Photo: David Redfern/Staff
Syreeta Wright Was More Than "Mrs. Wonder": 6 Songs From The Singer/Songwriter & Stevie Wonder Collaborator
Singer/songwriter Syreeta Wright co-wrote many popular songs with Stevie Wonder, to whom she was briefly married, during the 1970s. Yet Wright was prolific in her own right despite a lack of commercial success and her star never quite rising.
Nearly every article marking the death of singer/songwriter Syreeta Wright mentions Stevie Wonder. Sometimes it’s in the first sentence, sometimes a little later, but it’s always there. A reminder that for some performers, usually women, it’s their relationships that make the news. Even their deaths are overshadowed by their partners.
So let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Syreeta Wright was briefly married to Stevie Wonder. (Their marriage lasted between one and three years, depending on the source.) But what so many articles miss is that, when Wright died, Wonder not only lost an ex-wife and friend, but a collaborator and partner. And the world lost an artist who has been overshadowed by a very brief marriage to a very talented man.
Among Wright's contributions to Wonder's canon are "Blame It On The Sun," "I Never Dreamed You Leave in Summer" and "Think of Me As Your Soldier." Wonder understood the magnitude of Wright’s talent, telling a Blues & Soul interviewer in 1970, "Syreeta has a unique ability to express exactly what I want to say with a lyric."
Wright was a poet who understood the power of a single line to heal, to break; Wonder’s classic period (the time between 1971 and 1976 when Wonder released a string of near-perfect albums) would have been a lot less so without her. "Syreeta and I wrote great songs together," Wonder toldBillboard in 2004. "There is heartbreak, but on the other side of it, God didn't have to bless me by knowing her and sharing life and love."
Attempting To Make Moves In Motown
But this isn’t a story about Stevie Wonder. This is a story about a girl named Syreeta Wright — who loved to write poems, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1946. "I was always writing little embarrassing poems as a child," she told Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) in 1974. She started singing around age four and as a teenager, moved to one of the epicenters of soul and R&B — Detroit. That’s where Motown was, after all. And Motown was making stars. "[Songwriter and producer] Brian Holland got everything started for me. I think I was with the company for a month and I called 'round saying 'What are you going to do for me?'" she told Black Music in 1974.
Motown could be like that: Rosters spilling over with talent, but locked into a system that could often forget them and underuse them. Many albums sat unreleased, and those artists were at a loss for how to move their careers forward. Wright was no different. "I bothered [Holland] every day until he said I want you to come down, we have some material I want you to listen to."
In 1967, Wright finally got the chance to record her first single for the label, written by Holland along with songwriting duo Ashford and Simpson "I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You." "When I recorded 'I Can't Give' it was really funny because I was so scared," she told Black Music. "They handed me a set of earphones and to me the whole atmosphere was so cold, I mean just sterile."
Yet her voice is not sterile. While there's a hesitation in the song, Wright's voice shines with a kind of soft warmth; it was going to take the right material and a little time to bring that out. The record also came out with the name Rita Wright on the label, another sign that this wasn’t quite her, not yet. "[Motown] said no one would be able to remember Syreeta. More likely, they couldn’t pronounce it themselves," she told WWD.
The record never really found its audience in the US, something that would come up again and again in Wright's Motown career. Crafting a distinct sound is something the company was known for, but not every artist fit that mold — or even wanted to. By the mid '70s, artists such as Wonder and Marvin Gaye were releasing albums that told a story, and Wright’s early work may have suffered by being part of the quest for a hit single.
Moving Forward, And Never Imitating
Despite the lack of response to her release, Wright stayed on with the label as a secretary in the arranging department, and was also an on-call singer who provided backing vocals for other Motown artists. But this wasn’t the career she wanted, and not the art she was interested in making.
"I was set aside as some sort of Diana Ross wastebasket," she continued to WWD. The Diana Ross comparisons were so heavy, that as Mary Wilson wrote in Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, Wright was considered as a replacement for Ross when she left the Supremes. Billboard even announced her as the group’s newest member in a 1969 article, calling her the "virtually unknown Rita Wright." But as Wilson explains, "Because [her] style and voice were similar to Diane’s [sic], she seemed an obvious choice to Motown."
Obvious, maybe, but wanted, not so much. "Everyone knew that Syreeta wanted a solo career," Wilson continued. "And I refused to bring in someone who saw the Supremes as a stepping stone."
Syreeta didn’t want to be the next Diana — or the next anyone. She wanted a unique style, one that she could claim as her own. "Don’t go grabbing for other styles," she told WWD. "Shape your own so that no one can ever say ‘Hey, she sounds just like Diana-Aretha-what’s-her-name.’"
"I Can’t Give" was "a hip record," Wright told Soul in 1975, "but the style was all wrong."
Finding Herself In Song
Even at Motown, Wright was still writing poems waiting for the chance to be herself. She shared some of her poetry with Wonder, something that signaled a real change in their relationship, she told Soul. "My poetry is something very private. And when I share it with someone that means they are very special to me. I shared it with Stevie and he liked it."
Wonder asked Wright if he could set some of it to music, and to help him with a song he was working on. The result was her first hit song, "Signed Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours)," co-written with Wonder, Lee Garrett, and Lula Mae Hardaway from Wonder’s 1970 album, Signed, Sealed & Delivered.
"You just don’t know what it's like when some of your scribbling becomes part of a 2 million record hit," she told WWD. The song would also earn Wright her first (and only) GRAMMY nomination.
Wonder and Wright began working as writing partners, with her lyrics providing the shape of what would be known as his great period. The first in the series of his newfound artistic independence was 1971’s Where I’m Coming From. "We wrote all the songs (nine of them) on Where I'm Coming From," she told Black Music. "I also did the lyrics on quite a few of the things on Music Of My Mind."
While her songwriting was exquisite, Mary Wilson was absolutely right about Syreeta: she wanted to be a solo artist. She’d get another try, this time as Syreeta, with her 1972 self-titled album. But much like the songs of her Rita years, the album didn’t make much of a splash. "I don't know why, but the company never really got behind that first album." Wright told Blues & Soul in 1974.
The pair would try again with the 1974 release of Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, which, unlike her first album, features more of Syreeta’s writing, and a more defined point-of-view. "I like the second because there are love stories behind every song and I worked a lot closer with the overall thing," Wright told Black Music. But even with Wonder's support, the album failed to do what Wright had hoped.
In a 1980 interview with Blues & Soul, Wright said her partnership with Wonder left her , "too restricted, but I guess that was simply his way of being protective," she said. "But the product always finished up sounding like a Stevie Wonder record, with me as an extra."
Wright kept creating for the rest of her unfortunately short life, releasing nine albums and becoming an in-demand backing singer for artists like George Harrison, Michael Bolton, and Quincy Jones. She also worked with Wonder from time to time. When she died in 2004 at the age of 57, she left behind a body of work that, while expansive and beautiful, never quite fulfilled all of the promise that went into creating it.
But like so many hidden musical treasures, Wright's impact can also be measured by those she inspired. British soul singer Omar, with whom Wright collaborated in 1997, told the Mirror that working with Syreeta fulfilled a lifelong dream: "Syreeta is a woman who made me cry. I love her voice so much."
Solange included Wright as one the motivators for exploring her falsetto. "I loved Syreeta Wright and really identified with a few of her songs that she and Stevie Wonder did," she said in 2017. "She was saying some really tough s<em></em>*, but the tone of her voice was so sweet that you could actually hear her more clearly."
Despite the acclaim that didn’t always come during her lifetime, Wright found her way, her sound, her voice. "I think that it's very important to know what you're singing about and believe in it," she told Blues & Soul in 1977. "Your music should be a reflection of yourself, whatever that is." Hear Syreeta Wright's reflections of self with these six songs:
"Where Is the Love" (from The Rita Wright Years at Motown 1967-1970)
From the Rita years, "Where Is The Love" hints at what’s to come, and shows the limitations of the "Motown Sound" to make every artist shine. Though she’s a force on this song, Wright was definitely an artist who needed to find her own unique path.
"Keep Him Like He Is" (1972)
"Made the sun give up its light to elevate your smile/ So the world could see himself every time that you smiled" From her self-titled debut album. Wright’s lyricism sparkles, her voice floating over the Wonder-composed music, to make a love song for the ages.
"Heavy Day" (1974)
In a review for Ebony, music critic Phyl Garland called Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta "intimate magic." While their musical marriage created a nearly seamless work, it’s the lyrics that create that small, intimate world. Wright's lyrics give the feeling of furtively glazing behind the walls of a relationship.
"It’s not autobiographical," Wright insisted in a 1974 interview. "I guess I got the idea from that Carpenters' song 'Superstar' — the theme is similar in a way."
"Fancy Lady" (1975)
From Billy Preston’s album It’s My Pleasure, this song co-written by Preston and Wright was the pair’s first collaboration. It’s no wonder that when Preston signed to Motown a few years later, they matched them up again. Even though there’s just a hint of Wright on the song, it would feel empty without her — that’s her magic.
"Rest Yourself" (1977)
For her 1977 album, One to One, Wright teamed with producer Leon Ware for an album that retains the light sweetness in her voice. This was her first without Wonder, though his song "Hamour Love" does close the album. "Naturally, I knew of Leon and he'd just had a platinum album with Marvin Gaye on 'I Want You'." Wright told Blues & Soul in 1977. "So, we got together and I let him hear some of my songs." Of this song, co-written by Wright and her then-husband Curtis Robertson, Jr., she said, "'Rest Yourself' is about doing just that!"
"Funked Up" (1977)
Wright teamed with saxophonist Gary Bartz for a decidedly non-Stevie production. Wright’s husband, Curtis Robertson, Jr. A funk, jazz, rock, disco fusion recorded during the sessions for Bartz’s Music Is My Sanctuary, "Funked Up" was unreleased until 2005.
More Stars To Honor Barbra Streisand
Jeff Beck, LeAnn Rimes, Seal, and BeBe Winans added to performance lineup for GRAMMY Week MusiCares Person of the Year tribute
(For a complete list of 53rd GRAMMY Awards nominees, click here.)
Current GRAMMY nominees Jeff Beck and LeAnn Rimes, and GRAMMY winners Seal and BeBe Winans are the latest performers announced for the 2011 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute to Barbra Streisand, to be held during GRAMMY Week on Feb. 11 in Los Angeles. They join previously announced performers Tony Bennett; singer/actress Kristin Chenoweth; GRAMMY-nominated "Glee" cast members Darren Criss, Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison; Herbie Hancock; Diana Krall; Barry Manilow; Donna Summer; Stevie Wonder; and singer Nikki Yanofsky. Streisand, an eight-time GRAMMY-winning artist and current nominee, will close the evening with her own special performance. Additional performers will be announced soon.
Proceeds from the annual Person of the Year tribute, now in its 21st year, provide essential support for MusiCares.
The event, a private charity fundraiser, is attended by industry VIPs and others who help support the work of The Recording Academy-affiliated MusiCares Foundation, which offers programs and services to members of the music community, including emergency financial assistance. The MusiCares MAP Fund provides access to addiction recovery treatment and sober living resources for members of the music community regardless of their financial circumstances, and MusiCares Safe Harbor Rooms offer a support network to those in recovery while they are participating in the production of televised music shows, such as the GRAMMY Awards, and other major music events.
The MusiCares Person of the Year tribute is one of the most prestigious events held during GRAMMY Week. The celebration culminates with the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards on Sunday, Feb. 13 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The telecast will be broadcast live on the CBS Television Network at 8 p.m. ET/PT. For information on purchasing tables and tickets to the event, please contact Dana Tomarken at 310.392.3777.
Past MusiCares Person of the Year honorees include Tony Bennett, Bono, Natalie Cole, Phil Collins, David Crosby, Neil Diamond, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Don Henley, Billy Joel, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Luciano Pavarotti, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Sting, James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and Neil Young.
What record does Stevie Wonder share with Frank Sinatra?
Find out which record the 25-time GRAMMY winner shares with the Chairman of the Board
Stevie Wonder is tied with Frank Sinatra as the solo artist with the most GRAMMY wins for Album Of The Year with three. Wonder won for Innversisions (1973), Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974) and Songs In The Key Of Life (1976).
GRAMMY Insider: Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, Jay-Z, Barack Obama, Kanye West, Madonna, Taylor Swift
All the GRAMMY winners news, including who made the cut on Forbes' Celebrity 100 list
(The GRAMMY Insider keeps you up to date about news on your favorite GRAMMY winners, including new album releases, tour updates, notable TV appearances, interviews, and more.)
Forbes has released its annual Celebrity 100 list, ranking the world's most powerful celebrities in 2013. Several GRAMMY winners made the top 10, including Lady Gaga (No. 2), Beyoncé (No. 4), Madonna (No. 5), Taylor Swift (No. 6), and Bon Jovi (No. 7). GRAMMY nominees Justin Bieber and Ellen DeGeneres landed at No. 9 and No. 10, respectively. To compile the list, Forbes factored in celebrity earnings over the last year as well as online, TV and print impressions.
The Eagles are taking it to the music subscription limit as fans can now stream the group's entire catalog on services such as Rhapsody, Rdio and Spotify. Among the titles available for streaming are 1973's Desperado and 1976's Hotel California, both of which have been inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.
NBA all-star Kevin Durant is the latest signee to Jay-Z's Roc Nation Sports, a division of Creative Artists Agency. "He has a 90.5 free throw shooting rate, the youngest player in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club [marking shooting percentages for field goals, three-point field goals and free throws for a season], a giving individual and a legend in the making," said Jay-Z. The Oklahoma City Thunder forward follows previous Rock Nation Sports singings such as New York Yankees all-star Robinson Canó and New York Jets quarterback Eugene "Geno" Smith III, among others.
A new video getting attention on YouTube posits what kind of reaction the celeb judges on "The Voice" would have if John Lennon were in the performance hot seat. The spoof pairs an early '70s clip of Lennon performing his GRAMMY Hall Of Fame-inducted classic "Imagine" with footage of the judges grimacing at his technically imperfect singing. The clip, currently at more than 1 million views, ends by promoting an upcoming contestant, Bob Dylan, who "leaves our judges speechless." … President Barack Obama's rendition of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" has gone as viral as his #POTUS nickname. The video, which pieces together clips of Obama speeches to create the chorus to the hit song, has garnered nearly 5 million YouTube views to date.
As expected, Kanye West's new album Yeezus debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 327,000 units sold, marking the third-largest sales week of the year. With 297,000 units sold, J. Cole came in at No. 2 with Born Sinner.
June 25 marked the four-year anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson and he's making news once again as testimony in the wrongful death trial against AEG Live continues to rivet fans. The latest trial news? Jackson may have set a record by going 60 days without real sleep.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame has revealed that its 2014 honorees will include Motown songwriters/producers and Recording Academy Trustees Award recipients Holland-Dozier-Holland (Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland); GRAMMY winners Jeff Lynne, Maná, Ray Parker Jr., and Rick Springfield; and GRAMMY-nominated artists Katy Perry and Tupac Shakur.
Singing a duet with Mick Jagger might be fun, but the experience can also leave you speechless. Just ask Taylor Swift, who recently joined the Rolling Stones for a performance of "As Tears Go By" in Chicago. "We were just kinda goofing around and we started dancing, like waltz — like over-exaggerated ballet moves. And then we started twirling around the room," said T-Swizzle. "And it was hilarious, because we forgot the words and we just started laughing."
The Splendid State Of Pop In 2009
The state of pop is strong. Very strong. Last year was filled with exciting new music from established artists and massive hits from promising newcomers who ruled the charts around the world.
With such a hot and buzzing pop scene, the GRAMMY voters can't possibly have an easy job making their final picks this year.
One of the standout artists last year was Beyoncé who deservedly received a whopping 10 GRAMMY nominations for her infectious brand of R&B/pop on I Am...Sasha Fierce. The singer received nominations for Album Of The Year ("I Am... Sasha Fierce"), Record Of The Year ("Halo") and Song Of The Year ("Single Ladies [Put A Ring On It]").
Among other established artists who were noted by The Recording Academy were Pink (who had a massive year strutting her girl power), Seal (who teamed with David Foster for a soul standards album) and Stevie Wonder who never ceases to amaze with yet another GRAMMY nod.
A great deal of attention in 2009 was paid to newcomers Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, who energized audiences at home and abroad with their genre-crossing brand of pop.
After being hailed by music bloggers as pop's next big thing, followed by such early TV appearances as MTV's Logo in May 2008, Lady Gaga was catapulted into superstardom with songs like "Poker Face," "Paparazzi" and "Bad Romance." Even Madonna took note of this artist who turned out to be one of the best-selling artists of the year. The fashionista combines a strong point of view with a compelling performance that has fans hungry for more.
Taylor Swift has climbed from Nashville obscurity to global fame at only 20 years old. Very impressive. But it should not come as a big surprise. Her GRAMMY-nominated second album, Fearless, is filled with heartfelt crossover country/pop that people young and old can relate to.
In an environment that is ruled by intricate productions and musical extravaganzas, Swift shows that authenticity and straight-from-the-heart songwriting still rules. Swift is up for eight GRAMMYs, including Best Pop Female Vocal Performance.
When super-producer will.i.am discussed the Black Eyes Peas' much-anticipated new album, The E.N.D., during last year's GRAMMY Awards, he wasn't sure how the group's new album would be received. But he had nothing to worry about. Together with GRAMMY-nominated French club maestro David Guetta, the Black Eyed Peas created a futuristic mesh of pop, hip-hop and electronic music. It's a fresh sound that has opened the door to more European-styled electro in American pop music.
Last year also marked the long-anticipated comeback of pop/soul crooner Maxwell. Refreshed and replenished, the singer delivered the stunning Blacksummers' Night, which showed that after eight years out of the spotlight he still has his signature smooth touch. The Recording Academy agreed and awarded him with six nominations, including nods for Song Of The Year ("Pretty Wings"), Best Male Pop Vocal Performance ("Love You") and Best Pop Instrumental Performance ("Phoenix Rise").
Other notable pop artists in 2009 included Kelly Clarkson and Whitney Houston who delivered solid new albums. There were also lots of exciting newcomers who have a firm shot at GRAMMY success in the future. Artists like Chester French, Santigold, Jay Sean, Kid Sister, and Vampire Weekend all provided just the right balance of sweet and crunchy that has put them firmly on the radar.