Ace’s new release from late Motown chanteuse Syreeta, The Rita Wright Years: Rare Motown 1967-1970, kicks off with “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You.” The moody, majestic composition by Brian Holland, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson might have been too unorthodox – beginning with its introductory brass call-to-arms – to attain hit status upon its release as the Motown family of labels’ first single of 1968. But, backed on 45 with Ashford and Simpson’s beautifully yearning “Something on My Mind,” it was a dramatic debut for Syreeta Wright, whose first name was shortened by Holland to maximize her commercial potential. Yet, as a headliner, Wright dropped off the radar until re-emerging in 1972 with a debut album crafted by the artist and her then-husband, Stevie Wonder (with whom she had co-written such perennials as “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” and “If You Really Love Me”).
Syreeta’s only U.S. Pop hit came with the 1979 Billy Preston duet “With You I’m Born Again,” but there were so many more facets to her talent. The Rita Wright Years presents 24 stunning tracks culled from the Motown vaults: both sides of that original 1968 single plus four more songs that surfaced in the CD era, and a whopping 18 previously unreleased performances, all recorded by “Rita” Wright between 1967 and 1970. These encompass Detroit tracks recorded at Hitsville, USA and Golden World, plus nine tracks cut at MoWest in Los Angeles that amount to a wholly unreleased album. These aren’t just prime displays of Syreeta’s elastic, expressive voice, but top-notch Motown might-have-beens.
Syreeta’s silky, coquettish tone often brings to mind Diana Ross, hence the fact that she was seriously considered to fill Miss Ross’ considerable shoes in The Supremes before Jean Terrell ultimately got the job. (However, “I Can’t Give Back the Love” was not originally intended as a demo for the group, as legend has it; their recording was made over a year later in a different version.) But Tony Rounce quotes an acerbic Syreeta in his liner notes from a 1973 interview: “I was Diana Ross’ musical garbage can for a few years.” Happily, the songs deposited in her can were anything but garbage, though a number of them were indeed originally assigned to The Supremes. These include the slinky, Stevie Wonder-penned “Ain’t I Gonna Win Your Love,” Hank Cosby and Joe Hinton’s electric “Since You Came Back,” and Walter Fields and Jack Goga’s “Give Back the Good Things,” with the latter having been previously issued on Ace’s Love and Affection: More Motown Girls set. (Goga also co-wrote “Where is the Love” with Ivy Jo Hunter. The track premiered on A Cellarful of Motown! Volume 2 back in 2005. Originally intended for The Four Tops and reassigned to Gladys Knight and the Pips, one can hear Levi Stubbs digging into its intense groove.)
That’s not all. “You Made Me Feel Like (Everything is Alright)” and the brassy “(Touched) By the Hands of Love” were both originally assigned to The Supremes, as well. Jean Terrell ended up leading The Supremes on “May His Love Shine Forever” when the group overdubbed Syreeta’s track in 1971. But most exciting among the Supremes-related tracks is Syreeta’s original demo recording of “Love Child.” The provocative composition by Deke Richards, Pam Sawyer, R. Dean Taylor and Frank Wilson, a.k.a. The Clan, is clearly still a work-in-progress here, although Diana Ross added her immortal lead vocal to the track the very next day after Syreeta recorded it in September 1968. Sharp-eared listeners will immediately notice a shorter intro and a cut verse on this fascinating original recording which is sung by Wright in the Ross mold.
1967’s atmospheric, intricately-arranged Ashford and Simpson production “Beware of a Stranger,” first released in 2007 on A Cellarful of Motown! Volume 3, was originally intended for Tammi Terrell. Robert Hamilton and Joanne Bratton’s “That’s What He Told Me,” from 1968, was slated for another Motown queen, Brenda Holloway. As produced by Richard Morris at Golden World and deliciously sung by Wright, the frenetic track is packed with sass and swagger even if the singer perhaps shouldn’t believe what he told her…! The Lewis Sisters’ “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” was first recorded by Brenda Holloway, whose version emerged on Ace’s 2013 The Artistry of Brenda Holloway; Syreeta holds her own even against the formidable Ms. Holloway. Writer-producer Jimmy Roach’s dark, powerfully driving “It Don’t Mean Nothin’ to Me” is such a strong offering that it’s a shock Brenda, Diana, and or one of the other Motown ladies didn’t snap it up when Syreeta’s recording languished.
The 1970 MoWest recordings, produced by Hal Davis, are among the strongest selections here. The imprint’s signature, gospel-meets-rock-and-soul fusion was a comfortable match for Wright. At MoWest, she recorded two songs associated with Chris Clark: the anthemic “I Want to Go Back There Again,” penned by Clark and Berry Gordy, and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s tough, rocking “Love’s Gone Bad.” She also tackled Smokey Robinson’s 1959 Miracles ballad “Bad Girl” as “Bad Boy” in a lushly-arranged version with strings, and a pair of songs from the team of Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones – the funky “Hurtin’ Me (Became a Habit)” and “Can’t Stop.” (Ironically, the latter seems tailor-made for The Supremes!) Suzee Ikeda and The Supremes eventually recorded “Mind, Body and Soul” from the H-D-H-associated team of Ronald Dunbar and Edith Wayne. Jack Goga’s “You,” another co-write with Ivy Jo Hunter and also Jeffrey Bowen, showcases Wright at her most passionate, whereas her recording of Laura Nyro’s uptempo “Save the Country” is somewhat too lackadaisical to maximize its impact. Though one can’t deny the splash made with 1972’s Syreeta, these tracks would have comprised one of the strongest entries in the MoWest catalogue.
Keith Hughes and Tony Rounce have penned the annotations and liner notes, respectively, in the 12-page booklet, and Duncan Cowell has mastered all of the tracks from the original Motown tapes. The Rita Wright Years: Rare Motown 1967-1970 is another thrilling testament to the vibrancy and potency of The Sound of Young America from the Ace team.
- I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You (Gordy 7064, 1967)
- Ain’t I Gonna Win Your Love
- It Don’t Mean Nothin’ to Me
- Something on My Mind (Gordy 7064, 1967)
- Beware of a Stranger (Motown CD 5303228, 2007)
- That’s What He Told Me
- I Want to Go Back There Again
- Bad Boy
- Give Back the Good Things (Ace CDTOP 1455, 2015)
- Hurtin’ Me (Became a Habit)
- Can’t Stop
- Where is the Love (Motown CD 972929-7, 2005)
- Mind, Body and Soul
- Save the Country
- Since You Came Back
- Can You Feel It, Babe
- Love Child
- Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
- Love’s Gone Bad
- Love My Lovin’ Man
- You Made Me Feel Like (Everything is Alright) (Motown CD 544619-2, 2002)
- (Touched) By the Hand of Love
- May His Love Shine Forever
All tracks recorded between 1967-1970. All tracks mono.
All tracks previously unreleased other than those indicated above.