It was a tough weekend for rhythm and blues with the deaths of three musical icons.
Singers Betty Wright and Little Richard along with music executive Andre Harrell died this weekend. All had major impacts on R&B and the music industry as a whole. If one wasn’t moving the genre forward, another was introducing the world to new acts.
Betty Wright influenced a generation of female artists
Betty Wright, a Grammy-winning soul singer and songwriter known for influential hits such as “Clean Up Woman” and “Where is the Love,” died at age 66 at her home in Miami on Sunday.
Steve Greenberg of S-Curve Records told the New York Times Wright had been diagnosed with cancer in the fall.
Wright had her breakthrough with 1971’s “Clean Up Woman,” which combined elements of funk, soul and R&B.
Recorded when Wright was just 17, the song would be a top 10 hit on both the Billboard R&B and pop charts, and its familiar grooves would be used and reused in the sampling era of future decades.
After “Clean Up Woman,” written by Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke and later sampled by Afrika Bambaataa and Mary J. Blige, she would have her first hit she wrote herself with “Baby Sitter,” a 1973 song that showed off her “whistle register” vocals, an ultra-high singing style later employed by Mariah Carey and others.
With members of K.C. and the Sunshine Band, she co-wrote her 1975 proto-disco hit, “Where is the Love,” which would win her a Grammy for best R&B song.
A career lull in the late 1970s and early 1980s prompted Wright to start her own label in 1985, leading to a gold album, “Mother Wit,” in 1987 and the comeback hit, “No Pain (No Gain)”
She spent much of the rest of her life as a producer and mentor to younger artists, many of whom were singing her praises after her death.
“Thank you for being a master teacher, a friend and one of the greatest female soul singers in our industry,” Ledisi said on Twitter. “You were so much more than your music. We were blessed to be around royalty.”
John Legend tweeted that Wright “was always so loving and giving to younger artists. Always engaged, always relevant. She will be missed.”
Little Richard was the founding father of rock & roll
Little Richard, the founding father of rock & roll whose fervent shrieks, flamboyant garb, and joyful, gender-bending persona embodied the spirit and sound of that new art form, died Saturday. He was 87. The musician’s son, Danny Jones Penniman, confirmed the pioneer’s death to Rolling Stone. The cause of death was bone cancer, according to his lawyer, Bill Sobel.
Born Richard Wayne Penniman, the musician rose to fame in the 1950s and quickly became a prominent figure in the rock and roll scene for his energized performances behind the piano.
With major hits including “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” his raspy voice, signature six-inch coif, mascara mustache, and manic behavior earned him the title of one of the most influential musicians in history.
Onstage, his act was far ahead of its time: He tore off his clothes, leaped upon the piano and embraced androgyny long before the likes of Mick Jagger, Elton John, and David Bowie.
Little Richard knew his power. “They saw me as something like a deliverer, a way out,” he once said. “My means of expression, my music, was a way in which a lot of people wished they could express themselves and couldn’t.”
He also made no bones about his status. Little Richard bristled when he was overlooked in favor of other early rock figures, telling SFGate.com in 2003, “I created rock ‘n’ roll! I’m the innovator! I’m the emancipator! I’m the architect! I am the originator! I’m the one that started it!”
He had made those boasts 15 years earlier, going off script while giving out the best new artist award at the 1988 Grammys.
Five years later the Grammys finally recognized him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Andre Harrell had an everlasting footprint in hip-hop
Andre Harrell, a veteran music executive best known as the founder of Uptown Records, where Sean “Puffy” Combs got his start in the business, died on Thursday night at his home in West Hollywood, California. He was 59.
Harrell’s ex-wife, Wendy Credle, had given the cause of death as heart failure, noting that he “had had heart problems for some time.”
News of his passing first began to reach the public Friday night when DJ D-Nice revealed it while spinning on Instagram Live for his popular Club Quarantine series.
He got his start in 1980s with as one of two members in the rap group Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Teaming up with Russell Simmons in 1983, Harrell was then hired by Def Jam Records where he worked as vice president and then became a general manager of the label.
It was when he founded Uptown Records in 1986 that things really took off. He hired Diddy as an intern and launched the careers of Mary J. Blige, Heavy D and The Boyz, Jodeci and Teddy Riley.
Harrell would later find a home for Uptown at MCA and in 1995, he went on to run Motown Records as president and CEO for a brief period not long after the label’s acquisition by PolyGram.
Harrell also served as vice chairman of Revolt, Combs’ multi-platform music network, and a producer on its panel show “State of the Culture.” Harrell consequently launched the Revolt Music Conference, where, in 2017, he interviewed his former mentee Combs.
“Known to have the midas touch when it came to discovering and developing talent, Andre was responsible for changing the sound of R&B music and crossing artist and executives over into what was then known as ‘pop culture,'” the Combs Enterprises website said.