In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
About three years ago, when Solange Knowles was getting ready to release her album A Seat At The Table, I spent an afternoon talking to her about the album. But the album wasn’t out yet, I hadn’t heard it, and she didn’t want to discuss any of the specifics of what would actually be on the album. Instead, she’d sent me a list of inspirations for the album. One of those inspirations was a song I’d never heard of, by a singer I’d never heard of: “Black Maybe,” a 1972 song from the singer Syreeta Wright.
I should’ve known about Syreeta Wright. Syreeta Wright, I have since learned, is someone worth knowing about. Wright was a Detroit kid, an aspiring ballet dancer who didn’t have the money to pursue her passion but who ended up working as a receptionist at Motown in 1965. This was a pretty good place to find a job. Eventually, Wright started singing on demos for Motown singers, and the label released a single of hers in 1968. (They called her Rita Wright then.) When Diana Ross left the Supremes, Berry Gordy thought about installing Wright as her replacement. It didn’t happen.
But another thing happened in 1968: Syreeta Wright met Stevie Wonder. In 1969, they started dating, and they also started working together. In 1970, they got married, when Wright was 24 and Wonder was 20. By that time, they were already writing partners. Together, Wright and Wonder helped write the Spinners’ “It’s A Shame” (which peaked at #14) and Wonder’s own “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” (which peaked at #3, and which is a 10).
In 1972, Wright and Wonder broke up. They’d only been married 18 months. And after their divorce — in the thin sliver of time between Music Of My Mind and Talking Book — Wonder produced Syreeta, Wright’s first album. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece of gooey, headspun astral soul music, and “Black Maybe,” the song that Solange told me about, stands out as a stunning piece of music. Syreeta should be mentioned in the same breath as all the albums that Wonder released during that golden era of his. It’s not.
Another thing happened in 1972: Stevie Wonder recorded “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.” It’s pretty clear who he was singing about.
“You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” is the first song on Talking Book, which may well be my favorite Stevie Wonder album. Motown only released two songs from Talking Book as singles, and both of them went to #1. The other one was “Superstition.” “Superstition” is a banger. It’s tricky and layered and strange, but it’s also direct and obvious. You know it’s a monster the first time you hear it. “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” works differently. It’s a majestic reverie, a spaced-out bliss-float that only barely qualifies as a pop song.
Wonder doesn’t start singing right away on “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”; for whatever reason, his backup singers Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves handle the first two lines. It’s a strange effect, like Wonder needs to rely on his friends to speak for him while he struggles to find his own voice. But of course, he finds it, and then he’s off and flying. The music underneath his voice is an ecstatic tableau: chattering bongos, splashing cymbals, horns that just barely exist on this side of jazz. When those two backup singers get done taking the lead, they fall into a languid doo-wop arrangement. Wonder’s own Fender Rhodes fills up the air and bends the light.
“You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” has a basic, elementary pop-song structure — three choruses, two verses, no bridge — but you don’t really notice that structure unless you try to diagram it, to pick where one thing ends and the next begins. Instead, what you get from the song is vibe. It’s rapturous, dizzy-in-love music. Wonder’s lyrics are about being left awestruck by the person next to you, even if you have known that person for years: “I feel like this is the beginning / Though I’ve loved you for a million years / And if I ever thought our love was ending / I’d find myself drowning in my own tears.”
Maybe they were already divorced when Wonder recorded “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”; the timeline isn’t quite clear. Either way, it’s devastating to think about someone singing about this beautiful, eternal love just as his marriage is falling apart. But Wonder doesn’t sound devastated on the song. Instead, he sounds like he’s levitating, suspended in the air by the force of his own happiness. Maybe that’s what a healthy breakup sounds like. (I’ve never really had one, so I don’t know.) Wonder and Wright stayed close over the years, and they worked on a lot more music together.
Wright kept making music, and she had some success. (Her highest-charting single was the 1979 Billy Preston collaboration “With You I’m Born Again,” a song from the soundtrack of the movie Fast Break, which peaked at #4. It’s a 7.) She kept recording in the ’80s, and in the ’90s, she spent a few years in the touring cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. She got married two more times, had five kids, and converted to Islam. And in 2004, when she was just 58, she died of heart failure after being treated for breast cancer. She never got her due. And if you spend enough time with Syreeta, you might understand who Stevie Wonder was singing about on “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.” You might even agree.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jack White appearing on the 2016 finale of the Muppets reboot and bravely attempting to cover “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” with the Electric Mayhem: