In its 1960s heyday, Atlantic Records was the destination for deeply-felt soul. Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Solomon Burke, and Wilson Pickett were just a handful of the artists there who defined the sound of soul music. Lesser-known but no less significant were The Sweet Inspirations. Today, the vocal quartet might be best-remembered as Elvis Presley's preferred onstage backup group, but The King was just one of a staggering number of artists they supported - including the aforementioned artists and even Jimi Hendrix. But Atlantic rightfully believed that these talented singers didn't have to remain ten feet from stardom. The Sweet Inspirations' journey with the label has just been collected on a new 3-CD anthology from Cherry Red's SoulMusic Records imprint. Let It Be Me: The Atlantic Recordings (1967-1970) brings together 66 recordings, encompassing five albums (The Sweet Inspirations; Songs of Faith and Inspiration; What the World Needs Now Is Love; Sweets for My Sweet; and Sweet, Sweet Soul), non-LP singles, and outtakes.
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 Atlantic vocalist Judy Clay (Shemwell's sister). The label's Jerry Wexler ushered the quartet into Atlantic's New York studios in April 1967 with producers Tom Dowd and Tommy Cogbill for their debut session. Tellingly, the three songs included one pop classic ("Let It Be Me"), a wrenching blues from a gospel legend (Pops Staples' "Why Am I Treated So Bad," inspired by the brave students of the Little Rock 9 who fought against segregation), and a romantic R&B staple (Roosevelt Jamison's "That's How Strong My Love Is," best known in its Atlantic recording by Otis Redding). All of those genres would figure prominently in the Sweet Inspirations' discography. At Atlantic, they would transform songs from Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, The Bee Gees, Carole King, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David from pure pop into deep soul.
What's most immediately evident on these 66 tracks is the unusually supple sound for a foursome. They knew how to use their voices in the manner of a gospel choir. Wexler, Dowd, and the producers who followed them consistently 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. Recorded at the group's second solo session and included on sophomore LP What the World Needs Now Is Love, it became the group's first B-side, supporting "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)." In addition to the impassioned title track, the LP also featured a beautiful reading of "Alfie," most famously recorded by Cissy's niece Dionne. (Keeping it all in the family, Dee Dee Warwick cut "Alfie" even before Dionne.)
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 Dowd and Cogbill oversaw their spine-tingling version of Dan Penn and Chips Moman's "Do Right Woman-Do Right Man" at the same August 1967 session at Memphis' American Studios 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. (That set falls out of the purview of this collection.) In 1967-68, the girls recorded potent 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" Pickett (the brassy, up-tempo groover "Don't Fight It").
The big-voiced Cissy was a natural choice as lead vocalist. But the group shared duties in that department, with Sylvia particularly shining on 1969's Muscle Shoals-recorded Sweets for My Sweet album helmed by Dowd at FAME Studios. The funky, gritty "Muscle Shoals Sound" 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). Sweets deliciously made over such Brill Building tunes as 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 Kenny 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 Thom Bell on organ.
Though the plush, silky Philly sound wasn't fully developed by this point, most of the key ingredients were already present. The Gamble and Huff-written "Brand New Lover" epitomizes 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-oriented 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." Cissy led the Gamble and Huff-penned top 25 R&B hit "Gotta Find a Brand-New Lover," but it turned out to be her final lead vocal on a Sweet Inspirations single. She departed the group in 1969 following an early performance with Elvis Presley; her replacement Ann Williams is featured on the cover of Sweet, Sweet Soul.
Muscle Shoals Sound turned out to be the setting for The Sweet Inspirations' final 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. One premiered on CD in 2005 and three more were issued in 2014. While the remaining two songs are still lost, the eight surviving tracks are collected for the first time on the third disc of this collection.
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 musical theatre with the show's cast album, and likely encouraged The Sweet Inspirations to record the score's standout song. (The 5th Dimension also covered the song over at Bell.) The musical's "This World" was also cut at the same session. Of the other standouts, an eclectic medley of Bobby Russell's ubiquitous "Little Green Apples," Aretha Franklin's "Think," and The Beatles' "Something" showed the group's invention, and "Make It Easy on Yourself" proved another fine excursion into the Bacharach/David songbook.
The material on Let It Be Me hasn't been sequenced by album and single release date, but rather in recording session order. While this format isn't as ideal for listening as the original LP and 45 sequences, it's a different and valid way to explore this discography. An exception has only been made for their second LP. 1968's Songs of Faith and Inspiration was credited to Cissy Drinkard and The Sweet Inspirations, and is included from start to finish at the end of the third disc, "[reflecting] The Sweet Inspirations' musical roots in gospel to provide a 'full circle' listening experience."
The 28-page booklet includes a lengthy essay from gospel historian Tim Dillinger (featuring quotes from Estelle Brown) as well as album and label artwork (but no photos, although a couple are presented on the eight-panel digipak). Nick Robbins has remastered all of the material, and the set has been produced with customary care by David Nathan.
Various lineups of The Sweet Inspirations continued to record through 2005, including albums and singles for Stax, the independent Koala label, Caribou, and RSO. But the recordings on Let It Be Me remain the cornerstone of the quartet's immense recorded legacy.
- Let It Be Me
- Why (Am I Treated So Bad)
- That's How Strong My Love Is
- I Don't Want to Go On Without You
- Knock on Wood
- When Something Is Wrong with My Baby
- I've Been Loving You Too Long
- Reach Out for Me
- Just Walk in My Shoes
- Do Right Woman - Do Right Man
- Here I Am (Take Me)
- Don't Let Me Lose This Dream
- Blues Stay Away from Me
- I'm Blue
- Sweet Inspiration
- Don't Fight It
- Oh! What a Fool I've Been
- Am I Ever Gonna See My Baby Again
- I Could Leave You Alone
- To Love Somebody
- Where Did It Go
- You Really Didn't Mean It
- Watch the One (Who Brings You the News)
- Unchained Melody
- What the World Needs Now Is Love
- Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday
- Crying in the Rain
- Get a Little Order
- It's Worth It All
- Let Me Be Lonely
- It's Not Easy
- Sweets for My Sweet
- Don't Go
- Always David
- But You Know I Love You
- (Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover, Part 1
- (Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover, Part 2
- Give My Love to Somebody
- Two Can Play The Game
- (Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover, Parts 1 & 2
- Ain't Nothin' in the World
- Them Boys
- Flash in the Pan
- At Last I've Found a Love
- That's the Way My Baby Is
- I've Been Inspired to Love You
- Ain't Nothing Gonna Change Me
- Little Green Apples/Think/Something
- Make It Easy on Yourself
- Change Me Not
- Pilgrims of Sorrow
- Down by the Riverside
- The 23rd Psalm
- Without a Doubt
- He'll Fight
- Swing Low
- I Shall Know Him
- What a Friend We Have in Jesus
- Looking on the Bright Side
- Guide Me
CD 1, Tracks 1-2, 5, 8, 10-17 from The Sweet Inspirations, Atlantic LP SD 8155, 1967
CD 1, Tracks 3-4, 9, 18-22 and CD 2, Tracks 1-4 from What the World Needs Now Is Love, Atlantic LP SD 8201, 1968
CD 1, Track 6 from Atlantic single 45-2418, 1967
CD 1, Track 7 from Atlantic single 45-2436, 1967
CD 2, Track 5 from Atlantic single 45-2620, 1969
CD 2, Tracks 6-15 from Sweets for My Sweet, Atlantic LP SD 8225, 1969
CD 2, Tracks 16-17 from Atlantic single 45-2686, 1969
CD 2, Tracks 18-26 from Sweet, Sweet Soul, Atlantic LP SD 8253, 1970
CD 3, Tracks 1-2, 5-6 from The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus, Real Gone Music/SoulMusic Records RGM-0263, 2014
CD 3, Track 4 from Atlantic single 45-2750, 1970
CD 3, Tracks 7-8 from Atlantic single 45-2779, 1971
CD 3, Tracks 9-18 from Songs of Faith and Inspiration, Atlantic LP SD-8182, 1968