Sylvia and Stevie: inspiration and influence
"You'll never be a writer, forget it."
A picture is worth…well, you know.
In this case, perhaps at least a thousand words, considering that it’s among the most evocative photographs set in the recording studio at 2648 West Grand. You see a sixteen-year-old Stevie Wonder, harp in hands, with Funk Brothers Robert White, Earl Van Dyke and James Jamerson, and songwriter Sylvia Moy. The shot was likely taken in March 1967 – fifty years ago! – as this crew was committing “I Was Made To Love Her” to tape. A similar photo, which included the record’s producer, Henry “Hank” Cosby, was serviced to the trade press that summer, when the single was close to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
It’s the lone woman in the picture who’s the subject of attention here. Sylvia Moy was co-writer of “I Was Made To Love Her” and a number of other Wonder works, and may be the least recognised of the five people present. Which is not to call Moy an unknown: any decent book about Stevie acknowledges her part in his career, and Sylvia explained that to me herself some years ago.
Stevie, too, was happy to credit Sylvia in public. “You can still hear her influence on the words I write today,” he told a music industry seminar in 1977, after the release of his monumental Songs In The Key of Life.
That influence derives in part from Moy’s background. “I Was Made To Love Her” was “really about my mom and dad,” she told me. “My mother was from Arkansas, and it was based on stories I heard from them. Stevie just locked right into it – but then creative people are so sensitive, you can express a story to them and they can absorb it.” Her parents had moved to Detroit from the South, her father first. “He hobo’ed, he rode the trains, he made his way north. My dad, in his efforts to look for a better way for his family…had practiced going without food and water, so that he could come in here and find work. And that’s how my family got here.”
Sylvia, who is today in her seventies, was born and raised in the motor city, and still lives there. In school, her musical talent became evident to a teacher, Barbara Wilson. Later, Moy made her own vocal demos, with original songs, to shop to record companies in New York, only to be told that the material wasn’t up to par. She persevered as an entertainer, landing gigs at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (“Detroit’s newest singing discovery”) and the Caucus Club. At Baker’s, she performed in November 1963 with a trio fronted by pianist John Griffith, who subsequently worked in Motown’s house band. At the Caucus Club, she was seen and heard by Marvin Gaye and William “Mickey” Stevenson, and invited to audition at Hitsville.
“At Motown,” she recalled, “I sang the same songs I was playing in New York, where they had told me, ‘You’ll never be a writer, forget it.’ ” This time, the listeners were impressed. “I think Eddie and Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Mickey, Hank Cosby and Ivy Jo Hunter were there. Quite a few people, and I sang and they joined in with the rhythm, beating on the table. That was the beginning of it all.” She joined the firm in 1964, and Kim Weston’s “I’m Still Loving You” was among her first Jobete Music copyrights, co-written with Stevenson and Hunter. An early hit she co-authored was “It Takes Two,” cut by Marvin and Kim.
“Marvin would come in to do his vocals,” Moy remembered, “and he would always get to the piano first, while the engineers were setting the mikes up. He was always working on this same piece. He called it his concerto. It was absolutely gorgeous.”
In 1965 came Sylvia’s opportunity to work with Stevie Wonder, as noted above. She told me that this was her first producer assignment at Motown, although it is Cosby and Stevenson whose names appear on label copy as producers of “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “Nothing’s Too Good For My Baby,” “With A Child’s Heart,” “I Was Made To Love Her,” “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and “My Cherie Amour” – all songs which Moy co-wrote.
Sylvia has also said that she was Motown’s first female producer, although that credit belongs de facto to “Miss Ray,” a/k/a Raynoma Singleton, Berry Gordy’s second wife. Nonetheless, Moy received royalties as a producer, and her involvement in Wonder’s career bestows on her a significant place in Motown history. Those hits, especially “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “I Was Made To Love Her,” strongly shaped the post-“Little Stevie Wonder” identity, and illuminated his path to the future.
Not that Stevie was the only vehicle for Sylvia’s talent. Her work was recorded by Martha & the Vandellas (“Honey Chile,” “Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone”) and Shorty Long (“I Had A Dream”). “Shorty Long and I got really close,” Moy told Richard Pack in a detailed 1986 interview in Soul Survivor magazine. “He was loud and just crazy…I mean, Shorty was a mess, a real comedian.”
When Motown quit Detroit, Sylvia Moy signed elsewhere, including recording and publishing deals with the Los Angeles-based 20th Century music outfit. She also committed herself to helping Detroit youngsters who were seeking careers in music, and ran a midtown workshop to that end. Later, Moy operated the Michigan Satellite label (for which Ortheia Barnes recorded) and Masterpiece Sound, where British producer Ian Levine cut many Motown alumni for his Nightmare/Motorcity adventure – even Sylvia herself. Later still, she wrote music for television (The Wonder Years, Growing Pains) and movies.
When Sylvia and the late Hank Cosby were honoured by the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, Stevie Wonder went to New York to induct them himself. “I was so lucky to have these two tremendously talented people working as part of my career and my life,” he declared. “And they were much more than simply collaborators; they provided inspiration, friendship and love – and I will always cherish these priceless gifts.” To seal the deal, Wonder performed “My Cherie Amour.”
That night, Sylvia Moy could hardly have been happier.