“How do you stop loving the ones you loved for a lifetime – you don’t. Sylvia Moy made it possible to enrich my world of songs with some of the greatest lyrics. But not only that, she, through her participation and our co-writing those songs, helped me become a far better writer of lyrics,” so sayeth Stevie Wonder about the quiet and gentle lady who was something of a trail blazer, being one of the first women to join the male dominated production/composing team at Motown during the sixties.
And it was with the boy wonder that she first made her presence felt, as Hank Cosby’s widow Pat remembered, “Sylvia was the nucleus. None of (his success) would have happened if she hadn’t seen that Stevie had more in him.” “She broke that glass ceiling for women in the music industry,” Sylvia’s brother Melvin said. “In the sixties, women weren’t encouraged to play instruments, let alone be producers.“ So, let’s delve a little deeper into this story of a star in the making, and the lady behind him who had the faith and determination to ensure he had a future.
Sadly Miss Moy is no longer with us. She died, aged 78 years-old, on 15 April, succumbing to complications from pneumonia at the Beaumont Hospital, in Dearborn, Michigan.
Born on 15 September 1938 in Detroit to Hazel Redgell and Melvin Moy, Sylvia Rose was one of nine children. They had relocated to the city from the South for a better life, with music in their blood lines, and ambitions in their hearts. While attending the Northern High School, where, alongside academic lessons, Sylvia studied jazz and classical music, writing songs when the mood took her. With a handful of local musicians, she recorded backing tracks for her material and, with encouragement from her teachers, travelled to New York for auditions. Nothing materialised from these trips, but fate had another path for her nearer home when, on 12 February 1963, while singing in Detroit’s Caucus Club on Congress Street, Motown’s A&R director Mickey Stevenson was in the audience, with other Motowners like Hank Cosby, Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Ivy Joe Hunter. “…I sang and they joined in with the rhythm, beating on the table” Sylvia recalled. “That was the beginning of it all.” Indeed it was because she was offered a recording and songwriting contact with the company, where, somewhat ironically she said, “I sang the same songs at Motown I was playing in New York!”
In an interview with The Free Press last year, she confirmed, “Motown came forth with (the two contracts) which shocked me. Then I was told ‘Sylvia, we’ll get to you as a singer, but in the meantime, we’ve got all these artists and they have no material. You’re gonna have to write. I said OK because I was kind of shy anyway, and that’s what I started doing. I got into it, and the hits started coming.” More importantly, despite being told ‘women don’t produce’, Sylvia was welcomed as a valued addition at Motown’s production meetings!
Clarence Paul was Stevie’s exclusive producer until the time came when he felt unable to keep up with the young Stevie’s ideas about music. They had journeyed as far as they could creatively, and it appeared Stevie’s career was heading towards the exit door. No hits, no potential, no future – so what to do? Eventually a plan was hatched. Clarence Paul would continue to be Stevie’s touring musical director and conductor, and, under instruction from Berry Gordy, Hank Cosby would replace him in the studio, a logical move as he had been involved in writing and arranging Stevie’s music from day one. Mickey Stevenson recalled that they all liked Sylvia’s style of writing and that at the time, Motown’s sound was changing, “Clarence was an older producer and guys like Holland, Dozier and Holland were taking us in a different direction. Very swinging and happening.” So with her singing career on hold, Sylvia Moy began forging ahead as a composer, earning respect from her colleagues, and learning of Stevie’s dilemma, put herself forward to work with Hank Cosby, or as composer/producer John Glover recalled, “Sylvia…was like a throw in. I think she’d actually written some stuff with Stevie, so I don’t know that she volunteered to ‘take over’ writing with him as much as she already was.”
“(Stevie) was in puberty and his voice had changed,” Melvin Moy added. “Other producers couldn’t find something that fit.” For his sister to be allowed to take on this role was practically unheard of in the sixties, he said, “Racism and sexism, that was what was going on in the sixties. And certain disciplines relative to the music business were taboo for women.” Sylvia agreed. “(Because) his voice had changed, he just wasn’t selling for a period. But I just believed in him. I knew it was possible (Motown) might let him go, so I was begging ‘please give him to me.’ And that’s when I was finally told ‘well, if you can come up with a hit on him, we’ll keep him’.”
After touring with The Rolling Stones, Stevie planned to record his own song using the incessant, driving beat they used in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and to this end, he laid down the basics of the song, then sought out Hank and Sylvia, as she remembered, “He went through everything. I asked ‘are you sure you don’t have anything else?’ He started singing and playing ‘everything is all right, uptight’. That was as much as he had, so I said ‘that’s it, let’s work with that’.” With Stevie’s input, Sylvia and Hank stitched together “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”. Once the music was part-recorded, she constructed a lyrical skeleton into which she added Stevie’s phrases, and the resulting song ensured the young singer had a future with Motown, with the single laying the foundation upon which to build and expand his new musical team. Yeah, Sylvia had successfully found her niche and, of course, Motown was determined to keep her. Giving her the freedom to create and work, not only with the young Stevie, but also other signed acts, was their way of ensuring her exclusivity. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” raced into the American top three in 1965 (peaking at number ten in Britain) – and a new career was re-launched.
The impetus had to be guaranteed, and following any runaway hit is an awesome task for writers and producers, so the trio took the easy route. They part-cloned the hit to release “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby”. The ploy backfired; it failed to repeat its predecessor’s success, prompting Stevie to vow that that would be the last time he’d release a copycat single. When a ‘change of mood’ single “With A Child’s Heart” also sold poorly, Stevie’s team chose different, contemporary composers, like Bob Dylan and Ron Miller, for future singles. The downside was they failed to sell albums, so Berry Gordy reunited the singer with Sylvia Moy and the gang. Their first collaboration, that also included Stevie’s mother, was the uplifting “I Was Made To Love Her” and that hit the spot – literally! The boy genius was back where he belonged.
However, recording with Stevie wasn’t always easy Sylvia said, because it was frustrating to start with. She needed to re-educate him from the way he used to record with Clarence Paul, into a more comfortable, communicative style, while keeping him focused on the song in hand because his over active mind was gearing itself up for the next one! Stevie, at one time, admitted he contributed little, leaving Sylvia to actually write all the lyrics, which then had to be converted into Braille for him to read, or, if pushed for time (which was invariably the case) she sang or spoke the lyrics to him through his headphones as he was recording. “I would stay a line ahead of him and we didn’t miss a beat.” She even grabbed people passing by the studio when his enthusiasm deteriorated saying, “If there was no one around, his vocal just died. Stevie had to feel the presence of people.” The softly spoken lady roared with her lyrics from which Stevie benefitted, as he proudly told a packed audience in 2006 when he was a surprise guest at the ceremony where Sylvia was inducted into the 37th annual Songwriters Hall Of Fame, alongside Hank Cosby: “(Sylvia found) unique ways to take the melodies I wrote and putting them into a lyric that was incredible, that touched many hearts.”
Ms Moy worked with her emerging star through to the seventies with hits like “I Was Made To Love Her”, “I’m Wondering”, “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and “My Cherie Amour”, with others in between, while the last released song credited to the Wonder, Moy, Cosby team appears to be “I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)”, the flipside of 1970’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” penned by Syreeta and others. I think it’s fair to say that Syreeta replaced Sylvia in the singer’s creative team, and, indeed, looking at early photos of both ladies, there’s a spooky facial similarity.
When talking about “My Cherie Amour” Sylvia recalled that Stevie had approached her with a song about a girl he was involved with. “Every song he had at that time had a girl’s name attached to it. He had a little idea and it was ‘Oh my Marsha.’” The lyricist transformed Marsha into “My Cherie Amour”, one of Stevie’s biggest and most endearing hits. (This song also held a special significance for Sylvia: so much so that she used its opening bars of music as a symbol on her personal stationery). Pat Cosby told the media after Ms Moy’s passing that although Stevie received most of the credit on his material, she believed Sylvia, “was the beginning of so many of those songs. Between the three of them, Sylvia with her imaginative mind was just groundbreaking. If she were a man instead of a woman, there would have been a lot more you’d have heard from her. But once her work became known, the resistance waned away, and the producers started looking at her differently and could see the value of what she was trying to do.”
Stevie Wonder wasn’t the only artist to benefit from Sylvia’s talented pen and imaginative mind. For instance, in 1966 she wrote with Holland-Dozier-Holland, one of the company’s anthems, “This Old Heart Of Mine”, highlighting her favourite themes of love and heartache. With Mickey Stevenson she penned “It Takes Two”, with Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston in mind, and with Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol wrote one of The Velvelettes’ signature tunes – “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You”. Martha Reeves and The Vandellas also benefitted. Songs included their 1967 single “Honey Chile” (the first to show Martha’s full name) full of Southern connotations, “Love Bug (Leave My Heart Alone)” and “(We’ve Got) Honey Love”, all from the trio’s “Ridin’ High” album. There was also “Forget Me Not” a year later. As a point of reference, there are fourteen pages on the Songwriters Hall Of Fame website listing all the songs Sylvia penned alone or with others, and those she wrote at Motown were, of course, re-recorded by several artists, each giving a different take on the song. During her stay at the company, Ms Moy earned fifteen+ gold and platinum records for herself and Motown – not bad for a woman who was told she would never be a composer!
Detroit was Sylvia’s home and there she wanted to stay, so when Motown relocated to Los Angeles, they moved without her. While the company settled into their new home, she embarked upon another adventure by signing with 20th Century Records as both writer and singer. One of her first projects was to record and release “And This Is Love” during 1973, a song penned by herself and Frederick Long, arranged by Paul Riser, which is now considered to be a much-valued addition to any soul collection. Placing her recording career on hold again, Sylvia went on to write theme music for films like “Mr Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Presidents”, and theme songs for several television series, including the popular “The Wonder Years” and “Blossom”. From here, she expanded further by founding the non-profit organisation, the Centre for Creative Communications, her own studio named Masterpiece Sound, and rehearsal room, on the West Side of Detroit, where she mentored underprivileged young folks. Her intention was to give back what she was offered while growing up, “to encourage children to live a good life…because that’s how are parents were.”
Then during 1989, alongside a host of ex-Motowners, Sylvia was persuaded by Ian Levine to once again hold a microphone to record “Major Investment” for his innovative Nightmare Records, later Motorcity Records. While there, she also recorded her versions of “My Cherie Amour” and “I Hear A Symphony”. All entirely credible recordings from the lady with the delicate smile and warm personality, who, despite her shyness, hugged the ambition as a young girl to sing for a living.
At her funeral at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, officiated by Bishop Charles Ellis III, family and friends mingled with Motowners like Martha Reeves, and city officials. A statement from Berry Gordy was read by his great niece Robin Terry (head of the Motown Museum) that included the words, “At this moment we are all sharing a tremendous loss. In addition to her early work with Stevie, Sylvia went on to do other great things at Motown, gaining the respect of fellow songwriters and opening the door for other women.”
Although in Ireland, performing at golfer Rory Mcllroy’s wedding, Stevie paid tribute in a taped video….”I loved Sylvia from the moment that I met her. Her heart and passion, her desire to not only do great music, but to do great things with my music. Even in these later years, I longed for us to collaborate again, yet who am I to fight with the Most High in His decision to making her one of His angels for song for eternity. Maybe someday in eternity, at its given time and space, we will write together again. I love you, Sylvia.” He then ended the video with a personalised version of “My Cherie Amour”.
Survived by two brothers and five sisters, Sylvia Moy, who never married, was buried in Elmwood Cemetery, on 1200 Elmwood Street on Detroit’s East Side, one of Michigan’s most important historic sites. It goes without saying, she will be missed dreadfully but happily her work will live on through the voices of others.
The final words here belong, of course, to Stevie, “You know that we learn at an early age that we are not meant to be here forever. So please, even through the pain of it all, celebrate this wonderful African-American woman’s life, for she was another example of one of God’s greatest creations.”
(credits: “Signed, Sealed And Delivered” – Mark Ribowsky/wwwtelegraph.co.uk/www.freep.com/www.rollingstone.com/www.washingtonpost.com)