'Signed, Sealed, Delivered'

Songwriter Syreeta Wright Portrays Mary in 'Jesus Christ Superstar

By Michael Campbell

When the production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" arrives at the Palace Theatre on November 18, it will bring to us one of the most graceful and soulful proponents of the Motown Soundd, Syreeta Wright. Wright's songwriting credits include "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," "Blame it on the Sun" (her personal favorite), "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer," and "If You Really Love Me," all composed with Stevie, Wonder. In addition, Wright and Wonder penned "To Know You is to Love You," yielding a hit for B.B. King.

As for her singing, CompuServe's All Music Guide rates her as "one of the most exciting and innovative vocalists at Motown." With ten albums to her name, including one with Billy Preston featuring their Top 40 ballad, "With You I'm Born Again," and l974's classic "Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta," this lady has lived the Motown story.

Wright spoke with me by phone from Denver, where she is on the road with the "JCS" production. She talked about her current role as Mary Magdalene, as well as her influences, plans and the Motown days.

Even her "discovery" at Motown is storybook stuff: After winning a school talent show, a friend arranged an audition with Brian Holland of Motown's Holland/Dozier/Holland team for noon of a given day. As the clock struck noon without Holland showing, what did she do? "I left and went to the drugstore down the street for a hamburger."

Fortunately, she called back twenty minutes later to an amused Holland, who arranged her audition, an a cappella version of "Moon River." The next two events were pivotal. The first is that she began recording for Motown; the next was that Hol1and/Dozier/ Holland, her sponsors, left the label.

The teen-aged Stevie Wonder penned a song for her to try out and the result was . . . disaster. That session was "so bad," she recalls, "I sat at the piano with my head in my hands." The consoling Wonder and his cousin gave her a ride home and Stevie would call with cheer and encouragement. They began setting her poetry to his music and thus began a professional and personal association that resulted in their marriage.

Eighteen months later, their mutual "inexperience with life" caught up with the relationship. During the recording of her first album Syreeta, in 1972 and Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, in 1974, the marriage ended, but the love and close friendship survives to this day.

Since then, Wright has performed and recorded in Europe and has taken a sabbatical from the music business. Having performed the role of Mary in this production for over a year she is "still learning about Mary." She's also learned a lot about the lifestyle differences between the world of Motown and -the world of theater. "The theater offers responsibility with creativity" in contrast to an environment where everything is managed for the artist, but not by the artist. Her favorite songs in this show are "Could We Start Again" and the signature "I Don't Know How to Love Him."

What's next for Syreeta Wright? She's looking forward to recording again soon, perhaps with a jazz twist favored by one of her favorite contemporaries, Anita Baker. In the meantime, plan to treat yourself to one of Motown's treasures when "Jesus Christ Superstar" comes to the Palace.