Think Detroit and invariably the next thought is automobiles and the Motown Recording Company. Say Motown, and Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson come to mind. After them comes a retinue of artists, producers and songwriters, including Holland, Dozier and Holland. And then there is long list of unforgettable tunes that stand like a soundtrack of a generation, songs such as “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and other tunes popularized by Stevie Wonder.
Rarely in any discussion about Motown and its musical history, or in the songs mentioned above, is the name Sylvia Rose Moy cited. To leave her out of this history is to omit a very important part of the company’s evolution. Moy was not only a relatively prodigious songwriter but also instrumental in keeping Wonder aboard at Motown when his career was in jeopardy.
Gordy corroborates this fact in his autobiography “To Be Loved.” He also offered extended praise of Moy at her funeral in Detroit at Greater Grace Temple. Gordy, who was not present at the funeral, had his grandniece read his encomium. “At this moment we are all sharing a tremendous loss,” he wrote. “Sylvia went on to do many other great things at Motown, gaining the respect of fellow songwriters and opening the door for other women.” At last she received some of the credit she deserved at Motown.
Salvaging Wonder’s career with her songs and opening the door at Motown for other women stand as testaments to Moy’s moxie and determination, traits that began early in her life, coming of age in Detroit in a large family.
Moy was born Sept. 15, 1938 or 1939, on the east side of Detroit and attended Northern High School, where she studied classical music. Her love of music emerged at an early age in a household of siblings who entertained themselves on pots and pans. As a teenager she began performing around the city with such notables as Marvin Gaye and Mickey Stevenson, both of whom she would compose for or collaborate with during their years at Motown.
Although she obtained a recording contract with Motown, her talent as a songwriter soon took precedent and she became a prolific songwriter, mainly with the late Hank Cosby. “Sylvia was the nucleus,” Pat Cosby, Hank’s widow, recalled at the funeral about Moy’s working relationship with her husband. “None of it would have happened if she hadn’t seen that Stevie had more in him.”
With Cosby and Wonder, Moy helped compose a string of hits for the singer, beginning most memorably with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” in 1965. The song was perfect for Wonder, whose change of voice had created a dilemma at the company. It soared on the charts, hitting a Top 20 by 1966. But many believe it was “My Cherie Amour” three years later that propelled Wonder both as a vocalist and songwriter, although again, Moy’s contribution was significant on this popular hit, as it was on “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Never Had a Dream Come True.”
Providing Wonder with a harvest of hits brought her to the attention of other Motown artists, as well a coterie of singers and groups across the nation, including the Isley Brothers. There were some Detroiters, familiar with her vocal ability, which to some degree she had demonstrated in New York City before returning home, who insisted she would have worked just as well on “It Takes Two,” a hit song for Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston. Moy wrote the song with Motown legend Mickey Stevenson. She was not opposed to working with other songwriters, which she did exceedingly well with Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, particularly their creation of “This Old Heart of Mine.”
Her gifts were demanded for television and films. She composed themes for such television shows as “Blossom,” “The Wonder Years” and “Growing Pains.” For films, her music can be heard in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Dead Presidents” and “It Takes Two.” Among her awards were six Grammys and 20 BMI awards.
“When Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972,” wrote Ralph Tee in his book “Soul Music Who’s Who,” “Sylvia decided to stay in Detroit, where she got involved with local talent and held music seminars. She formed her own record company, Michigan Satellite Records, where in 1985 she produced and co-wrote ‘Person to Person’ for vocalist Ortheia Barnes.” Moy had a brief artistic connection with singer Jean Carne and together they composed “My Baby Loves Me.” On her own, Moy recorded “Major Investment” for the Motorcity label in 1989.
At her funeral she received official commemorations from the Detroit City Council and the State of Michigan. In 2006, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Along with her productive career as a composer, Moy also co-founded the Center for Creative Communications, which is also known as Masterworks and ostensibly trains young people in telecommunications and media arts.
Moy died April 15 at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, Mich., of complications from pneumonia. She was 78.
An overflow crowd attended her services, including Brenda Jones, president of the Detroit City Council, and Motown’s Martha Reeves. Stevie Wonder could not be there but sent a heartfelt message. “I loved Sylvia from the moment that I met her,” he said, noting in a video recording the role she played in saving his career. “I appreciated her heart and her passion, her desire to not only do music great, but to do great things with my music.” He concluded his comments with a rendition of “My Cherie Amour.”
There were written remarks from Wonder as well that were read by Moy’s sister, Celeste Moy-Street. “You know that we learn at an early age that we are not meant to be here forever,” Wonder wrote. “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.”
At the close of the services, Bishop Charles Ellis III, who delivered the eulogy, said, “Her name has to be on the wall of fame, because he works are continuing to follow her.”
Moy is buried in Detroit’s historic Elwood Cemetery.