The voices behind countless hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ladies that ‘Queen Of Soul’ Aretha Franklin and icon Elvis Presley chose to tour with on many occasions, The Sweet Inspirations are now being honoured with a first-time 3CD set of all their Atlantic recordings. The box set’s producer David Nathan shines the spotlight on the sweet sweet soul sound of this remarkable group…
I can still vividly recall the first day I heard the debut Atlantic single by The Sweet Inspirations. It was June 1967 and – after a brief ‘break’ from working at Soul City, the London record shop I co-owned with Dave Godin (often called ‘The British Godfather Of R&B’ among the burgeoning cadre of UK R&B and soul music fans in the early to mid-‘60s who had joined the Mary Wells fan club which had morphed into The Tamla Motown Appreciation Society which he had created) and friend Robert Blackmore – as was the custom, we got new Atlantic releases via Polydor, the company in Britain that was the licensor for Atlantic & Stax/Volt at the time.
I knew nothing at all about The Sweet Inspirations. All I knew is that from the bluesy moan and opening guitar lick that emanated from this ‘new’ group as “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” began to play, I was hooked. I already had a penchant for blues-slanted vocals that had resonated with me from listening to recordings by the likes of Aretha, Esther Phillips, Dee Dee Warwick and a few others. Whoever was singing was touching my soul. With a slow build and, as I later learned, Sylvia Shemwell (sister of none other than Judy Clay, another soulstress of the first order) providing occasional vocal step outs, their first single, “Why?” became an immediate personal favourite of mine…
Fast forward just a few months. Aretha Franklin’s glorious 2nd Atlantic LP, “Aretha Arrives” is released and lo and behold, listed on the credits, The Sweet Inspirations who have provided vocal backgrounds on two tracks, sister Carolyn Franklin’s “Ain’t Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)” and “Prove It,” an obscure song co-written by New York arranger/producer Horace Ott, previously recorded in 1966 by one, Mary Wheeler for Calla Records.
At Soul City, we were used to placing orders for new imports from the US by relying on shipments from Mr. Shapiro, a Florida-based exporter who specialized in R&B. When placing orders, we would often ask him to send one or two copies of Atlantic LPs from the newest batch of releases. To this day, I can’t explain how we ended up getting the album with the catalogue number ‘SD 8155’ just a few months after “Aretha Arrives” (SD 8150) landed! Sandwiched between Bobby Darin’s “Sings Doctor Dolittle” (SD 8154) which we did not receive (!) and Joe Tex’s “Live And Lively” (SD 8156) – with an official release date of February 1968 – came the wonderful self-titled album, “The Sweet Inspirations,” Atlantic SD 8155!
My joy knew no bounds! The LP must have been planned for 1967 release (as indicated by the credits on the back) and here I was listening to it seemingly just months after Cissy Houston, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell and Myrna Smith had laid down their amazing vocals on twelve sides, eleven covers and one original, “Sweet Inspiration,” written during a break in the quartet’s mammoth recording session in Memphis in August 1967 by Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn.
Finally, as I read the liner notes by famed New York DJ, Jack Walker, I learned the identity of this tighter-than-tight vocal group whose debut LP just oozed feeling and emotion. No surprise, I discover that the ‘roots’ of the quartet lay in the background vocals provided by ‘The Group’ as had become known in the early ‘60s, initially comprising none other than Dionne Warwick and her sister Dee Dee who, with various different line-ups had sung behind dozens and dozens of hitmakers!
With Dionne then Dee Dee launching their solo recording careers, the nucleus of ‘The Group’ consisted of their aunt, Emily ‘Cissy’ Houston, Sylvia Shemwell, Myrna Smith (nee Utley) and Estelle Brown. Their constant presence in the Broadway studios of Atlantic Records singing behind Solomon Burke, Esther Phillips, The Drifters, Ben E. King and others led to producer/executive Jerry Wexler offering the quartet a record deal of their own – and The Sweet Inspirations were born (after Wexler, who had originally proposed they be called ‘The Inspirations’ was prompted to change it given the existence of a gospel group of that name, by R&B hitmaker Chuck Jackson on whose recordings they had sung many times).
My immediate favourite tracks on that first LP were two other standouts, “Blues Stay Away From Me” and “Oh! What A Fool I’ve Been” and I fervently awaited more music from the Sweets. Fortunately by the spring of 1968, the track “Sweet Inspiration” had catapulted the quartet into hit status and in addition to continuing to provide background vocals for Aretha Franklin and doing selected tour dates with her, The Sweet Inspirations had become a bonafide recording and performing group in their own right.
My own very first face-to-face meeting with Cissy, Estelle, Sylvia and Myrna occurred in the last few months of 1968 when the quartet came to London for a promotional visit while on their way to sing at a private party hosted by Bolivian millionaire Antenor Patino in Portugal. I got the tip-off from Janet Martin who worked at the Atlantic offices in London and headed off to Heathrow to meet them, albeit briefly. The group performed “What The World Needs Now Is Love,” the title track of their 3rd Atlantic LP, on Britain’s famed television show, “Top Of The Pops” on December 5 on an episode that featured Dusty Springfield singing “Son Of A Preacher Man,” her then-latest UK single which she had recorded in Memphis with none other than The Sweet Inspirations providing the backgrounds!
Unfortunately, British audiences never got to see the original group perform although in 1969, Italian and German audiences did. My own ‘love affair’ with The Sweet Inspirations’ recordings never waned through their subsequent Atlantic albums – “Sweets For My Sweet” (1969) and the wonderful Philly-recorded “Sweet Sweet Soul” (1970), featuring the superb “(Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover” and “Flash In The Pan” as particular personal favourites.
In what I like to refer to often as ‘the synchronicity of destiny,’ years later, I would meet Cissy Houston as a solo recording artist in New York during my first year as the resident “Blues & Soul” correspondent in the US in 1975; and when my work as a soul music reissue producer became more constant in 1994, I created the first-ever “Best Of The Sweet Inspirations” compilation for my Ichiban Soul Classics imprint. One of the great joys was presenting a copy of the CD to the late Luther Vandross who adored the vocal harmonies of the group and had by then, worked with Cissy Houston on many occasions. Working with Rhino Records in the early 2000’s, I unearthed a number of previously unreleased tracks which made their debut on a Real Gone Music collection in 2014; and now 2021, I am thrilled that through my SoulMusic Records’ label (via Cherry Red Records), I have been able to put together a 3CD box set, “Let It Be Me,” which includes all of this superb quartet’s recordings for Atlantic which benefits from stellar liner notes by Tim Dillinger, with quotes from Estelle Brown.
It’s been quite a journey from that June day in 1967 when the Pop Staples-penned “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” mesmerized my teenage ears and 54 years later, listening to the entirety of their Atlantic output, the soul satisfaction The Sweet Inspirations provided is as potent as ever. Sweet, sweet indeed…
Oh…and a PS: When I released “Reinvention,” my own 1st CD in 2003, I was truly truly blessed to have Estelle Brown, the late Myrna Smith and Portia Griffith – The Sweet Inspirations themselves – do background vocals on (4) of the tracks! Truly historical.