Sylvia Moy, Motown songwriter who wrote hits for Stevie Wonder, dies at 78

Sylvia Moy, a prolific Motown songwriter who is credited with energizing Stevie Wonder’s career with a string of early hits, has died at the age of 78.

Moy, who died Saturday at a hospital in Dearborn, Mich., was one of the few — and perhaps the first — female songwriters and producers at Motown Records in the early ’60s when the Detroit label was a virtual hit factory for emerging black artists.

Her skills as a songwriter were so apparent and the label’s need for new music so dire that record executives convinced her to put her own singing career on hold and focus on songwriting.

“ ‘Sylvia, we’ll get to you as a singer,’ ” she recalled being told. “ ‘But in the meantime, we’ve got all these artists and they have no material.’ ”

One of those artists was Wonder, who’d hit a slump after recording “Fingertips” as a 13-year-old phenom.

Working with songwriter Henry Cosby, Moy helped fix that by composing a string of now-familiar hits for Wonder — “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, “My Cherie Amour”, “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Never Had a Dream Come True.”

“I just believed in him,” she told the Detroit Free Press in 2016. “I knew it was possible [the label] might let him go. I was begging, ‘Please give him to me.’ ”

Unsure the best way to communicate the lyrics of “Uptight” to someone who was blind, she finally opted to sing them into Wonder’s headphones as the song was recorded, careful to stay one line ahead.

When Moy was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, Wonder made a surprise appearance at the ceremony to thank her.

Born Sept. 15, 1938, in Detroit, Moy was one of nine children and had an early interest in classical music and jazz. High school teachers encouraged her to attend singing auditions, and eventually she landed a job performing at the Caucus Club in Detroit, where Motown heavyweights Marvin Gaye and Mickey Stevenson reportedly saw her and lured her to the record label.

Though Motown songwriters and producers at the time were overwhelmingly male, Moy quickly established herself as a songwriting force.

In addition to writing much of Wonder’s early song catalog, she wrote or co-wrote “This Old Heart of Mine” for the Isley Brothers (and later Rod Stewart), “My Baby Loves Me” for Martha and the Vandellas and “It Takes Two,” which was recorded by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston, and again by Stewart and Tina Turner.

Moy went on to write theme songs for television shows and, later in life, launched a nonprofit in Detroit to teach media arts to young adults.

“She broke that glass ceiling for women in the music industry,” her brother Melvin told the Free Press.

In a statement, Sony/ATV Music — which publishes Moy’s Motown work — said it regarded Moy as a pioneering figure who broke barriers that had held back women before her: “Her classic songs will live on forever.”

steve.marble@latimes.com

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