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Syreeta Wright, 58; Singer Wrote Hits With Stevie Wonder

Times Staff Writer

Motown recording artist and songwriter Syreeta Wright, who collaborated with ex-husband Stevie Wonder in writing several hits, including “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” and “If You Really Love Me,” has died. She was 58.

Wright died of cancer Tuesday at her Los Angeles home, surrounded by family, her sister, Kim Barnum, said.

“She was a totally incredible person,” Barnum told The Times this week. “She was always searching, always looking for -- I’d like to say ‘enlightenment,’ but it sounds ‘woo-woo.’ She was always trying to find out what was right, what was true.”

Wright, who was also known for her hit duet with Billy Preston, “With You I’m Born Again,” from the 1979 film “Fast Break,” married Wonder in 1970. They divorced about two years later. But they “remained true and unconditional friends after that, even up to the very, very end,” Barnum said.

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Wonder produced two of Wright’s albums, including “Syreeta” and “Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta,” which was about their love, divorce and friendship. Besides “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” she wrote several other songs with Wonder.

After her death, Wonder told KTLA-TV Channel 5: “To me as a lyricist, she was very picturesque. She played a significant part in my working with songs and really getting into songs.”

Wright left the music business for a time. In the mid-1990s, she toured with “Jesus Christ Superstar” as Mary Magdalene opposite Ted Neeley as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas.

Wright was born Rita Wright in Pittsburgh and later moved to Detroit, where she worked as a Motown secretary and was later a backup singer. Motown founder Berry Gordy signed her to the label as Rita Wright, the name under which she released “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You,” written by Brian Holland, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

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But Wright did not make it big with Motown, saying that she felt rebellious toward top executives’ decisions about her career, which she wanted to move in a jazzier direction.

“If I had listened, especially to Mr. Gordy, I would have had a more successful run at Motown, fame,” she told a Florida journalist in 1994.

It was Gordy who suggested she change her name to Syreeta as sounding more glamorous than Rita. Her last album was in 1983, titled “The Spell.”

“She tried to paint on the easel of life every day and just totally empty her cup,” Barnum said. “She loved music and she loved life.”

In addition to her sister, she is survived by her children, Takiyah, Harmoni, Jamal and Hodari; and her mother, Essie Wright. Services will be held Tuesday at 11 a.m. at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2270 S. Harvard Blvd., in Los Angeles.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.


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