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Some performers, such as Florence Ballard, were ground up in the Motown hitmaking machine -- and a few, like Syreeta, found their callings and success in other parts of the music business. Born in Pittsburgh, Rita Wright had her sights set on a performing career, and luckily her family moved to Detroit when she was in her teens and she had the talent to back up the goal. She came to the company as a secretary and was later discovered by Brian Holland, one third of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, who began using her as a backup singer on various records and brought her to Berry Gordy's attention. He was so impressed with Wright's voice that he signed her up and later gave her a song, "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel for You," co-authored by Holland, Ashford, and Simpson, that originally had been intended for Diana Ross. In Wright's hands (credited to Rita Wright), the single did well enough, especially overseas, where she later discovered she had a serious following. Wright later met and fell in love with Stevie Wonder, and the two were married in September of 1970 -- by that time, she was using the name Syreeta, which is how she became best known to the public. The personal union lasted only two years, but it led her into a new area of music, as a lyricist. Wonder began setting her poems to music, and she realized that she was able to write songs; their collaboration as composers and artists outlasted the marriage by three years, and led to some superb work in both departments. Their subsequent hits together included "If You Really Love Me," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and "It's a Shame" -- her biggest hits, "Spinnin' and Spinnin'" and "Your Kiss Is Sweet," were also Wonder/Wright collaborations. Syreeta released her first album under that name in 1972, on the Motown MoWest imprint -- Syreeta, produced by Stevie Wonder, was one of the more beautifully made records issued by the label in the 1970s and gave her voice the first fully realized showcase it ever had. They issued two more albums together, and she remained with the label for nine more years, as part of the tiny group of "inside" artists (along with her ex) who were more than just business acquaintances. She scored a number five hit in 1980 with the ballad "With You I'm Born Again," a duet with Billy Preston, and also recorded duets with Jermaine Jackson, among other artists on the label, during the early '80s. Syreeta retired from full-time music work in the mid-'80s in order to devote herself to her personal life and family, but she remained a much-loved artist from Motown's silver age. After a long battle with cancer, Syreeta passed away July 6, 2004.
© Bruce Eder /TiVo


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