Anyone can cover Stevie Wonder, but when that person is the woman who was his first wife, and who had Stevie himself as her producer, it carries a particular weight. The artist, of course, was Syreeta, who made her R&B album chart debut on 29 July 1972 with a self-titled record that also featured three of their co-writes, another “insider” Motown reading of a Smokey Robinson song, and a particularly inventive Beatles remake.
Pittsburgh-born Syreeta Wright had moved to Detroit in her school years and been part of the Motown family for years. Like Martha Reeves and Chris Clark before her, she joined the company as a receptionist in 1965. Renamed Rita Wright by Berry Gordy, she released her first single ‘I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You’ — written by Ashford & Simpson and Brian Holland — in 1968.
Solo success under that guise eluded her, and then Syreeta was seriously considered as a replacement for Diana Ross in the Supremes, before Jean Terrell won the role. Instead, Wright developed both a professional and personal relationship with Wonder. They co-wrote the Spinners’ 1970 hit ‘It’s A Shame’ and married the same year, when she was 24 and Stevie was a mere 20. The marriage didn’t last, but their creative harmony did, for decades to come.
Syreeta became a member of Stevie’s Wonderlove backing singers, appearing on 1970’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered and co-writing the title hit, before the couple co-wrote every track on his staging-post 1971 album Where I’m Coming From. She also sang on the follow-up Music Of My Mind, for which they composed ‘Love Having You Around.’
With Syreeta now signed to the MoWest label, her eponymous album was recorded over a four-month period from October 1971. Although the pair were divorced by the time of its release, the LP was a worthy showcase for her considerable talents. It opened with a version of ‘I Love Every Little Thing About You,’ which Stevie had just released himself on Music Of My Mind. The other Motown connection was in a revival of Robinson and Bobby Rogers’ ‘What Love Has Joined Together,’ first recorded by the Miracles and then by other Hitsville acts including, perhaps most notably, the Temptations.
With Wonder now a studio master who was eager to experiment with the developing technology of the day, the LP combined old-school soul values with electronic effects and the newly-emerging synthesiser sound. That was especially prominent on Wonder’s ‘Black Maybe’ and on a bold and admirable cover of The Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home.’
The album concluded with the pair’s ‘To Know You Is To Love You,’ on which Stevie took the first verse before Syreeta took over in a powerful and funky track with evocative strings by the Julian Gaillard Orchestra. The song was issued as a single by Motown, and although it failed to chart, its strength was emphasised when B.B. King‘s 1973 cover, featuring Wonder as producer and keyboard player, became a No. 12 R&B hit.
Syreeta entered Billboard’s Best Selling Soul LPs chart at No. 43, but without significant singles action, stalled at No. 38, and No. 185 pop. The 1974 collaboration Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta was also surprisingly under the radar, at No. 53 R&B and No. 116 pop.
The singer-writer would see more appreciation across the Atlantic, where ‘Your Kiss Is Sweet’ became a No. 12 UK hit in 1975, and she had two other pop chart singles. Then came the all-around success of her late 1979 duet with Billy Preston, ‘With You I’m Born Again,’ a top five pop hit in both the UK and the US. That apart, Syreeta’s chart performance never fairly reflected her distinguished record as both a songwriter and singer. She died, aged just 57, of congestive heart failure in 2004.
Syreeta can be bought here.
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