Almost every article marking the death of singer/songwriter Syreeta Wright mentions Stevie Wonder. Sometimes it’s in the first sentence, sometimes a bit later, but it’s always there. A reminder that for some artists, usually women, it’s their relationships that make the news. Even their death is overshadowed by their partners.
So let’s put that aside: 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 stories miss is that when Wright died, Wonder not only lost an ex-wife and friend, but also a collaborator and a partner. And the world lost an artist who was overshadowed by a very brief marriage to a very talented man.
Among Wright’s contributions to the Wonder canon are “Blame It On The Sun”, “I Never Dreamed You Leave in Summer”, and “Think of Me As Your Soldier”. Wonder understood the extent 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 words.”
Wright was a poet who understood the power of a single line to heal, to break; Wonder’s classic period (the period between 1971 and 1976 when Wonder released a series of near-perfect albums) would have been much less without her. “Syreeta and I wrote great songs together”, Wonder ToldBillboard in 2004. “There’s heartbreak, but on the other side, God didn’t have to bless me knowing her and sharing life and love.”
Attempting to make moves in Motown
But this is not a story about Stevie Wonder. This is the story of a girl named Syreeta Wright – who loved to write poems, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1946. “I always wrote embarrassing little poems when I was a kid,” she said. Daily Women’s Clothing (WWD) in 1974. She started singing around the age of four and as a teenager moved to one of the epicenters of soul and R&B – Detroit. This is where Motown was, after all. And Motown was making stars. “[Songwriter and producer] Brian Holland started it all for me. I think I was with the company for a month and I called ‘all the time saying, ‘What are you going to do for me?'” she said black music in 1974.
Motown could be like this: rosters brimming with talent, but locked into a system that could often overlook and underutilize them. Many albums were unreleased and these artists did not know how to advance their careers. Wright was no different. “I got bored [Holland] every day until he says I want you down, we have 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 with the 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 set of headphones and to me the whole atmosphere was so cold, I mean just sterile.”
However, his voice is not sterile. Although there is hesitation in the song, Wright’s voice shines with a kind of sweet warmth; it was going to take the right material and some time to bring it out. The record was also released with Rita Wright’s name on the label, another sign that it wasn’t quite her, yet. “[Motown] said no one could remember Syreeta. More likely they couldn’t pronounce it themselves,” she said. WWD.
The record never really found its following in the United States, which would come up again and again in Wright’s Motown career. Creating a distinct 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 albums were released that told a story, and Wright’s early work may have suffered as part of the quest for a hit single.
Go ahead and never imitate
Despite the lack of response to her release, Wright remained with the label as a secretary in the arranging department, and was also an on-call vocalist who provided backing vocals for other Motown artists. But it wasn’t the career she wanted, and it wasn’t the art that interested her.
“I was pushed aside like some sort of Diana Ross wastebasket,” she continued. WWD. the Diana Ross the comparisons were so heavy, that as Mary Wilson written in Dreamgirl: My Life as Supreme, Wright was considered a replacement for Ross when she left the Supremes. Billboard even announced her as the band’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 like an obvious fit for Motown.”
Obvious, perhaps, but intentional, not so much. “Everyone knew 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 person. She wanted a unique style, a style she could claim as her own. “Don’t go looking for other styles,” she said WWD. “Make yours so no one can ever say, ‘Hey, she looks like Diana-Aretha-what-her-name is.'”
‘I Can’t Give’ was ‘a hip record,’ Wright said Soul in 1975, “but the style was all wrong”.
Meet in song
Even at Motown, Wright was still writing poems waiting for her chance to be herself. She shared some of her poetry with Wonder, something that signaled a real change in their relationship, she said. Soul. “My poetry is a very private thing. And when I share it with someone, it means they’re very special to me. I shared it with Stevie and he loved it.”
Wonder asked Wright if he could put some of it to music and help with a song he was working on. The result was his 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 doodles are part of a 2 million chart hit,” she said. WWD. The song would also earn Wright his first (and only) GRAMMY nomination.
Wonder and Wright began working as songwriting partners, with his lyrics shaping what would be known as his big time. The first in the series of his new artistic independence dates back to 1971 Where I come from. “We wrote all the songs (nine of them) on Where I come from,” she said black music. “I also did the lyrics for a lot of things on Music of my mind.”
While her writing was exquisite, Mary Wilson was absolutely right about Syreeta: she wanted to be a solo artist. She would get another try, this time as Syreeta, with her 1972 self-titled album. But much like songs from her Rita years, the album didn’t make a big splash. “I don’t know why, but the company never really 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 her debut 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 worked a lot more closely with the ensemble,” Wright said. black music. But even with Wonder’s backing, 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 restrained, but I guess that was just her way of being protective,” she said. “But the product still ended up sounding like a Stevie Wonder record, with me like In addition.“
Although she continued to work with Wonder throughout the ’70s, she scored her first hit with another collaborator— Billy Preston— on their 1979 single “With you I was born again.”
Wright continued to create for the rest of her sadly short life, releasing nine albums and becoming an in-demand backing vocalist for artists like george harrisonMichael Bolton and quincy jones. She has also worked with Wonder from time to time. When she died in 2004 at the age of 57, she left behind a work which, although vast and beautiful, never quite fulfilled all the promises that had presided over its creation.
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, says the mirror that working with Syreeta has fulfilled a lifelong dream: “Syreeta is a woman who made me cry. I love his voice so much.
solange included Wright as one of the motivators to explore his 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 harsh bullshit, but the tone of her voice was so soft you could hear it more clearly.”
Despite the praise that didn’t always come during his lifetime, Wright found his calling, his sound, his voice. “I think it’s very important to know what you’re singing about and to believe in it,” she said. Blues & soul in 1977. “Your music should be a reflection of you, no matter what.” Hear Syreeta Wright’s reflections on herself with these six songs: