Real Gone Music and SoulMusic Records have dug deep into the Atlantic Records vaults for a trio of rarities-packed complete releases from The Sweet Inspirations, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and Irma Thomas! Right now, let’s take a look at the music made by Cissy Houston and co. as The Sweet Inspirations!
Today, The Sweet Inspirations might be best-remembered as Elvis Presley’s preferred onstage backup group, but The King was just one of a staggering number of artists supported by the group, among them Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, even Jimi Hendrix. But Atlantic Records rightfully believed in the group as headliners, too – hence, the Real Gone/SoulMusic co-production of The Sweet Inspirations’ Complete Atlantic Singles – Plus (RGM-0263/OPCD-8853).
The classic, pre-“Elvis years” Sweet Inspirations recording line-up of Cissy Houston, Sylvia Shemwell, Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown evolved from the Drinkard Singers/Gospelaires families that also famously included Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick (Houston’s nieces) and Judy Clay (Shemwell’s sister). After backing Atlantic’s soul royalty, Jerry Wexler ushered the girls into Atlantic’s New York studios in 1967 for their very own session. The group recorded five albums and numerous singles for the label between 1967 and 1971; all of those 45s and a smattering of previously unreleased tracks are collected here for the first time. Only one cut made the Top 40 of the Hot 100, though – unsurprisingly – many more of the group’s vividly impassioned, often gritty songs scored on the R&B chart. Though The Complete Atlantic Singles features songs from Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, The Brothers Gibb, Carole King, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David, The Sweet Inspirations turned pop into pure deep soul.
What’s most immediately evident on these 37 tracks (three of which are previously unissued, hence the title’s “Plus”) on 2 CDs is the unusually supple sound for a foursome. Estelle recalls in David Nathan’s superb notes that the group was “famous for…moving harmonies up and interchanging parts so that the background vocals sounded so full, almost like a choir.” Indeed, the members’ gospel roots informed every performance. Jerry Wexler, and later Tom Dowd and the team of Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, knew this and supplied the Sweet Inspirations with songs they could plumb for raw emotion. Bert Berns, a master of desperation in song, co-wrote “I Don’t Want to Go on Without You” with Wexler, first recorded by The Drifters and also by Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. It became the group’s first B-side, supporting a wrenching version of The Staple Singers’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad).”
Wexler had a knack for importing southern soul sounds to New York (frequently by bringing bands north to Atlantic’s studios) but he sent the Sweet Inspirations directly to the source in Muscle Shoals, Alabama as well as Memphis, Tennessee. Producers Tom Dowd and Tommy Cogbill oversaw their spine-tingling version of Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man” at the same 1967 Memphis session that yielded a dramatic take on Bacharach and David’s “Reach Out for Me.” Penn also scored the group its first and only Top 20 Pop hit with the Spooner Oldham co-write “Sweet Inspiration.” Naturally, the duo wrote it specifically for them.
The Sweet Inspirations’ sound wouldn’t have proven incompatible at Stax, and in fact, the post-Cissy Houston trio line-up recorded an album for the venerable Memphis label. At Atlantic, the girls recorded 45 RPM slices of Stax soul by Otis Redding (an intense “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”), Isaac Hayes and David Porter (“When Something is Wrong with My Baby”), Booker T. Jones and William Bell (“Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday”) and Steve Cropper and the “Wicked” Wilson Pickett (the brassy, up-tempo groover “Don’t Fight It”).
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Cissy was a natural choice as lead vocalist although the group shared duties in that department, with Sylvia particularly shining on the Muscle Shoals-recorded Sweets for My Sweet album helmed by Tom Dowd at Fame. The “Muscle Shoals Sound” immortalized in a recent documentary is in ample evidence on the tracks recorded both at Fame and at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, set up by Fame expats Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass). Six single sides were derived from Sweets, including a pair of deliciously made-over Brill Building tunes Carole King and Howard Greenfield’s “Crying in the Rain” and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s title track. Sweets was followed by another LP whose uninspired title (Sweet Sweet Soul) in no way reflected its inspired contents.
1970’s Sweet Sweet Soul was the work of Philadelphia’s finest musicians who were already operating as a unit in the pre-Philadelphia International days. Ugene Dozier produced the LP for Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s young production company, enlisting arrangers Bobby Martin and Roland Chambers and the City of Brotherly Love’s A-list: Norman Harris, Chambers and Bobby Eli on guitar, Earl Young on drums, Ronnie Baker on bass, Vince Montana on vibes, Dozier and Lenny Pakula on keyboards, and none other than Thom Bell on organ. Five of the Philly-recorded tracks were released on 45, or six if you count “Gotta Find a Brand New Lover” which was originally split into two sides but is heard in combined form here. That Top 25 R&B hit was Houston’s final lead on a Sweet Inspirations single as she departed the group in 1969 following an early performance with Elvis Presley. Ann Williams even stepped in to complete the Philly sessions.
Though the Philly sound wasn’t fully developed by this point, most of the key ingredients were there. The Gamble and Huff-written “Brand New Lover” is sophisticated soul, with Houston out front over Baker’s insinuating bass, Martin’s evocative strings, Bell’s perfectly-parsed organ flourishes and the taut guitar lines. Myrna sang the coquettish lead on the most pop of the songs, Dozier’s irresistible “At Last I’ve Found a Love,” which adds horns and breezy winds to the above equation. Quite in contrast was the ballad throwback “That’s the Way My Baby Is,” led by Sylvia, as well as the percolating funk of “Them Boys.” Some of Montana’s best vibes work can be heard on the darker “Flash in the Pan.”
Muscle Shoals Sound turned out to be the setting for the final Sweet Inspirations session for Atlantic, held in June 1970. Ten songs were cut with producers Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro, although only four were originally released on 45. Those are, of course, here, as well as four more songs – one which premiered on a 2005 Rhino compilation and three premiering on this set. The final two tracks from the session have not yet been found. Crawford and Shapiro urged the trio of Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia in a funkier direction, a notable exception being the soaring, infectious “Light Sings” from the Broadway musical The Me Nobody Knows. Atlantic made a rare foray into theatre with the show’s cast album, and likely encouraged The Sweet Inspirations to record the score’s standout song. (The Fifth Dimension also covered the song over at Bell.) An eclectic medley of Bobby Russell’s ubiquitous “Little Green Apples,” Aretha Franklin’s “Think” and The Beatles’ “Something” has been rescued from obscurity, as well as Tommy Tate and Carson Whitsett’s “I’ve Been Inspired to Love You” and another strong dip into the Bacharach and David songbook, “Make It Easy on Yourself.”
David Nathan and Mike Milchner provide the extensive liner notes and superb remastering, respectively, on this fine and indispensable addition to any classic soul library.
Coming soon: a spotlight on Real Gone’s new collections from Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and Irma Thomas!