SYREETA-ONE TO ONE.

SYREETA-ONE TO ONE.

Mention the name Syreeta, and somewhat predictably, most people remember her as being married to Stevie Wonder. That, however, is doing Syreeta a huge disservice. Not only did Syreeta play a huge role in transforming Stevie Wonder’s career, writing and appearing on his albums, but enjoyed a successful solo career. Their marriage may have only lasted eighteen months, but the pair remained close friends. Indeed, Stevie and Syreeta owed each other a great deal.

Syreeta had played a huge role in transforming Stevie’s career. She helped him make the successful transition from child star to one of the most successful soul singers of the seventies. He gained artistic control over his music, and in the process, came of age musically. He went on to release a string of commercially successful, critically acclaimed albums. Starting with 1972s Music of My Mind, the next few years saw him release classics like 1972s Talking Book, 1973s Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale in 1974. 1974 proved to be an important year for Syreeta too.

It was the year her sophomore album Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta was released. This was the followup to her 1972 debut album Syreeta, which Stevie Wonder had also produced. So, Syreeta and Stevie Wonder had proved beneficial to each other’s career. However, by the time Syreeta released her third album One To One, which was recently released by SoulMusic Records, Syreeta’s life would’ve changed.

Although it was in Detroit Syreeta Wright made her name as a singer, it was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania she was born in August 1946. Syreeta started singing when she was just four, around the time her father died.  Her family moved between Carolina, Detroit and Pittsburgh, but eventually, settled in Detroit, just as Syreeta started high school. It was in Detroit that Syreeta’s thoughts turned to music as a career.

Her first involvement in music was singing in local groups. However, when Syreeta got a job as a receptionist at Motown in 1965, her career started. She progressed to working as a secretary, working for producer Mickey Stevenson. Then, Brian Holland of Holland, Dozier and Holland started working with Syreeta, helping her to hone her vocal talents. Soon, she was singing on demos. As Rita Wright, which Berry Gordy renamed her, Syreeta released her debut solo single I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel, which was penned by Ashford and Simpson. Later in 1968, Syreeta met another artist who’d play a part in her nascent career…Stevie Wonder.

Stevie Wonder met Syreeta in 1968, and encouraged her to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. By 1970, they were married and moved to New York. It was in New York Stevie Wonder set about gaining artistic control over his music and setup his own publishing company. This lead to the album that transformed Stevie Wonder’s career Talking Book. Sadly, it was during this time that Syreeta and Stevie’s marriage broke-up. Ironically, 1972 would also be the year Syreeta released her debut album Syreeta.

Four years after the release of her debut single, Syreeta released her eponymous album Syreeta in 1972. It was released on Mowest, Motown’s new West Coast label. Syreeta cowrote three tracks with Stevie Wonder, who produced Syreeta and wrote Happiness. While Syreeta didn’t include any hit singles, it’s perceived as one of the best albums released on the Mowest imprint. Two years later, Syreeta’s sophomore album would be released on the Tamla imprint.

For Syreeta’s sophomore album, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, the album was released on Tamla. The eleven tracks were written by Syreeta and Stevie Wonder. Like her debut album Syreeta, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta didn’t contain any singles. By 1974, Stevie Wonder had become one of the biggest and busiest artists in music. His production work had to take a back seat. He only wrote and produced one further single for Syreeta Harmour Love, in 1975. Two years later, when Syreeta released her third album, One To One not only had she a new producer, but a new collaborator and partner.

There was a gap of three years between Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta and One To One. During that time, internal politics at Motown frustrated Syreeta. She wanted more artistic control over her music. This would allow her to explore new ideas musically. During this three year period, Syreeta had met Curtis Robertson Jr, and they cowrote four tracks on One To One. To produce One To One, Leon Ware, fresh from producing Marvin Gaye’s classic album I Want You was chose. Syreeta’s first choice was Charles Stepney, but tragically, he died in May 1976. So with Leon Ware tasked with producing One To One, a new chapter in Syreeta’s career began.

Of the eight tracks on One To One, Syreeta and Curtis Robertson Jr, cowrote four tracks. Syreeta wrote three other tracks and cowrote I Don’t Know You with producer Leon Ware. Leon cowrote Tiki Tiki Donga with Curtis Robertson Jr, while the other track was the Stevie Wonder penned and produced Harmour Love. The seven new tracks were recorded at three separate studios.

Kendum Recorders in Burbank plus The Record Plant and Crystal Industries in Hollywood were the three studios where One To One was recorded. Joining Syreeta were a rhythm section of bassists Chuck Rainey and Curtis Robertson Jr, drummers Alvin Taylor, Howard King and James Gadson plus guitarists Ray Parker Jr, David T. Walker, Greg Poree and Marc Silverman. Saxophonist Gary Bartz, keyboardists Greg Phillinganes and Sonny Burke and percussionists Eddie Bongo Brown and Mayuto were joined by backing vocalists Jim Gilstrap and Marietta Araiza. This was a real “all-star” lineup that accompanied Syreeta. Producing One To One was Leon Ware, fresh from the success of I Want You. Could he work his magic on One To One?

On the release of One To One in 1977, the album failed to chart. That made it three albums in a row that had failed commercially. Even Leon Ware’s Midas touch hadn’t helped. However, was One To One something of a hidden gem, like Syreeta’s debut album Syreeta? That’s what I’ll tell you, after I’ve told you about the music on One To One.

One To One opens with One To One, one of three tracks Syreeta wrote. Swathes of sweeping strings, join the rhythm section, percussion and keyboards in creating a dramatic backdrop for Syreeta’s cascading vocal. It soars soulfully, as she scats, before delivering a heartfelt, impassioned vocal. Leon Ware uses layers of strings as a building block. He then adds keyboards, percussion and the rhythm section creating a backdrop that’s dramatic, multilayered and beautiful. There’s a richness and boldness to arrangement, which grows in power. The longer it progresses, the better it gets. Backing vocalists add to the song’s soulfulness, as Syreeta delivers one of her best vocals, not just on One To One, but her first three albums.

I Don’t Know was a track Syreeta cowrote with Leon Ware. There’s a real Marvin Gaye sound to the track, especially in the percussion. Think Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and you’re on the right lines. Bold, pounding keyboards, wistful horns, swirling strings and the rhythm section combine to create an arrangement that grabs your attention. Layers and textures of music become one. Syreeta’s lilting vocal grows in power and passion. Soon her vocal becomes sensuous, then playful. Her band lock into the tightest of grooves,  keyboards, percussion, chiming guitars and lush strings heading to growling saxophone solo. From there, the track takes on a gospel sound, as Syreeta and her backing vocalists testify in a call and response style. It’s a curveball you never saw coming, but is a glorious twist in the tail in this tantalizing track, where Syreeta seamlessly fuses genres.

Rest Yourself is another of the tracks Syreeta wrote. It features the tenderest of vocals from Syreeta, sung against an arrangement that compliments her vocal. Space is left in one of Leon Ware’s best arrangements. Not once do the band ever overpowering Syreeta’s vocal. They compliment and accentuate the song’s charms and beauty. A melancholy horn, piano, slow, subtle rhythm section and the lushest of strings are joined by equally tender harmonies. They intertwine with Syreeta’s heartfelt, pensive vocal. She explores the lyrics, bringing out their subtleties, nuances and secrets, and not forgetting their considerable beauty.

It doesn’t take long to realize that this song has Leon Ware’s name written all over I Too Am Wanting. He cowrote the track with Syreeta and Curtis Robertson Jr. As the song opens, it has a moody, pensive sound. Woodwind, strings and deliberate stabs of piano are responsible for this. When Syreeta’s vocal enters, it’s slow, emotive and dramatic. It’s deliberate, sensual and full of longing. You focus purely on Syreeta’s vocal, that’s how good it is. You’re transfixed by its beauty and sensuousness. Behind her swathes of lush strings, piano, bursts of chiming guitars and the rhythm section become one. They unite as Syreeta’s vocal elegantly and gracefully cascades. Quite simply, the result is one of the most beautiful songs Syreeta recorded.

From the elegance and beauty of the previous track, there’s a change of style on the   Leon Ware and Curtis Robertson Jr, penned Tiki Tiki Donga. It’s totally unlike any other track on One To One. It has a quite experimental sound, that meanders into being. Eastern and African sounds unite, while a plentiful supply of percussion gives way to a pounding funky bass. Strings sweep in, their beauty a contrast to the power of the rest of the arrangement. Syreeta’s vocal cascades, scatting, as the track takes on a lush and at the same time, experimental sound. In amongst the layers and swathes of music, sits Syreeta’s vocal. It’s elegant and beautiful, delivered with emotion. Although totally unlike any other track on One To One, it shows Syreeta’s versatility.

Waves of lush strings carry Syreeta’s tender, cascading vocal as Don’t Cry begins to reveal its secrets and beauty. Woodwind wistfully punctuates the arrangement, while a rasping horn playfully meanders. They accompany the rhythm section and a truly heartfelt vocal from Syreeta. Her vocal is delivered with emotion, tinged with sadness, but always tender and beautiful. Leon Ware’s multilayered arrangement compliments her vocal, reflecting the beauty in Syreeta’s vocal. The result is a slow wistful, melancholic arrangement where beauty is interspersed with drama. What really makes this such a beautiful track, is Syreeta’s heartfelt, emotive vocal.  

Harmour Love is the only track not produced by Leon Ware. It was written and produced by Stevie Wonder and gave Syreeta a minor US R&B hit in 1975, reaching number seventy-five. While it lacks the depth of the other tracks, it’s a track full of poppy hooks aplenty. Caribbean music, reggae, soul and pop all combine for three minutes. A guitar penned far right joins percussion, keyboards and the rhythm section to create a jaunty, uplifting track, with a feel-good sound. Stevie Wonder sings backing vocals, while Syreeta’s vocal is akin to a slice of sunshine and happiness. 

Bookending One To One is One To One (Reprise) where Syreeta revisits the opening track. So good is the track, that it deserves a reprise. It’s a combination of a hugely talented producer, working with a tight, all-star band and of course, a vocal tour de force from Syreeta. Not only was One To One the perfect start to the album, but the perfect way to close One To One.

In many ways, Leon Ware was the perfect producer for Syreeta’s first post-Stevie Wonder album One To One. With Stevie concentrating on his own career, his production career was put on hold. Maybe this was just as well. Syreeta’s first two albums, Syreeta and Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta hadn’t been a commercial success. Although his last collaboration Harmour Love gave Syreeta a minor US R&B hit, it wasn’t taking Syreeta’s music in a direction that offered her a future. It wasn’t exactly classic Stevie Wonder. Granted it was catchy and full of poppy hooks, but was no musical War and Peace. So maybe, it was time for Stevie Wonder and Syreeta to go their separate ways. 

Leon Ware, who’d just produced Marvin Gaye’s classic I Want You, was on something of a roll. This made him the perfect replacement. His production style was complex, multilayered and sometimes, lavish. It was perfect for Syreeta’s third album One To One. Leon’s production style seemed to bring out the best in Syreeta. The seven new tracks, including the experimental sounding Tiki Tiki Donga, saw Syreeta seemingly revitalized and reenergized. From the opening bars of One To One, right through to the closing bars of One To One (Reprise), Syreeta gave a series of vocal masterclasses. Emotion, passion, drama and beauty all shawn through during One To One.

Assisted by a tight, all-star band and producer Leon Ware, One To One became the best album of Syreeta’s three-album career. While commercial success still eluded Syreeta, she proved not only was their life after Stevie Wonder. The three year break she’d enjoyed, had rejuvenated her career. One To One, which was recently rereleased by SoulMusic Records, was the finest album Syreeta had released and is indeed, a hidden gem in Motown’s back-catalogue. Standout Tracks: One To One, I Don’t Know, I Too Am Wanting and Don’t Cry.

SYREETA-ONE TO ONE.

2 Comments

  1. Hroda Francis

    Thanks for these reviews man..19 yr old musician (bass) who collects rare grooves..definitely put me on to alot of records, appreciate this..also love the depth of your reviews and positive insight

    • Hi Hroda,

      Glad you’re enjoying my blog. I’ve written about some fantastic bass players in this blog. My favourite is Ron Baker of the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section of M.F.S.B. and The Salsoul Orchestra. So is Bernard Edwards of Chic. Stanley Clarke, Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T and The MGs, and Bootsy Collins are all great bass players. Some old reggae albums feature great bass players, with Robbie Shakespear one of the best. Keep reading my blog as I’ve some great stuff coming soon.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek.

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