American songwriter Sylvia Moy (1938–2017) wrote several hits for Stevie Wonder and other stars of Motown Records, the most successful record label to come out of her Detroit hometown. She was Motown's most prominent female songwriter as well as one of its two most prominent female producers. After leaving Motown, she wrote theme music for many films and television programs.
One of nine children born to Melvin Moy, an appliance repairman, and the former Hazel Redgell, a homemaker, Sylvia Moy was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 15, 1938. Melvin and Hazel were part of the Great Migration of black Americans who moved north from the American South in search of a better life. Describing her father's journey to Michigan to Motown historian Adam White, Moy explained on his West Grand Blog that “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,” she added. “And that's how my family got here.”
Growing up on the city's northeast side, Moy showed an interest in music, including jazz and classical music, and she and her siblings banged out rhythms on pots and pans. She was encouraged by several teachers at Detroit's Northern High School, where she studied classical music, and eventually recorded several demos singing her self-written songs. On a trip to New York City, she shopped her demos to several record companies but with no luck; in fact, one record executive told her she would never be a songwriter. Years later, according to Moy, this same executive would attempt to buy her songwriting contract from Motown.
Back home in Detroit, Moy was hired to sing at the Caucus Club and at the popular and historic jazz club Baker's Keyboard Lounge. She was performing at the Caucus Club as part of a trio in November of 1963, where popular Motown singer Marvin Gaye and Mickey Stevenson, the label's head of artists and repertoire, heard her sing. Impressed, they convinced Moy to visit the Motown Records studios and audition for the label. At her audition, she performed the same songs she had shopped in New York City, and this time she got a positive reception.
At the time, Motown was one of the hottest record labels in the United States. Founded in the late 1950s by Barry Gordy, Jr., and with a name derived from Detroit's reputation as the Motor City, Motown operated out of a complex of converted houses on Detroit's West Grand Boulevard, and it had scored a series of hits since making it onto the national album charts in 1959. Moy was thrilled to receive an offer of a management contract and a songwriter's contract from the label, and she signed with Motown in 1964.
Now under contract to the label, Moy found her career taking an unexpected direction. “I was told, ‘Sylvia, we'll get to you as a singer,’” she later recalled to Brian McCollum in the Detroit Free Press. “‘But in the meantime, we've got all these artists and they have no material. You're going to have to write.’” Although Motown signed plenty of female and male singers, its songwriters were almost all men, making Moy a standout exception. She quickly exhibited her songwriting talent, and soon she had put her singing career on hold in favor of focusing on writing.
One of Moy's early successes came when she co-wrote the bouncy love song “Uptight (Everything's Alright)” for teenaged Motown hit Stevie Wonder. In 1963, at age 13, Wonder scored a number-one hit with “Fingertips Pt. 2,” an incredibly energetic and mostly instrumental song recorded before a live audience that showed his talent on harmonica and piano. He was now struggling to produce another hit. According to Moy, the label bosses did not know how to handle Wonder's changing voice and asked for volunteers to work with him. She was afraid that the label would drop the talented adolescent, and she volunteered. After the meeting, she convinced Stevenson to let her write exclusively for Wonder and he agreed.
Gordy, writing in his autobiography To Be Loved, confirmed that he considered dropping Wonder from the label, but that Moy's willingness to link her career with that of the young musician was instrumental in changing his mind. “Sylvia was the nucleus,” said Pat Cosby, widow of fellow Motown songwriter Hank Cosby, as quoted by Herb Boyd in the New York Amsterdam News. “None of it would have happened if she hadn't seen that Stevie had more in him.”
Moy co-wrote the song “Uptight” after asking Wonder to play snippets of songs he had been working on. Although she did not hear anything that sounded like a hit, he played one more bit just as she was leaving, salting it with the lyric “Baby, everything is all right,” according to Richard Sandomir in the New York Times. Moy worked on the melody at home and composed lyrics about a poor boy and a rich girl falling in love, then collaborated with Cosby to finish it. Because Wonder was blind, and there was no time to create a Braille transcription, Moy taught him the lyrics by singing them to him through headphones. “I would stay a line ahead of him and we didn't miss a beat,” she recalled, as quoted by Sandomir.
“Uptight” became Wonder's second Top-10 hit, reaching number one on the Billboard rhythm & blues chart and number three on the pop chart. “Driven along on an intoxicating arrangement, a cooing chorus, and punching brass,” according to a writer for the Daily Telegraph, “Wonder's joyously wailing, now tenor, voice carried the song.” Songwriting credits for “Uptight” were shared by Moy, Cosby, and Wonder, although the young musician chose to substitute a pseudonym, S. Judkins, as a tribute to his father. Stevie Wonder went on to decades of stardom and the success of “Uptight” convinced Gordy to give Moy a prominent spot on Motown's creative team.
Although having proven herself as a songwriter, Moy confronted sexism at Motown. It was the mid-20th century, and she was pragmatic. “It's hard for women—I'm not going to lie about it—anywhere, but you hang in there,” she later advised during an interview for the Songwriters Hall of Fame archive and as excerpted on National Public Radio's show All Things Considered. Although she was initially told that women were not allowed to produce songs, she was eventually welcomed to the label's production meetings, which included successful songwriters such as singer Smokey Robinson and Motown's top songwriting team of Lamont Dozier and the brothers Brian and Eddie Holland. Eventually, Moy did produce records for Motown, joining Gordy's wife, Raynoma Gordy Singleton in becoming one of the first women in that field.
While working at Motown, Moy co-wrote many hits for its artists. She cowrote “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You),” which was recorded by the Isley Brothers and hit number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1966. The single was a collaboration with Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, and Moy was not given credit for her work on the actual record label. She was credited for her work with Stevenson on “It Takes Two,” a duet by Gaye and Kim Weston that reached number 14 on the Hot 100 in 1967. According to a Daily Telegraph writer, “Moy's lyrics were immaculate reflections on the themes of romance and heartache, and an essential ingredient in making Motown ‘the Sound of Young America.’”
Moy left Motown in 1973, after the label moved its offices from Detroit to Los Angeles. Now determined to return to singing, she signed with 20th Century Records as a vocalist as well as a producer and songwriter, recording the single “And This Is Love” in 1973. In 1989, she recorded the single “Major Investment” for Nightmare Records, a label formed by British producer Ian Levine in an attempt to revive the Motown sound. As part of Great Britain's Northern Soul movement, Levine celebrated lesser-known 1960s American soul musicians and attempted to keep the genre alive. He later renamed his label Motorcity Records and reissued Moy's recording of “Major Investment” on Motorcity CD compilations.
Meanwhile, Moy continued working as a producer and songwriter. She formed Michigan Satellite Records and established a recording studio in Detroit called Masterpiece Studios. She produced the 1986 album Person to Person for singer Ortheia Barnes, co-writing most of the songs and releasing it on the Michigan Satellite label. Her other songwriting credits during the later 1970s and 1980s included 1982's “My Baby Loves Me,” which was written with and for Motown singer Jean Carn. Moy also wrote several theme songs for television shows, including Growing Pains, The Wonder Years, and Blossom, and she contributed to the theme music for movies such as Mr. Holland's Opus, Dead Presidents, and It Takes Two. She also started the Center for Creative Communications, a Detroit nonprofit, to mentor underprivileged children interested in the media arts.
During her career, Moy was nominated for six Grammy awards. In 2006, she was inducted into the Song-writers Hall of Fame together with Cosby, her Motown writing partner. Wonder made a surprise appearance at the ceremony and officially inducted them. As quoted by Sandomir in the New York Times, he told an interviewer that Moy found “unique ways to take the melodies I wrote and [put] them into a lyric that was incredible, that touched many hearts.”
Moy died on April 15, 2017, in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, of complications of pneumonia. She was 78. Motown singer Martha Reeves attended her funeral in Detroit, while Wonder sent a video message to the ceremony. “I appreciated her heart and her passion, her desire to not only do music great, but to do great things with my music,” said Wonder, as quoted by Boyd in New York Amsterdam News. Sony/ATV Music, which published Moy's Motown songs, released a tribute statement that honored her role in breaking down barriers for black women in music. As quoted by Los Angeles Times contributor Steve Marble, the statement predicted that “her classic songs will live on forever.”
Daily Telegraph, April 21, 2017, “Songwriter with Motown Who Salvaged Stevie Wonder's Flagging Career with the Joyous Uptight.”
Detroit Free Press, June 5, 2016, Brian McCollum, “Detroit's 100 Greatest Songs”; April 16, 2017, Brian McCollum, “Sylvia Moy, Motown Pioneer and Stevie Wonder Collaborator.”
Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2017, Steve Marble, “Sylvia Moy, Motown Songwriter Who Wrote Hits for Stevie Wonder.”
New York Amsterdam News, May 18, 2017, Herb Boyd, “Sylvia Moy, a Breakthrough Songwriter and Producer at Motown Records.”
New York Times, April 18, 2017, Richard Sandomir, “Sylvia Moy, Motown Songwriter Who Worked with Stevie Wonder.”
Rolling Stone, April 17, 2017, Daniel Kreps, “Sylvia Moy, Motown Songwriter and Stevie Wonder Collaborator.”
Allmusic.com , https://www.allmusic.com/artist/sylvia-moy-mn0000050548/biography (December 13, 2017), Diana Potts, “Sylvia Moy.”
National Public Radio, https://www.npr.org/2017/12/29/574693593/remembering-sylvia-moy-and-her-contributionsto-r-b (December 29, 2017), “Remembering Sylvia Moy and Her Contributions to RB.”
West Grand Blog, http://www.adampwhite.com/westgrandblog/2017/4/9/sylvia-and-stevie-inspiration-and-influence (April 9, 2017), Adam White, “Sylvia and Stevie: Inspiration and Influence.”□