Syreeta’s sweet soprano is from another world.
Rita Wright was a receptionist at Motown before her incredible voice was discovered by in-house songwriter Brian Holland, of the Holland-Dozier songwriting team. She sang backup before recording her first single, the Ashford & Simpson-penned “I Can’t Give Back The Love That I Feel For You” in 1967.
She clearly had musical chops, and paramour Stevie Wonder encouraged her to write songs. Together they penned “It’s A Shame” for the Spinners, which hit #14 on the pop charts. Wright and Wonder got married in 1970. They began co-writing songs that year, including “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” and “If You Really Love Me,” which she also sang on.
“If You Really Love Me” appeared on Stevie’s album Where I’m Coming From. It was has last album before he let his contract expire with the label, who were notorious for creatively-controlling their artists. Within two years, he re-signed with Motown, but under his terms. He had learned to play hardball with them after watching Marvin Gaye successfully negotiate control over What’s Goin’ On.
Motown wanted a flashier name than Rita Wright, and she became Syreeta. Her first LP Syreeta was produced by Wonder in 1972, the same year they got divorced. Apparently, there was no bad blood and only love between them, as they continued to collaborate for years to come. This album really was the genesis of Stevie delving into heavier experimentation in the studio over his next five albums. For some reason I never saw the silhouette of Syreeta’s face in the album art until just now. It’s like a magic eye puzzle, only not.
Here she is on her first album doing an insane version of The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” with Stevie on the vocoder.
Syreeta didn’t produce any big hits when it dropped, which is perhaps why her next album two years later, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, name-checked Wonder and was presented as a debut. Singing backup on the album was Deniece “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” Williams, and Minnie “Loving You” Ripperton. Both, along with Syreeta, had sung backup for Stevie under the moniker Wonderlove. I love Minnie Ripperton. She’s a whole other posting someday. I also love Syreeta’s Sunset Boulevard Norma Desmond look on the cover.
“‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” is one of the saddest break-up songs ever. It has that elusive melody quality that Stevie’s “Visions” has.
Jeff Beck recorded a version of “‘Cause We’ve ended As Lovers” in 1975, on his album Blow By Blow.
The 1977 album One To One moved into more of a dance direction. This was Syreeta’s last Motown-affiliated album, as she was always butting heads with Berry Gordy over artistic control.
Syreeta scored her biggest hit duetting with Billy Preston with “With You I’m Born Again,” from the soundtrack to the Gabe “Mr. Kotter” Kaplan vehicle Fastbreak, a sort of Bad News Bears rip-off in which Kaplan coaches a misfit college basketball team. I’ve never seen this movie but I cant imagine this song playing during a romantic montage with Gabe Kaplan. Nuts.
I don’t think this song is really about being born again in the Christian sense, though I remember my sister wanted to sing this song in our church, but she was worried that the lyrics were too explicit. I loved this song. It was really the beginning of my secret love for syrupy duets in the vein of “Secret Lovers” by Atlantic Starr.
Here they are singing it live, it gives me goosebumps!
In 1980 Syreeta made yet another album named Syreeta, her biggest seller due to the inclusion of “Born Again.” She released two more albums in the early 1980s, and collaborated with George Harrison on the song “Dream Away” from the 1982 film Time Bandits.
This movie played a lot on HBO in the early 80s and I loved it! I think this movie, Rocky 2, and The Terry Fox Story were the most broadcast films in HBO history. Just kidding, but that’s how I remember it. The Terry Fox Story was about Canadian amputee and long-distance runner Terry Fox, who ran coast to coast in Canada to raise money for cancer, which he eventually succumbed to. My brother and I watched this movie at least twenty times. Below is a picture of the real Terry Fox. The Terry Fox Story was HBO’s first foray into producing their own TV movies.
Syreeta’s last album was issued in 1983. She continued to collaborate with other artists, like Willie Hutch, Jermaine Jackson, and Billy Preston. In 1994, she played Mary Magdalene in a travelling version of my favorite musical Jesus Christ Superstar. It kills me that I never saw this, as the original Jesus and Judas from the Norman Jewison film, Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson, reprised their roles. Carl Anderson died of leukemia in February of 2004. He was seriously so talented, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing Judas as greatly as he did.
Here he is as Judas, dropping down from the sky from Heaven to explain to Jesus that he only failed because he didn’t market himself properly, which is true.
Sadly, Syreeta also died too young of bone cancer, only months after Carl Anderson, in 2004. She really deserves more recognition as a singer and songwriter.
God, this is like the people dying of cancer too young post. Syreeta, Carl Anderson, Terry Fox, Minnie Ripperton. At least Gabe Kaplan is alive and kicking, but looking pretty smarmy.
I can’t end this post this way. Here’s Syreeta again. Rest in peace, girl.