By Richie Unterberger

What do Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin have in common? Aside from some similar musical roots in gospel and rhythm and blues, both of those superstars also used the Sweet Inspirations as backup singers on numerous recordings. Elvis and Aretha were by no means the only stars to benefit from the Sweet Inspirations' harmonies; the group sang on so many records by the likes of Presley, Franklin, Dusty Springfield, and others that it will likely never be known exactly how many records were graced by their presence. As a consequence (particularly because of their association with Presley), they're more known as backup singers than artists in their own right. Too, one of their daughters became a superstar whose fame dwarfed that of any member in the group.

    The Sweet Inspirations, however, also recorded often under their own name between 1967 and 1970, when they issued four albums and a bunch of singles on Atlantic Records. One of them, "Sweet Inspiration," was even a Top Twenty hit, though it would ironically lead to long-term employment as backup vocalists for the most popular singer of them all. "Sweet Inspiration" was, naturally, featured on their 1967 self-titled debut LP. Though largely comprised of cover tunes, each track was stamped with the group's distinctive brand of gospel-soul fusion.

    The Sweet Inspirations' gospel roots actually go back decades before their association with Atlantic, when as a child, Emily "Cissy" Houston started singing as part of the gospel act the Drinkard Singers. With a lineup including both Cissy and fellow future soul singer Judy Clay, the Drinkards recorded a live gospel album in the late 1950s at the Newport Jazz Festival. In the early 1960s, Houston replaced Dionne Warwick in a group (led by Dionne's sister Dee Dee Warwick) that supplied backup vocals to many a session. Coming into that group around the same time was Sylvia Shemwell, Judy Clay's sister, who was replacing another future soul hitmaker, Doris Troy. When Dee Dee Warwick left to pursue her solo career, she was replaced by Myrna Smith, who—in keeping with the tight circle of connections bonding the Sweet Inspirations' orbit—had sung in the Gospelaires, who had also included both Warwick sisters. Estelle Brown, formerly of the Gospel Wonders, joined to make the group a quartet shortly before they evolved into the Sweet Inspirations.

    Accounts vary as to how the group got their name, and why Atlantic began to record them on their own. The most fanciful, and likely least accurate, one was given in the original liner notes to The Sweet Inspirations, which proclaimed, "the perspicacious Jerry Wexler one fine day said to the delicious Cissy Houston: 'I've got an inspiration.' 'Oh, that's sweet!!' replied Cissy after Jerry had spelled out his plan, and the Sweet Inspirations were officially named." In her autobiography How Sweet the Sound: My Life with God and Gospel (written with Jonathan Singer), Cissy Houston remembered it somewhat differently: "I cut a one-off single for Kapp Records, then Jerry Wexler, one of Atlantic's partners, reeled me in. I guess he didn't want me wandering to other labels, so Atlantic signed 'the Group' [as Houston, Shemwell, Smith, and Brown were known within the New York recording industry] and called us the Inspirations for our gospel influence. But there was already another group with that name, so they dubbed us the Sweet Inspirations." She described the situation in a slightly different light in the late 1960s in Melody Maker: "As soon as we started to achieve some success, everybody wanted us. But Jerry Wexler was so good to us, we thought we'd stick to him." For her part, in the liner notes to the 1994 CD compilation The Best of the Sweet Inspirations, Smith recalled Wexler calling the group into his office and asking if they wanted to put out a record on their own: "We were virtually the house background singers for Atlantic and it was his way of keeping us there!"

    In his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues (co-authored by David Ritz), Wexler offered the most straightforward explanation: "The Sweet Inspirations became one of the pillars of the Atlantic Church of Sixties Soul..[they] were fabulous background singers who, like Aretha, instinctively understood harmonies; they could match vibratos, switch parts, and turn on a dime....they were always relaxed, fun, and ready to offer a suggestion or innovative passage. Ultimately, it was only a matter of common decency to put them under contract as a featured group. I suggested the name Inspirations, which unfortunately turned out to be already registered (to a group of acrobats!), so I added the 'Sweet.'"

    The group's career got off to a strong start with the mid-1967 single "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?" It was about as closely tied to gospel music as any soul single could be in that era, having been recorded by the Staple Singers for their live-in-the-church 1965 LP Freedom Highway. As Houston observed in her  autobiography, "It was a slow, languid blues written by gospel singer Roebuck Staples, of the Staples. It was so funky it sounded like it was recorded down in a Louisiana bayou complete with tasty blues licks, a walking bass and seductive horns." The single made the R&B Top Forty and got up to #57 in the pop charts, while a more pop-oriented follow-up, "Let It Be Me" (previously a Top Ten hit for both the Everly Brothers and the soul star duo of Jerry Butler and Betty Everett), made it all the way up to #13 in the R&B listings, though just grazing the bottom of the pop Top 100. Both singles were included on The Sweet Inspirations, and while these had both been cut at the same April 25, 1967 session at Atlantic Studios in New York, the LP would be filled out with material done in Memphis, some of which also found its way onto singles.

    Several of the songs on The Sweet Inspirations had likewise already been made into popular records by other artists. "Don't Fight It" was a Top Five R&B hit for Wilson Pickett; "Knock on Wood" had been a big soul smash for both Eddie Floyd and the duo of Otis Redding and Carla Thomas; "Do Right Woman—Do Right Man," the flipside of Aretha Franklin's maiden Top Ten hit "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)," was an R&B Top Forty charter under its own steam; Ike Turner's "I'm Blue" was a Top Twenty hit for the Ikettes in 1962; Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Reach Out for Me" had found success with both Lou Johnson and Dionne Warwick; "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," written by Aretha Franklin, had been included on Franklin's first Atlantic LP, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which got to #2 in 1967; and "Blues Stay Away from Me," though first recorded back in 1949 by the great country duo the Delmore Brothers, had become a genre-crossing standard of sorts, cut by everyone from Les Paul & Mary Ford to B.B. King and Gene Vincent. Remarkably, however, The Sweet Inspirations did not sound, as so many cover-dominated albums do, as if the singers and players were phoning it in. Each track was sung with gospel-fired intensity, yet given thorough contemporary, spirited, and funky late-'60s soul arrangements.

    There was, however, some relatively unfamiliar quality material on The Sweet Inspirations, including the luscious, dramatic ballad "Oh! What a Fool I've Been." The bluesy, anguished "Here I Am (Take Me)" was written by Stax Records' top songwriting team, David Porter and Isaac Hayes. More famously, "Sweet Inspiration," penned by the nearly-as-famous composing duo of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, soared into the Pop Top Twenty in the spring of 1968. According to a 2005 interview that Myrna Smith gave the Elvis Australia website, "The session was going okay, but there weren't any songs that kind of stood out. So a couple of guys left the session, went into another room. Maybe forty minutes later they came back with a song that was named after us called 'Sweet Inspiration.'"

    As Oldham explained in Peter Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music, "I had worked with the Sweet Inspirations with Aretha, and gotten to know 'em and loved the way they sung, so I couldn't wait for them to get a record on their own. So I went to the session that night...Dan [Penn] was sitting there, and we were watching all this go down, and they did two songs—awful stuff—and my heart started sinking, and I said to Dan, 'Let's go next door and try to write a song.' We started walking upstairs, and he said, 'I ain't got no idea,' and I said, 'Let's just take off on that "sweet inspiration,"' and we hit the old guitar, and we come back down there in a little while, and they were still moaning and groaning. And we played it to 'em, about the second time Dan ended up on the board, and I was playing guitar." Guralnick also reported in Sweet Soul Music that "Jerry Wexler asked Spooner for a third of the royalties, since he had given the group its name. What were the writers' reactions? 'We didn't comment,' says Spooner with a dry chuckle."

    "Sweet Inspiration" would have repercussions far beyond its considerable chart success, leading to the group's long-running gig as backup singers for Elvis Presley on both live performances and recording sessions. As Smith noted in her Elvis Australia interview, "Elvis heard that song and liked it. And, so he got his people to get in touch. We didn't have to audition. He just knew that we were the ones that he wanted to sing because he wanted a soulful, R&B, gospel-sounding  female group and gospel male group. He had it all planned, and so we did it without an audition. He just liked our record." Added Smith in an interview with the Elvis Information Network website, "One night he even surprised us by singing our song 'Sweet Inspiration' on stage. We didn't know that he knew it. Elvis just broke into it and so we started singing background and he was singing lead and we were shocked. It sounded good. It's those odd little extras that made the individual concerts so special."
    The Sweet Inspirations did continue to make records for Atlantic over the next few years, but never did chart as high again with any of their singles. Nor did any of their subsequent albums make the Billboard listings, though The Sweet Inspirations had done quite well, making #12 in the R&B charts and #90 pop. By the time of their final Atlantic session in 1970, Cissy Houston was gone, having left at the end of the 1960s to start a solo career, putting the original version of "The Midnight Train to Georgia" on a 1973 single shortly before Gladys Knight & the Pips had a #1 hit with the song. To the general public, of course, she's most famous as the mother of Whitney Houston.

    The Sweet Inspirations did record on their own after leaving Atlantic, issuing an album on Stax in 1973. It's their work at Atlantic, however, that's most highly regarded by soul fans, and spotlighted to fine effect on this, their initial full-length recording. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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