Review : Syreeta – The Rita Wright Years

Previously unissued tracks from the Motown archives, featuring another forgotten woman artist.

The civil rights movement and its momentum may have been triggered by the action of a woman, Rosa Parks, but the reality is that most black women were still marginalized by their male peers, never mind society itself. It sparked the National Black Feminist Organisation (New York, 1973).

Syreeta, aka Rita Wright, was smart, talented, determined and inspired by her times – but always out of sync with them for these very reasons. She was part of the Motown team, the first record label run by black people, featuring black artists, having got herself a job in reception, with dreams of becoming a singer. (Her family couldn’t afford singing lessons.) Mostly, she only got as far as the studio to try out songs for the rest of the roster, or as a session singer, under the name Rita Wright (not her choice).

It was no secret that head honcho Gordy was selling black music to white people; long before branding was a thing, he employed a full-time stylist, Maxine Powell, who groomed the stars to suit the target market. Powell was a dominant force at Motown. (Even Marvin Gaye was told to stop slouching and open his eyes when he sings, allegedly.)

Gordy took inspiration from the car factories that the label’s original home city Detroit was famous for – produce a good product, release something similar as quickly as possible, (and the popular theme for a hit being a love ballad in the first person, written with a male viewpoint.

Syreeta The Rita Wright Years album

‘Love Child’, featured here in its original glory, was recorded in September 1968 and passed to Diana Ross, who overdubbed her lead vocal the very next day, following a re-work of the last verse. It was released within a month. ‘I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You’ is recognisable because Dusty Springfield released a cover in 1968, as well as Jeff Beck, formerly of the Yardbirds.

Every song rings true of head honcho Berry Gordy’s Motown pop formula, the smooth grooves that turned a label name into a genre ooze from tracks previously only known by the rare soul aficionados: ‘Beware Of A Stranger’, ‘Since You Came Back’ “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You’. The ballad ‘Where Is The Love?’ was originally assigned to the Four Tops, reassigned to Gladys Knight & The Pips, completed, and returned to Syreeta, only making its first appearance on a 2005 Motown compilation.

Ace Records’ CD insert delights with facts and backstories. Did you know she was dubbed onto the chorus of Martha Reeves and the Vandella’s ‘I Can’t Dance To That Music’?

Post the civil rights movement, and married to Stevie Wonder, the labels biggest earner, Syreeta had more opportunity to release records, under her own name. (Arguably, now she could be defined by a man, she was no longer invisible.) This time around, her old skool Motown style, in short, the songs she was given, did not fit in with the new political and social mindfulness of the label, in terms of song topics and lyrics. They must have known that. She must have known that. (Stamps foot.)

There’s always speculation about exactly how much fantastic music is hiding in the Motown archives – and this example will fuel that rumour because it adds class to any record collection, respect to all that has gone before in music’s herstory. The best thing: Syreeta The Rita Wright Years makes excellent company, whatever the weather. It’s vintage cool melodica. I just wish she knew I was listening.

Pic: Syreeta (Rita Wright) and husband Stevie Wonder (accessed Nov 2018)


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