Rita Wright (Syreeta), singer and songwriter: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 28 February 1946; married first 1970 Stevie Wonder (marriage dissolved), second Curtis Robertson Jnr (two children); died Los Angeles 5 July 2004.
In the mid-Sixties, if you weren't signed to the Tamla Motown label as an artist, the office at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit was the place to be. Martha Reeves started out as secretary to the A&R department at Hitsville USA before hitting the charts with the Vandellas in 1963. Syreeta also made the transition from behind the desk to the studio, at first recording as Rita Wright with the yearning "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel for You" (1968).
A wonderful singer with a distinctive and classy delivery, Syreeta went on to collaborate with Stevie Wonder, writing lyrics for several of his best-known songs such as "If You Really Love Me", "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" and inspiring much of the material on the albums Where I'm Coming From (1971), Music of My Mind (1972) and Talking Book (1972), which saw the former child star blossom into a fully fledged artist and multi-instrumentalist at the beginning of the Seventies. Even after her brief marriage to Wonder ended in 1972, the two remained firm friends and Wonder co-wrote and produced the albums Syreeta (1972) and Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (1974).
Syreeta recorded seven more albums for Motown and scored the biggest hit of her career in 1979 when she sang the ballad "With You I'm Born Again" with the vocalist and organist Billy Preston. Originally included on the soundtrack of the long-forgotten basketball comedy Fast Break (1979), the duet made the Top Five on both sides of the Atlantic and has become an easy-listening standard. "That song gives me the most pleasure to this day," said Syreeta recently. "It's so simply stated and, sometimes, when I sing it live, it's very emotional for me."
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1946, Rita Wright was already singing when she was four. "I used to sing the Lord's Prayer and my mother would hold her breath until I reached the high notes," she recalled. Her father was killed in the Korean War, and Rita was brought up by her mother and grandmother. In the mid-Fifties, the family moved to Detroit and Rita, who excelled at school, began dreaming of a career in the arts or in entertainment.
Ballet proved too expensive an option and, in the mid-Sixties, the young Wright got a job as a receptionist and secretary with Tamla Motown, the company founded by Berry Gordy. Soon, she was working for William "Mickey" Stevenson, the artists and repertoire director, and contributing handclaps and backing vocals to some of the recordings of the day while waiting for the opportunity to record a single of her own.
Eventually, the Sound of Young America stalwarts Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland decided to produce her on a song the Supremes had already turned down, "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel for You", written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Issued in January 1968 on the Gordy label, the single did not chart but has subsequently become very collectable, especially amongst her British fans.
When Diana Ross left the Supremes in 1969, Wright was considered as a replacement, but Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong plumped for Jean Terrell in defiance of Gordy. By now, he had renamed his charge Syreeta to add a bit of glamour to her name. She was blissfully unaware of the machinations at the time. "I was kinda naïve back then," she admitted:
Everything was wonderful on the surface but I didn't know some of the things that were going on behind the scenes. For instance, I was shocked to find out that some of the people at Motown thought I sounded like Diana Ross! That surprised me but I guess I was somewhat sheltered by my relationship with Stevie.
Wright had met Stevie Wonder in 1968 and he soon began setting some of her poetry to his music. The pair provided the Spinners with their breakthrough hit "It's a Shame". They were married in September 1970 and, although they separated 18 months later, maintained a close friendship which saw them through the recording of Syreeta and Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta. Syreeta reflected:
We got married at a very young age and no one gave us a manual. Going through a divorce at the same time we were making that album, songs like "Heavy Day" have something to do with what we were going through. "Spinnin' and Spinnin' " was about a lady Stevie was dating at the time. I felt he would get emotionally injured by that situation and he did.
Syreeta scored her first Top Fifty entry in the UK with "Spinnin' and Spinnin' " in 1974. The following year, the singer took "Your Kiss is Sweet", her reggae-influenced co-composition with Stevie Wonder, to No 12 and followed it up with the Caribbean-flavoured "Harmour Love".
In the mid-Seventies, Syreeta embarked on a spiritual quest and spent three months studying Transcendental Meditation in Ethiopia. Despite collaborations with Marvin Gaye's right-hand man Leon Ware, the former Spinners lead singer G.C. Cameron (on the album Rich Love, Poor Love in 1977) and her second husband, Curtis Robertson Jnr, she fell down the pecking order at Motown.
Duets with Billy Preston and Smokey Robinson briefly revived her career and, in 1983, she recorded The Spell with Jermaine Jackson producing. Always in demand as a backing vocalist with Stevie Wonder, Syreeta also worked with George Harrison, Patrice Rushen, Michael Bolton, George Duke and Quincy Jones and in the Nineties played the role of Mary Magdalene in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Three years ago, Universal compiled The Essential Syreeta to the delight of her many British fans and the singer herself, who said: "I'm overwhelmed, I'm ecstatic, knowing that I did some music years ago and that people still find value in it today."
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