Just recently I wrote about Syreeta’s debut album from 1972, now digitally released, which you can read about on this site. It got me thinking about this beautiful lady, with her inviting smile and graceful mannerisms, who was gifted with a voice that many envied. Then I remembered her offbeat sense of humour; spontaneous giggles and girlie chats. One thing led to another, and what follows is the result of my meandering journey through the years based on Syreeta’s singing partners.
I think we can take it as a given that Stevie Wonder was definitely one of her partners in song. So let’s have a quick backtrack to 1965 when a young, shy, slip-of-a-girl landed a job as a receptionist at Motown. Syreeta had been introduced to the company by Brian Holland – “And I bothered him every day for over a month to see if he had a song for me. One day he actually said he had and that was when I met Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford for the first time. They wrote my first single ‘I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You’.” However, Syreeta, as a hitmaking chart singer, wouldn’t happen overnight; but now working as a secretary in one of the music departments, she was in the right place for session singing but more importantly, she was in the right place to meet Stevie Wonder. Long-story-short: his “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” in 1970 was their first joint effort: “It was simple for me but I was amazed that lyrics like that could sell over two million copies.”
Now confident in her art, Syreeta continued to match her lyrics to Stevie’s melodies. “The music told me what to write about, instead of me trying to get someone to write a tune around my lyrics. Once I had written something I liked, I’d tell Steve. If he didn’t like it, I’d go back and work on it again. Or he’d give the song to someone else to work on.”
As you may know, their professional relationship turned into romance with the two marrying in September 1970. The ceremony was actually held up for forty minutes as the bridegroom battled with a nose bleed brought on by his nervousness. After the ceremony the happy couple hosted a lavish reception at Detroit’s Mauna Loa Restaurant for the three hundred guests before honeymooning in Bermuda.
After the afore-mentioned self-titled “Syreeta” on Motown’s then-newly created L.A imprint, MoWest, the couple’s next significant project was “Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta” in 1974 which reflected their marriage breakdown, two years earlier. “The track, ‘Cause We’ve Ended Now As Lovers’, well, I won’t say he wrote that for me, but I was there when he wrote it,” Syreeta explained. “What I can’t make people understand is a relationship just doesn’t end with a piece of paper being signed. The love and feelings don’t end. It’s just that that particular phase is dissolved. We were divorced then, yet the whole idea of the song was to make people understand why two people split up. When I wrote ‘Blame It On The Sun’ people reckoned it must have reflected Steve and I going through a bad time, but we never had bad times, and I actually wrote that song when we were first married. People thought ‘I’m Going Left’ was a love song, but it’s about politics. The whole album is very special to me because every song holds a story. Steve and I will carry on creating and fantasizing through music because we work well together.
This super album gave Syreeta two hit singles, “Spinnin’ And Spinin'” (a satire on groupies by all accounts!) and “Your Kiss Is Sweet” which were her first British charters at number 49 and 12 respectively. A thrilled singer flew to London in January 1975 to promote the latter hit, her first visit since backing her ex-husband at The Talk Of the Town as a member of Wonderlove in 1970. If I remember correctly, Stevie’s other support singers included Madeline Bell and P.P. Arnold.
Early in 1977, Syreeta’s “One To One” album (produced by Leon Ware) left me scratching my head as it was totally different and more intense in content that anything she had recorded previously. Influenced by a three-month course studying transcendental meditation in Ethiopia and following her divorce from Wonder, Syreeta stepped out on her own putting to good use what she had learned during that time.
Then mid-way through ’77 she was teamed up with The Spinners’ ex-lead singer G.C. Cameron for the “Rich Love, Poor Love” album, with Motown’s intention of repeating the remarkable success of the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell relationship. It had the opposite effect, despite lifting one of the better cuts “Let’s Make A Deal” as a single. While both singers gelled in the studio, the Michael Lovesmith-produced album fell short of its potential. It was a bitter pill to swallow after Syreeta’s success with Stevie. However, help was on the way….
Two years later her name appeared behind Billy Preston’s on record labels. As far as I remember, the names were printed that way round because it sounded better. Nevertheless, when I was Motown’s UK publicist I showed a little defiance and upheld my love for Syreeta, by printing her name first on press photographs. It looked real good to me; not so to my manager! However, irrespective of the pecking order, Syreeta was to enjoy her biggest success of all as a duettist – and briefly here’s how it happened: after a period of relative inactivity at A&M Records, Billy Preston was introduced to Motown by the management team Suzanne de Passe and Tony Jones, where his first project was to work with Syreeta on the soundtrack album for the baseball movie “Fast Break”.
The score had already been completed and the couples’ vocals were added in two days. “Go For It”, with an instrumental version of “With You I’m Born Again” on the flip, was released as the film’s first single, pressed in brown vinyl and packaged in a cardboard baseball. “We were both swept into the ‘Fast Break’ venture,” Syreeta told me in 1979. “Up to that point we had no preconceived ideas about working with each other, although we were familiar with each other’s work.”
Nothing much happened, but it led to Syreeta contributing to Billy’s solo “Late At Night” album which, by comparison, was well received. However, the point I’m trying to make here is that “With You I’m Born Again” appeared on both “Fast Break” and “Late At Night”. It was the perfect love song written by Carol Connors and David Shire, and begged to be a single. It was constantly played in Motown’s EMI offices until its release in August 1979, while “It Will Come In Time” was the American choice, and died without trace.
Meanwhile, the British single – released because Motown/EMI believed in its hit potential – had a sluggish start in life. It slept for two months until Motown’s record promoter Chris Marshall, gave it the kiss of life and pumped it up all the way to number two in the chart, earning Billy and Syreeta a silver disc. Surprise, surprise, the single was subsequently hastily issued in the States to reach the top four! “Just looking at (Billy) and singing those lines, we prayed before we recorded that song” said Syreeta at the time. “We were thinking of the Father, we were thinking of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit because that’s what it meant to us. Working with Billy was incredible.”
Billy and Syreeta arrived in London on 21 December 1979 and, along with my Motown colleagues, I met them at the airport. The downside was I was on crutches having broken my foot at The Venue in London’s Victoria. I was backstage with Fat Larry’s Band and was carefully walking down the spiral staircase (I hate the damn things) near their dressing room, and slipped on one of the stairs. Anyway, Syreeta was both extremely sympathetic and impressed that the Motown office had given a job a disabled lady. I later explained my situation.
They were here on a three-day press and promotion tour which included opening the city’s new nightclub Heaven in Charing Cross, back-to-back interviews and a unique photo shoot with EMI’s in-house photographer Peter Vernon. It was clear that Syreeta was amazed with the single’s success. “I didn’t expect (it) stood a chance because everyone is into disco and not love songs. The people in England worked super hard to break it and we owe our success in America to that British breakthrough. It’s been a funny song all the way through because in Los Angeles my managers always believed in it and it’s one of the songs that I liked best myself. And now it’s ended up being my biggest success so far and I certainly don’t mind sharing it with Billy because he’s such a nice guy to work with.”
I next saw them when they returned to the UK early in 1980 to tape a performance for the Search For A Star television spectacular due to be screened at Eastertime, and later on when they performed at RAF Lakenheath Airport base, the largest US Air Force-operated base in this country. They were appearing there as part of their across-country tour of American Air Force bases with the Motown group Ozone as their backing group, their regular working band. For some reason the group didn’t make it, leaving Syreeta unable to perform her full act as the UK pick-up band didn’t know her songs. “I don’t know what happened,” she whispered to me in the darkness of her dressing room. “I don’t really know where I am, or what I’m doing here.”
Inflaming her wretchedness, jet lag and an incomplete touring itinerary, she was suffering from a persistent stomach disorder while coping with a headache brought on by stuffy indoor conditions and too much cigarette smoke. I got up to open a window, as we sat like sardines in a tin of a dressing room. “Oh no, don’t do that. I’ll probably catch pneumonia as well!” I made a note at the time that she looked like a little-girl-lost curled up in a ball on an over-stuffed armchair that had clearly seen better days. Then she discovered her make-up bag had been sent on to Germany, the duo’s next port of call. Thankfully a disaster was averted. Enter Noreen Allen (Motown’s disco promoter among her many jobs) who produced her handbag bursting with suitable war paint. This really was a dire situation to be in, particularly as we were supposed to be looking out for Syreeta. They were rare happenings but showed the downside to not controlling touring arrangements.
Billy and Syreeta were due to perform two shows that evening. Looking good, Billy came on stage first with “It’s My Pleasure”. I’m afraid that’s all I noted. Syreeta, wearing a cream evening gown and a flower over her ear, appeared for “Love Fire”. She then changed tempo for “Blame It On The Sun”, her voice soaring and weaving around notes that hit the low ceiling and disappeared under the tables. (Yup, I really did write that at the time!)
The audience was actually listening, which was a surprise as previously, the raised voices all but blocked her out. The front stage was the same level as the seated audience, so the singers disappeared from time to time, a situation not helped by photographers moving around in front of them. At some point Syreeta joined Billy at his piano to perform an excellent version of “With You I’m Born Again” before leaving the stage with thunderous applause ringing in her ears. Billy took over to funk up the evening with “That’s The Way God Planned It” and the Commodores ‘”Machine Gun”. It was a high-octane act which, according to my notes, was wasted on the audience.
Grabbing time out for a solitary quiet drink, Syreeta sauntered over to the table, requesting a mineral water from the attending waiter. She needed to calm down her stomach, she said, clearly still feeling poorly. When a few servicemen – I didn’t note seeing any women there – came looking for autographs, her professional side kicked in with a smile. However, when she was coerced into groups for photos I pulled the plug. “Let’s go back,” I said. “It’s quieter in the dressing room even though there’s a shortage of oxygen.” Billy and others joined us until there were ten of us crowded into this small room, to drink pink champagne to celebrate the duo’s return to the UK.
Tucking ourselves in a corner, I asked Syreeta what she most wanted to do; her response didn’t surprise me. “I want to go home and be with my family. Jamal, who’s five and Hodari who is still a baby at twenty months. And my husband, of course.” It would take her over two weeks to get on that flight home. At that point we really did have to make a move to return to London. Despite the obvious hang ups, the evening went well even though I felt she had little to smile about!
In between times, during October 1979, Stevie Wonder issued his much-publicised double album “Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants” which, by any stretch of the imagination, was an extraordinary release. I mention this release simply because Syreeta was one of the vocalists with Tata Vega and also highlighted Syreeta’s brilliantly sympathetic lyrics on “Come Back As A Flower”. “Steve couldn’t come up with a lyric (for the song) so he gave me a tape of the music but at first I couldn’t come up with anything either. One day I was daydreaming and I got all these mental images of gardens, flowers, dawn and dusk and the lyrics just came. I did a demo and Steve liked it so much that he kept it the way I did it, even though I begged him to let me do it again…I feel this is Steve’s most creative piece of music yet…”
“Billy Preston & Syreeta”, their only true duet album, was tangled up in Motown’s move from EMI to RCA Records in 1981. In actual fact, the early pressings of the album were over-stickered with the RCA logo slapped across the back sleeve. I was downhearted that I didn’t get the chance to work with them on this release which held one of the most magical love songs I’ve ever heard, “A New Way To Say I Love You” written by Gerry Goffin and Michael Masser. Happily, it eventually made single release on Valentine’s Day two years after the album’s release.
Moving on .I next met up with Syreeta early in 1982 when she was guest of honour at a belated Motown/RCA celebration at Soho’s Le Beat Route Club. Her album “Set My Love In Motion” was newly released but foremost on her mind was her family. “I’m usually up at seven to fix the kids and my husband their breakfast, then I’m in the office for nine,” she told me. “I try to be back home early afternoon so that the family can spend some quality time together….I want my kids to feel they have a normal mother like everyone else.”
Of the album though, she added, Berry Gordy wanted it done and dusted within three weeks, and to this end, “he helped with some of the vocal dubbing on ‘Move It, Do It’ and ‘There’s Nothing Like A Woman In Love’. He’s great in the studio because he has a way of making you feel relaxed and then pulling the best out of you. I’ve always had the greatest respect for the way he created Motown as a company and made it such a major force in the music world but that respect deepened through working on the album with him.”
Possibly the next strongest singing partner for Syreeta was Jermaine Jackson who not only recorded with her, but was producer of her 1983 release “The Spell” album. On tracks like “Freedie Um Ready” he’s listed as composer with Syreeta, while on the happy-go-lucky “Once Love Touches Your Life,” he adds his vocals as duettist. The opening cut “Forever Is Not Enough” was a poor selling single, and of the other titles to hold credence, “Freedom” – with its hard rock overcoat and aggressive vocals – and The Corporation-penned “To Know”, a beautiful ballad with a sympathetic string arrangement by Gene Page, are stand-alones.
She said at the time, “The album is a continuation of the creative flow that I established with Steve some years ago. Finally, I feel that my true musical personality is coming through. I wanted my own sound, the music in my head, as opposed to what another producer interpreted.” Jermaine and Syreeta worked together not at the suggestion of anyone at Motown, but rather because Syreeta desperately needed to work with someone who could interpret her ideas, while Jermaine longed to work with an artist “who is someone like myself – a person willing to submit themselves and achieve something special.” Four months later the couple had created “The Spell”. Syreeta added, “Some of the songs on (the album) are almost three years old. I began holding on to my songs and almost stopped writing altogether because no-one could ‘hear’ my songs the way I could. I wanted to weave a spell and with this album I believe I’ve done just that.”
In 1989 Syreeta joined the former ladies of The Supremes, Kim Weston, Carolyn Crawford, Marv Johnson and The Elgins on the nationwide tour of The Legends of Motorcity USA. These artists alongside many others had recorded for Ian Levine’s Motorcity Records and it was at London’s Dominion theatre that I caught up with Syreeta again in her dressing room. (See video below from this show). She had married again. “I’m Mrs Torrence Mathis….For once I have found the man that understands both sides of being in the business. He understands the side of being a performer and going into the studio, and he understands me at home just as a wife.” We talked and talked. It was so good to see her happy and contented with her life. She had come full circle now.
We lost our songbird in July 2004.
(Quotes from: “Motown:The History” and “Chinwaggin'”)