Almost every article marking the death of singer/songwriter Syreeta Wright mentions Stevie Wonder. Sometimes he’s in the first sentence, sometimes a little later, but he’s always there. A reminder that for some artists, 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 many articles miss is that when Wright died, Wonder not only lost an ex-wife and friend, but also a collaborator and partner. And the world has lost an artist who was 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 mean with a letter.”
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 without her. “Syreeta and I wrote great songs together”, Wonder saidadvertising panel in 2004. “There is heartbreak, but on the other hand, God didn’t need to bless me getting to know her and sharing life and love.”
Trying to make changes in Motown
But this is not 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 embarrassing little poems as a kid,” she said. Women’s Clothing 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. After all, that was where Motown was. And Motown was making stars. “[Songwriter and producer] Brian Holland started it all for me. I think I was at the company for a month and I called ’round saying ‘What are you going to do for me?'” she said. black music in 1974.
This is what Motown could look like: rosters brimming with talent, but stuck in a system that could often forget and underutilize them. Many albums were unreleased, and these artists didn’t know how to advance their careers. 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 his first single for the label, written by Holland along with songwriting duo Ashford and Simpson.”I can’t return the love I feel for you.“When I recorded ‘I Can’t Give’ it was really funny because I was so scared,” she said. black music. “They handed me a pair of headphones and to me the whole atmosphere was so cold, I mean just sterile.”
However, his voice is not sterile. Although there is a hesitation in the song, Wright’s voice glows with a kind of gentle warmth; it would 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 it wasn’t quite her, not yet. “[Motown] said that no one would be able to remember Syreeta. More likely, they couldn’t pronounce it themselves,” she said. WWD.
The record never really found its audience in the United States, something that would come up again and again in Wright’s Motown career. Creating a distinctive sound is something the company was known for, but not all artists fit that mold – or even wanted to. In the mid-1970s, artists like Wonder and Marvin Gaye were releasing albums that told a story, and Wright’s early work may have suffered as part of the quest for a hit single.
Moving on, and never imitating
Despite the lack of response to its release, Wright remained with the label as a secretary in the arrangements department and was also an on-call singer who provided backing vocals for other Motown artists. But this was not the career she wanted, and not the art she was interested in making.
“I was put aside as a sort of Diana Ross dump,” she continued. WWD. The Diana Ross the comparisons were so heavy that Mary Wilson wrote in Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, Wright was considered a replacement for Ross when she left the Supremes. advertising panel even announced her as the newest member of the group 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 like an obvious choice for Motown.”
Obvious, perhaps, but desired, not so much. “Everyone knew Syreeta wanted a solo career,” Wilson continued. “And I refused to bring in anyone who saw the Supremes as a springboard.”
Syreeta didn’t want to be the next Diana – or the next anyone. She wanted a unique style that she could claim as her own. “Don’t go grab other styles,” she said WWD. “Form your own so no one can say ‘Hey, she sounds exactly like Diana-Aretha-what’s her name’.”
“I Can’t Give” was “a trendy record,” Wright said. Soul in 1975, “but the style was all wrong”.
Finding yourself in the song
Even at Motown, Wright still wrote poems, waiting for the chance to be herself. She shared some of her poetry with Wonder, something that signaled a real shift in their relationship, she said. Soul. “My poetry is something very private. And when I share it with someone it means they are very special to me. I shared it with Stevie and he liked it.”
Wonder asked Wright if he could do some music and help him with a song he was working on. The result was their first hit, “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 doodles become part of a 2 million record hit,” she said. WWD. The song would also earn Wright his first (and only) GRAMMY nomination.
Wonder and Wright began working as writing partners, with their lyrics providing the shape of what would become known as their great period. The first in the series of his newfound artistic independence was in 1971 where do i come from. “We wrote all the songs (nine of them) in where do i come from,” she said black music. “I also wrote the lyrics for a few things in music of my mind.”
Although her songwriting was excellent, Mary Wilson was absolutely right about Syreeta: she wanted to be a solo artist. She would get another chance, this time as Syreeta, with her 1972 self-titled album. But like the songs from her Rita years, the album didn’t make much noise. “I don’t know why, but the company never supported that first album.” Wright said blues & soul in 1974.
The duo would try again with the 1974 release of Stevie Wonder presents Syreeta, which, unlike their first album, features more of Syreeta’s writing and a more defined point of view. “I like the second one because there are love stories behind every song and I’ve worked much closer with the overall thing,” Wright said. 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 “very restricted, but I think it was just his way of being protective,” she said. “But the product ever ended up sounding like a Stevie Wonder record, with me like a extra.“
Though she continued to work with Wonder throughout the ’70s, she got her first hit with another collaborator— Billy Preston– on their 1979 single “With you I was born again.”
Wright continued creating for the rest of her unfortunately short life, releasing nine albums and becoming an in-demand backup singer for artists like George HarrisonMichael Bolton, and Quincy Jones. She also worked with Wonder from time to time. When she died in 2004 at age 57, she left behind a body of work that, while broad and beautiful, never lived up to the full promise it was set to create.
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 said 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 of the motivators to explore his falsetto. “I loved Syreeta Wright and really identified with some of her songs that she and Stevie Wonder did,” she said in 2017. “She was saying some really tough shit, but her tone was so sweet you could actually hear her more clearly.”
Despite the acclaim that didn’t always come during his lifetime, Wright found his way, his sound, his voice. “I think it’s really important to know what you’re singing about and believe in it,” she said. blues & soul in 1977. “Your music must be a reflection of yourself, whatever it is.” Hear Syreeta Wright’s reflections of himself with these six songs: