Kamilah Kashanie (KK): You may have picked up on this by now, but over the last few weeks, we’ve been trying to put a spotlight on people who have helped others. So what better way to wrap this season up, then by celebrating those who have given us one of the greatest gifts. Music.
It’s the StoryCorps Podcast from NPR. I’m Kamilah Kashanie.
Music lifts you up. It gets you onto your feet. Sometimes the right track just hits your soul. It’s the one thing most people can agree on. And the faces and the voices behind some of our favorite songs are often women — Black women — whose names you might not have heard of. So for our last episode, we’re gonna try and fix that.
Celeste Moy (CM): Not to take anything away from the artist, but it all starts with a song.
KK: In the early 1960’s, Motown was changing the face of popular music. It became one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in American history.
CM: It was huge.
Angel Adams Moy (AM): Cause you knew the entire country was listening to music coming out of Motown. That was homegrown. If you grew up in Detroit, that was a symbol of accomplishment.
Merril ”Ronnie” Baronica Moy (RM): Yeah, It symbolized proudness. It was everything.
KK: That’s Ronnie, Celeste, and Angel Moy and they were a little more familiar with Motown than most. Because of their sister, Sylvia Moy.
And who was Sylvia Moy? Well, she was a songwriter and producer, responsible for some of Motown’s most iconic hits. And she was one of the first women to hold that position.
AM: It was a male dominated profession.
CM: Without a doubt. I mean, there were always women singers with great voices.
CM: And Sylvia was one of them.
CM: But writers? And producers? Oh, no.
AM: Unheard of.
KK: Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 60-some years, you’ve probably heard her songs. And we’re gonna listen to a few of them later. But first we’re gonna get to know Sylvia. And we’re going to start from the very beginning.
CM: Music was an essential part of our family life growing up. It was like breathing.
CM: And water. [Laughs]. But before we had the piano, we used other things for our instruments. I think Sylvia played the pots.
RM: Oh, yeah, the cake pans. And she also would do the cigar boxes with the rubber bands on them like a guitar.
RM: [Laughs] We got in trouble a lot doing those kinds of things.
KK: As the years went on, Sylvia put down the cake pans, picked up a pen, and started writing her own songs. As she got a little older, she started imagining a life where her music was more than just for fun.
AM: Sylvia took a trip to New York to interview with one of the biggest recording studios in the country. She had written all of these original songs to show the guy that she was interviewing with, and he told her that, ‘Yeah, you have a nice voice, you can sing, but a songwriter, you’ll never be.’
RM: That’s what she said.
AM: Sylvia came home brokenhearted and Daddy told her, ‘You can be whatever you put your mind to. He does not determine your future –– you do. Write your music’.
KK: So she did. She also started performing at all the jazz rooms and supper clubs in the area.
One day when Sylvia was in her 20s, some Motown folks, including Marvin Gaye, saw her sing. They told her to come meet Motown founder Berry Gordy. When she got there, Gordy told her that they were all booked up with singers, but not enough songs. That’s how she became one of Motown’s first women songwriters and producers.
But even when she arrived at Motown, she wasn’t assigned any specific artists. She was just working with the other male writers on their projects. Until a young Stevie Wonder came into the picture. At the time, he was about 14 years old, and his voice had just started to change. And he was about to get kicked off the label.
CM: Sylvia being a strategic thinker in a world dominated by men. Goes to Berry and says, ‘I don’t think it’s over for Stevie. I want to write for him. And if I write a hit for him, can I keep him?’ Berry, so the story goes, says ‘Sylvia Moy. You have your first assignment’, and the first song that they wrote together is Uptight because they were both uptight!
CM: Both his career and her career as a writer depended on the success of that song. And the rest, as they say, is history.
KK: Stevie and Sylvia ending up having a special relationship.
CM: Motown didn’t have braille for Stevie to learn the song. He says, ‘Yall know, I can’t see, right?’ Stevie would be in the studio —
AM: — with earphones on.
CM: And Sylvia would be in the control room with her earphones on.
RM: Yeah, she was singing it down in his ear.
CM: And she would stay a bar ahead so that he could sing on the track. It was amazing to watch.
RM: It really was.
KK: Motown was built like an assembly line, meant to churn out hits. They wrote around the clock.
CM: Motown was open 24 seven, but Sylvia didn’t write there like all the other writers. She would go in, pick up her tracks and take them back to Mom’s house.
I was a cheerleader in high school and I would practice cheers in our yard and Sylvia would be in the living room writing. And this one particular day we were doing a cheer called ‘Be cool, be calm, be collected’. And Sylvia said, ‘What does that mean?’ And I said, ‘Well, we use that cheer when our team is behind’. And she actually used that for one of Stevie Wonder’s songs called “Be Cool, Be Calm and Keep Yourself Together”. And she paid us $35 for the title.
CM: We were so very proud of her. Just try to imagine what it was like when you hadn’t told anybody in your classes or your next door neighbors that she was writing those hits. And then you’d hear them on the radio.
RM: The radio
CM: And everybody talking about it and dancing to it. And your sister wrote that.
AM: They didn’t believe us.
CM: I mean, we had such a charmed front row seat in the music industry at its peak in Motown in Detroit. And we had that seat because of Sylvia. She made sure that it wasn’t just something she experienced. But she pulled us in with her.
AM: We would spend the entire weekend up in her music room writing songs. Sylvia kept telling Berry Gordy that I was a writer and you were a singer. And he got Sylvia’s permission to approach Daddy cause we were both underage.
CM: Right. We were teenagers. We ended up signing contracts.
KK: Angel ended up getting some songwriting credits, and Stevie Wonder even named the song “Angel Baby” after her.
As time went on Sylvia really made her mark on Motown. And she didn’t just write for Stevie. She wrote for The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, and a bunch more. But she always brought her writing back to her own life and her family.
CM: That particular song is about our parents. That’s kind of the first couple of lines of it. So it’s about their relationship.
KK: They grew up in the south, and they met when they were young.
MUSIC: I was born in Little Rock
Had a childhood sweetheart
We were always hand in hand
KK: Celeste told us their mom was really pretty, and back then, that meant white boys would claim them. So Black boys were basically told by their moms not to pursue those girls, because it could get them killed.
You know my papa disapproved it
My mama boohooed it
KK: Apparently their dad didn’t care about that. He went against all the threats and dated their mom anyway. He was that in love.
Don’t you know I was made to love her
Build my world all around her
Everybody say hey, hey, hey
CM: My other one that I absolutely love is With a Child’s Heart.
AM: With a Child’s Heart.
RM: Oh yeah, that was a beautiful one.
CM: How does it start? Go face with a child’s heart —
KK: Celeste said whenever she experienced a life challenge, or setback, Sylvia would tell her to listen to that song.
Sylvia was always there for her sisters, but she also found ways to look out for the other writers. Celeste remembers conversations they’d have later on, when Celeste became a lawyer.
CM: When I would share legal advice with her about copyrights, or royalties, she would listen closely and then she’d say, ‘Well, does that apply to the others?’ I’d say, ‘the others?’ She said, ‘The other writers.’ I’d say, ‘Yeah’. She’d say, ‘Well, I want you to tell them too’.
AM: She taught me kindness and to reach out to others and try to help people when they need a helping hand.
CM: What can I do to help?
RM: She did teach all of us that.
CM: Not just live for me.
KK: Sylvia went on to become this force in music history. She wrote over 200 songs, earned six Grammy nominations and won over a dozen BMI awards.
And y’all remember the top of this episode, when that producer said she’d never be a songwriter? Well in 2006, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. And when she was on stage accepting, she told that story.
AM: And the guy that had interviewed her was in the audience that time.
CM: Everybody kept asking her who said it. She would not say who it was. She was still such a gracious, gentle woman.
KK: Sylvia died in 2017, at 78 years old. But her legacy lives on, not just through her songs, but through her sisters.
CM: I hear her singing often in my dreams. I still see her on the stage.
RM: I do too.
AM: She was our sister.
CM: Our sister.
RM: Sister was our sister. She was truly our sister.
KK: That was Merril ”Ronnie” Baronica Moy, Angelica ”Angel” Moy Adams, and Celeste Moy, remembering their sister, Sylvia Moy.
After the break, more badass Black women in music. Stay with us.
Sandra Bears (SB): I loved to see a good performer. One that would captivate the audience like James Brown did.
Martha “High” Harvin (MH): I remember how he danced across the stage and it was just mesmerizing.
SB: He always gave his all.
SB: And that’s that’s what he taught us to do.
KK: Everyone’s heard of James Brown, but how about the women who helped him sound good, and made him look good?
In the mid-60s, Sandra Bears and Martha High toured across the U.S. as James Brown’s backup singers, with their girl group, The Jewels. They came to StoryCorps to talk about how they got started.
SB: When I first started singing, I was quite young. So I sang whatever they sang in school. Mary had a little lamb and all those. I might have put a little twerk on it, you know.
SB: It made me feel happy. I used to dance and sing all over the place. My brother started a group and they used to practice at the house. You know, I would sit on the top of the basement steps and listen to his group sing. So a couple of my girlfriends, we were 13 years old, so we used to stand on the corner and sing like they did. And that’s how it kind of got started.
KK: Those girlfriends were Grace Ruffin, Carrie Mingo and Margie Clark. Famous guitarist Bo Diddley, was a friend of the family. He’d let the girls practice in his studio, and he even recorded their very first record.
SB: I remember the first time I heard it on the radio, I was standing on the porch and somebody went by in their car and they were playing it and I just started screaming and jumping up and down. My neighbors thought I had lost my mind. I said, ‘Oh my God, our records on the radio’.
KK: Sandra and the Jewels, and Martha all went to school together, which is how Martha knew them.
MH: I remember hearing you sing and the harmony was just amazing. I was a big fan.
SB: Yeah, we’d sing on the playground, we’d sing in the halls, we’d sing in the bathroom. We’d sing anywhere because we just love singing. You know?
MH: And that’s how I knew of you and I admired you.
KK: By 1963, they needed another singer when Carrie left. So Martha tried out.
SB: We were so excited when you auditioned.
MH: I was really nervous. And I was so bashful.
SB: We were all kind of shy because we were 16, and we were young. We had that woo harmony, you know. And your voice just blended right in with ours. We kind of looked at each other when you started singing. ‘Mhmmm. Yeah. Yep. Yep. That’s the right one’. Best choice ever.
KK: Martha officially became a Jewel. And they were really making a name for themselves.
SB: Remember when we performed with Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Temptations and all?
SB: And Mary Wells. Remember she showed us how to put on makeup?
SB: We didn’t know nothing. We were so young.
KK: Then they were invited to play a week-long revue for new acts at the one and only Apollo Theater.
SB: We were so nervous and excited and scared because the Apollo Theater audiences, if you don’t do well on the first show, you don’t finish the week. We said, ‘What?’ [laughs]. So we got in the corner and we prayed. But every show we got a standing ovation.
MH: Yes we did.
SB: And back then, big stars would every now and then slip into the theater and see the up and coming people. James Brown actually came to the show.
MH: We were on the stage performing. And we heard everybody getting excited, you know clapping their hands. And I said, ‘Oh, wow, we must be really killing because they’re just having a ball out there in the audience’. And so we came off the stage and we were in our dressing room and somebody knocked on the door and we said, ‘Who is it?’ ‘It’s me, James Brown. Open the door’. I was like, ‘What?’ I remember he came into the dressing room, the first thing he did was kind of look in the mirror. ‘How y’all doing?’ You know, while he was messing with his hair.
SB: Boy. Yeah. That was our first time really meeting him. And he said, ’You know, I’d like for you all to join my show.’
MH: Yes, he did.
MH: And I remember when we got on the bus. That was amazing. But now my father, you know he felt that I should have a 9 to 5 like everyone else. He said, “Singing is not a job’. I said, ‘Yeah, but Dad, you know, this is what I want to do’. That’s when my parents came to our show. And my father was just shocked to see me on stage and sing a song with Mr. Brown. So when they came backstage, my dad was sitting in my dressing room with a half smile on his face, and he said, ‘You really can sing, can’t you’? Mr. Brown was at his peak when we joined him in 1966. And after that it was just go, go, go, go. You know, being on the road two and three months at a time.
KK: The Jewels toured with Mr. Brown for about a year. They mostly sang back up, but that’s not all Martha did.
MH: Do you remember that I used to do everyone’s hair? Even the dancers, remember?
MH: Mr. Brown’s manager would come to me and say, ‘Miss High. Mr. Brown wants you to do his hair.’ And I said, ‘Sure, sure, I’ll do it. But listen, you tell Mr. Brown I need two money’s. Money to sing. And money to do his hair’.
I was doing his hair in the mornings [laughs]. When we get to the hotel, I had to roll his hair up then. When we got to the gig, and after the show. A couple of times Mr. Brown had upset me and I wouldn’t do his hair [laughs]. He couldn’t go on stage, not unless I did his hair. [Laughs] So, yes we were the force behind the men for sure.
KK: But being on the road so much meant they also had to make some sacrifices.
SB: You know, It’s not easy because you want to stay out there but you also want to be there for your family. And you know, coming up, I got married and had twins and very excited about being a wife and a mom. And also singing. I really loved singing. But that’s a wild combination.
I was missing holidays and Christmas and Thanksgiving. And I just said, ‘They kind of need me’. So I just up and left. I just missed my kids. I’m happy being a mom. Happy being a grandma, great grandma. But I’m always excited for those people who can go further.
KK: Like Martha, who ended up staying on the road for over 30 years.
MH: I never really thought that I would be on the road as long as I did with him. And I’m happy the way things have turned out. I started writing songs and I started recording. But it was a lot of ups and downs.
I had three children as well. But when we wasn’t working, I would come straight home to be with my kids. And I had my parents as well to help me with my children. That made it a little easier. But sometimes it hurts me, you know, I think about it and wish that I could have been there. I missed out on a lot. And I ended up losing my two sons in 1995.
SB: They always knew that you loved them, Martha. Don’t you ever forget that. They always know that you love them because your love for your family, and your kids was strong.
MH: You know, I can’t imagine not speaking to you and Grace. Not being able to contact you.
SB: You would always call me like I was your momma [laughs].
MH: That’s the closeness that we had.
SB: But I loved it. I loved it.
MH: And it’s still that way.
MH: We’re a family. We are a part of each other.
SB: We are, we are. I guess that’s what held us all together so long as friends. The love we have for each other. That’s it. The fact that you were out there with James as long as you were. I remember I came to see you at the Howard Theater and you hit every note. I think I screamed louder than anybody in the theater. I was so excited for you. And I was just amazed of your growth. I mean, you’re a superstar in my book. Like you say, you were proud to be with us. I’m proud to be a part of your family, too, baby.
KK: That’s Martha High and Sandra Bears. That’s all for this episode and this season of the StoryCorps podcast. It was produced by Eleanor Vassili, who’s our lead producer. Jasmyn Morris is our Executive Editor. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd. Our fact-checker is Natsumi Ajisaka.
To see what music we used in the episode, go to StoryCorps – dot – org. You can also check out original artwork by Lyne Lucien. For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Kamilah Kashanie. Catch you next season.