I’m Blue was a favourite at the Blue Note, so too along with “What The World Needs Now” the original which was also done by Dionne Warwick.
And of course that magnificent track – Sweet Inspirations, brilliant.
SWEET INSPIRATIONS – LINER NOTES
DAVID NATHAN’S LINER NOTES
THE SWEET INSPIRATIONS: THE BEST OF THE SWEET INSPIRATIONS Originally released 1994 on Ichiban Soul Classics (SCL 2503)
That hit making female vocal groups from New York City existed in abundance throughout the early to mid-Sixties is without dispute. But while The Ronettes, The Cookies, The Crystals and their ilk offered strongly pop-oriented confections, The Sweet Inspirations were unashamedly soulful, opening the way for other gospel-rooted groups like The Sisters Love and The Mirettes. As this collection of material (available for the first time on compact disc) cut for Atlantic Records between 1967-1970 shows, the quartet were virtually peerless, matched only maybe by Patti LaBelle & her Bluebelles for sheer musical intensity. The Sweets enjoyed more chart success at Atlantic than the Bluebelles, virtually the only deep soul female group to chart with any consistency in that three-year period. And while they didnt achieve the kind of mainstream success that some of the other aforementioned New York-based teams did, The Sweet Inspirations more than earned their place in the annals of soul music history.
The specific origins of the group have never been fully documented but theres no question that all four original members had their roots firmly in gospel as members of either The Drinkard Singers or The Gospelaires. Key to the creation of the recording group later known as The Sweet Inspirations was Emily “Cissy” Houston, mother of Whitney, and sister of Lee Warrick (herself the mother of well-known sisters Dionne and Dee Dee). Emily and Lee were members of The Drinkard Singers, a family group that had the distinction of making the first gospel album to appear on a major label: a groundbreaking live recording done at The Newport Jazz Festival was released in 1959 and the line-up included Judy Guions (who later became Judy Clay), Marie Epps, Larry Drinkard, Nicholas Drinkard, Ann Moss, and Lee & Emily.
The original backup group that created a stir among producers, publishers, artists, and songwriters in the early 60s included Doris Troy and the two Warwick sisters, with both Doris and Dionne began enjoying solo careers with hits (“Just One Look” and “Dont Make Me Over” respectively) in 1963. At that juncture, Sylvia Shemwell (blood sister of Judy Clay) replaced Doris; while Cissy Houston took over from Dionne, with Dee Dee Warwick as the groups official leader. While no full documentation exists of which records they sang on, “The Group” (as they became known) were heard on hits by The Drifters, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Garnet Mimms, Esther Phillips, Lou Johnson, and then-Columbia recording artist Aretha Franklin. The ladies worked consistently with all manner of up-and-coming writers and producers including Carole King & Gerry Goffin, and Burt Bacharach & Hal David. It was a safe bet that if you needed real tight gospel harmonies on a demo or a final recording, you called “The Group.” When her own recording career began to make headway in 1965, Dee Dee (who had begun recording as a soloist in 62) was replaced by Myrna Smith (formerly a member of the New Jersey-based Gospelaires, whose line-up had included the Warwick sisters), with Cissy taking the reigns as the groups chief contractor. Estelle Brown, then a member of The Gospel Wonders, a local New York group that hit in 1964 with “As Long As I Got Jesus”), joined the team and the line-up that was to become an Atlantic recording group was in place. Legend (as documented on the liner notes of their first album) has it that Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler turned to Cissy Houston and said, “Ive got an inspiration.”
Cissy reportedly replied, “Oh, thats sweet!!” and the group, as an official Atlantic recording act was born. However, group member Myrna Smith recalls it somewhat differently, noting that Wexler called the group into his office and asked if they wanted to put out their own record. “We were virtually the house background singers for Atlantic and it was his way of keeping us there!” says Smith. Originally, singer Chuck Jackson suggested the group take on the name “The Inspirations” because they always inspired those they sang behind. But since a gospel team already had that name, Wexler suggested the word “sweet” be added. So much for liner note myths! With Tom Dowd (Atlantics engineer extraordinaire) and late super session man/bassist Tommy Cogbill from Memphis as producers, The Sweet Inspirations stepped into Atlantics recording studio for the first time on April 25, 1967 to record as an upfront group. That session produced the first two singles released by Atlantic, a bluesy, secularized version of “Why (Am I Treated So Bad),” a song previously recorded by The Staple Singers (and written by Pops Staples) on Epic; and a soulful version of “Let It Be Me”, a French song which had been a pop and R&B hit for Betty Everett & Jerry Butler in 1964. Atlantics basic initial direction had the group recording covers of songs that allowed them to express their unique, distinctive and ultra-soulful, gospel-based harmonies. Hence, both a June and early August session continued that approach with The Sweets adding their magic to “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” (a February 1967 hit for Sam & Dave), and Otis Reddings immortal “Ive Been Loving You Too Long”. Neither song was included on an album, relegated respectively to the flipsides of “Let It Be Me” and “Thats How Strong My Love Is” (a 1968 single taken from the groups second Atlantic album, What The World Needs Now Is Love).
Even though their first few singles hadnt achieved lofty chart success, Atlantic was committed to showcasing The Sweets talents and a ten-song August session in Memphis yielded the bulk of songs used for the groups self-titled debut album, released in the late fall of 1967. Included here from that first album are “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man” (originally recorded earlier that year by Aretha Franklin, who had begun using The Sweet Inspirations on her early Atlantic sessions in February 67, taking them on the road for selected key appearances as her fame spread); the brilliant gems “Oh! What A Fool Ive Been”, and “Blues Stay Away From Me”; and the original tune, “Sweet Inspiration”, which turned out to be the groups biggest all-time pop and R&B hit when released as a single in March 1968. Within a month of “Sweet Inspiration”s chart climb, the group was back in the studio to work on their second album which was in fact a gospel LP entitled Songs Of Faith & Inspiration released in 1968 under the banner “Cissy Drinkard & The Sweet Inspirations.” Less than two weeks after cutting the gospel set, the group was back in Atlantics studios recording the first half of their third album. The late April session yielded five songs, one of whicha version of The Bee Gees “To Love Somebody”, which became the groups fourth R&B chart hitis included here. Most of the balance of the groups sophomore effort was cut in Memphis in May and from those sessions come the albums title cut, “What The World Needs Now Is Love,” the Bacharach/David song, originally a hit for Jackie DeShannon; and a version of the standard “Unchained Melody,” which surprisingly gave the group a charted, if minor hit.
With a little more emphasis on original tunes, The Sweet Inspirations fourth Atlantic album was recorded in February 1969 its entirety at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section, who had graced hit recordings by a slew of acts including Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and Clarence Carter. From that four-day set of sessions, this compilation includes “Crying In The Rain”; a sparkling version of The Drifters 1961 classic, “Sweets For My Sweet” which became the title cut for the fourth album; and a reading of “Chained”, a fall 68 charted single for Marvin Gaye. In search of a hit for The Sweet Inspirations, Atlantic decided a change of recording venue and producer was in order. Philadelphia producer/writers Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff had begun scoring with artists like Jerry Butler, and Archie Bell & The Drells: the group was dispatched to the City Of The Brotherly Love to work with one of the hit teams proteges, Ugene Dozier. The initial session in October 1969 was the last to feature Cissy Houston, who had begun considering a solo career; the date produced the groups biggest R&B hit in some time. A Gamble & Huff composition, “Gotta Find Me A Brand New Lover” appeared on the groups fifth album (Sweet Sweet Soul) in two parts and is included in its entirety on this collection.
The balance of recording for the album was done in November 1970, with Sylvia, Estelle, and Myrna joined by Ann Williams, a church friend of Estelles who stayed for what turned out to be the groups last full Atlantic album. Also included from that set are are “Thats The Way My Baby Is”, and “Flash In The Pan”. A final ten-song Atlantic session in June 1970 brought the group (now a trio with Estelle, Myrna, and Sylvia) back to Muscle Shoals, this time working with producers Dave Crawford & Brad Shapiro, later the force behind hits for fellow Atlantic artist Jackie Moore. The Sweet Inspirations last two singles for the label, “This World” (from the musical “The Me Nobody Knows”), and “Evidence” complete this super-soulful collection. While their level of chart success had diminished, The Sweet Inspirations were far from idle. In 1968, theyd begun working with the legendary Elvis Presley as both background singers and his warm-up act, as well as doing occasional live dates with Aretha Franklin (and continuing to record behind her from time to time). In 1973, original members Estelle, Myrna, and Sylvia recording a one-off, excellent album for Stax Records in Memphis.
By 1979, Estelle had quit the group and was replaced by Gloria Brown, who toured with them but didn’t sing on The Sweet Inspirations last LP together, an RSO album entitled Hot Butterfly, with singer Pat Terry featured on the actual recording. Back together in 1994 to perform on selected shows (including a tribute to Elvis Presley), the original trio of Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia havent recorded in 21 years but this collection fills an obvious void in the R&B reissue world, a reminder of the spine-tingling harmonies that made The Sweet Inspirations a peerless vocal team. David Nathan (a/k/a “British Ambassador Of Soul”)