contemplates whether or not it’s true love she’s found. By the time the song ends, she’s repeatedly declaring her love for the man she’s just bedded, unabashedly thanking both him and his love.
By the way, this is not judgment. We’ve all been there before. In fact, the mixed feelings of innocence and confusion Wright expresses in “Tonight is the Night” was a message that resonated so well with soul music audiences that we just had to experience it again four years later. The song became a hit a second time in 1978 when Wright released a live version of the tune. It has since become her most sampled song (most famously on Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” in 1991).
Even her one Grammy-winning single revisited the frequent subject of her man’s infidelity.
On “Where is the Love,” an early disco hit from 1974, the then-21-year-old singer asked her philandering man “where is the love you promised me? You said I’d be the only one…but somebody else must be getting your love, because loving me you just don’t do…”
Suffice it to say that Betty Wright’s experiences with men – at least as portrayed in her earliest big hits – were not ideal ones. Yet, what Wright often sang about were the very emotions and situations that many people unfortunately experienced in bad relationships. In doing so, however, she became the unwitting poster child for the scorned woman.
Other examples of this included the 1972 song “I’m Getting Tired Baby,” in which an exasperated Wright lamented, “how can a part of you be enough for me, when all of me ain’t enough for you?” In the 1973 follow-up, “It’s Hard to Stop (Doing Something When It’s Good to You),” she admits “I love a man who never stays at home…he’s always out in the streets” before confessing that even a lazy, two-timing man like the one she’s with is worth coming home to when his lovin’ is this good.
She was just testifying y’all. Can she get a witness?
Things eventually lightened up for Wright when she discovered disco singer Peter Brown and brought him to Drive Records – another division of the Florida-based T.K Records with which Wright’s own label (Alston) had become affiliated. She vocally assisted Brown on two classic disco singles, “You Can Do It” and “Dance With Me,” the latter of which became an international pop hit with 1978 top-10 placements in New Zealand, Canada, and right here in the United States.
Then, after three years of minor chart success between 1978 and 1981, including a lucrative career providing backing vocals on major albums by other artists, Wright returned to her comfort zone – that of the scorned woman.
But this time, Wright had an answer.
On soul crooner Richard “Dimples” Fields’ 1981 album, Wright played the wife to Dimples’ cheating character on a song called “She’s Got Papers On Me” – a classic R&B staple in which she provided the much-needed and long-awaited message that fans wanted to hear from a woman who’d been on the bad side of love triangles for far too long. It didn’t matter that her message was delivered in a song that wasn’t hers from an album by the man himself.
Fields had finally given this cheating man a voice, and, because of that, he was about to receive the wrath of Betty unlike any of her other skirt chasers had.
In the song, just as Dimples finishes crying his heart out to the woman he really loves (not his wife, btw) about the fact that he won’t be set free, Wright’s character gives a scathing, two-minute and fifteen-second affirmation of her ownership, noting that she’s finally figured out why he’s been acting so strange. She raps in her rebuttal:
“That’s right I got papers on you; And you do understand, my dear, that you must pay me to be free!
“That’s what I said!
“You’re gonna pay me for my years and my tears… and all my wasted years.
“And I know being with me hurts you, and I mean, you don’t dig me anymore, but I’m hurtin’ too.
“And you can tell that dizzy broad, You know, the one you singin’ about…
“The Miss ‘Sweet Little Thing’ that’s always on your mind…
“that I’m not lettin’ you out of this unless you buy me out!
“I’m not goin’ through no more hard times or bad times…
“‘Cause I can do bad all by myself, all by myself.”
Where was this woman all these years?
She was still only 27 years old at the time, but it was as if the scars of all those bad relationships – or maybe it was one really long, bad relationship – and thirteen years of singing about the habits of philandering men, had finally caught up with her…and she wasn’t about to let a man named Richard “Dimples” Fields – a/k/a “Mr. Look So Good” – off the hook easily.
Never mind that “Papers” prompted a response record from soul music’s perpetual “other woman” Barbara Mason, whose “She’s Got the Papers (I Got The Man)” joined her earlier response record “From His Woman to You” (a reply to Shirley Brown’s 1975 classic “Woman to Woman”) in setting women back many years, Betty Wright’s point had been made.
“She’s Got Papers” became a cult classic, and it provided some closure to the 13-year circumstance to which we had been accustomed when it came to Wright’s songs. We finally witnessed the singer transcend the bad relationship(s), and graduate to a level of self-pride and confidence not displayed in her earlier hits.
Suddenly, more early ‘80s titles like “What Are You Gonna Do With It?,” “Goodbye You, Hello Him” and “She’s Older Now” emerged, reflecting a more cautious, more mature protagonist. In “What Are You Gonna Do With It?” she asks her potential lover before giving in: “will you be sweet…or will you mistreat my love?”
“Goodbye You, Hello Him” was her rightful answer to Dimples’ “She’s Got Papers,” in which Wright officially declares her divorce from the playboy. And the reggae-flavored “She’s Older Now” sheds the naïveté about relationships that dominated Wright’s earlier characters.
By 1988, Wright’s 34-year-old protagonist had come full circle.
Perhaps recognizing that no man is perfect and that hardship and forgiveness are necessary parts of every relationship, she released “No Pain (No Gain),” her biggest hit in more than a decade. This “advice song” about how women have to go through some pain to know whether it’s a relationship worth keeping – while noting that those same women might need to give a little more to keep their man – reached No. 14 on the R&B chart.
Was that a step back for a woman who was seemingly liberated from all this drama only a few years earlier? Perhaps.
But can we forgive Wright for singing out loud what many people had experienced in their real-life relationships? After all, isn’t that what made it great soul music in the first place, and what made Wright one of the truly unsung soul icons of her generation?
That would be a resounding yes!
R.I.P. Betty Wright (1953 -2020).
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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