Forty years ago Monday, the Sweet Inspirations, one of the premier vocal harmony quartets of the 20th century best known for supporting Elvis Presley in concert, decamped to Stax Studios in Memphis for the recording of their criminally neglected soul masterpiece, "Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia".
The group came to prominence during the late '60s, largely uncredited for backing scores of artists, regardless of genre classification, with a wholly original melding of pop, gospel, and soul sensibilities.
Led by Whitney Houston's mother, Cissy, the Sweets lent their sublime vocals to hit recordings by Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, The Rascals, Dusty Springfield, The Bee Gees, and one straight out of left field in recent years...The Killers.
Their very own recording contract with Atlantic Records, chiefly due to their pioneering contributions to Franklin's hit singles such as "Respect", ("You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" and "Chain of Fools, arrived at the dawn of 1967.
Inexplicably, the appropriately titled "Sweet Inspiration" became their only major single, rising to No. 18 pop and No. 5 R&B in March 1968. Other minor hits included a gorgeous, near a capella rendition of "Let It Be Me", "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)", and "(Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover."
An eight-year association with Elvis soon supplanted their stalled solo career, ultimately becoming their calling card decades later. Houston, Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, and Sylvia Shemwell first joined Elvis in July 1969 without an audition, as the singer had become quite enamored with the "Sweet Inspiration" single. Debuting during his triumphant return to live performances in Las Vegas, the Sweets performed at all of the King of Rock and Roll's live dates until his untimely passing in 1977. Elvis truly counted the Sweets as trust-worthy friends.
Perhaps their most underrated, unified statement as an album is Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia, the group's second LP created after Houston opted to go solo and focus on raising her children. Produced by David Porter and Ronnie Williams, the former is best known to classic soul fans as one-half of the legendary songwriting/production team spearheaded by Isaac Hayes.
Signed to Stax Records at the beginning of 1973, the project was recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis in late February and March, immediately after Presley completed his historic Aloha From Hawaii special and latest engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton on February 23. Incidentally, five months later Elvis made his debut sojourn to the studios, possibly at the suggestion of the Sweets, for a trio of albums highlighted by "If You Talk in Your Sleep" and a blazing cover of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land".
Consisting of nine tracks (half run past the five-minute mark) largely written by Porter and Williams, the album opens with shimmering one-note piano chords signaling "Wishes and Dishes", a smoking R&B ballad with a haunting lead vocal from Shemwell. The Elvis connection continues as the Sweets name check a "little TLC (Tender Loving Care)", an expression emblazoned on the necklaces given by the King to his closest female friends. A tight rhythm section and an overdubbed string section anchor the track, too.
An exemplary ballad is the syncopated "You Roam When You Don't Get It at Home", later sampled by rap artists Ghostface Killah and Diddy, respectively. The song is an early example of the quiet storm slow jams which became mainstays of R&B several years, popularized by Barry White and Luther Vandross.
"Slipped and Tripped" was released as the lone single from the album. The inventive, catchy chorus, accentuated by the Memphis Horns and a chicken scratch electric rhythm guitar part, along with Shemwell's defiant, sassy attitude, should have resulted in a major hit single, but Stax's inner turmoil and imminent bankruptcy hindered sales, and the song failed to chart. Without question, the funky "Slipped and Tripped" is worthy of rediscovery.
"All It Takes Is You and Me" follows a slow groove with some in-the-pocket bass playing. "Call Me When All Else Fails" especially resembles the group's gospel roots with tight three-part harmony and some perfectly integrated piano and organ. On "The Whole World Is Out", Smith's angelic soprano reaches high notes that fall somewhere above the stratosphere.
"Pity Yourself" is a joint, upbeat songwriting effort among the Sweets. Kudos to the cinematic string section courtesy of the Memphis Symphony and the deliberately rising-in-the-mix organ. The party vibe nearly masks Shemwell's animosity towards those female friends who unwisely question her relationship with her significant other. "Emergency" is probably the poppiest number on the record and is basically a throwaway performance.
The production of Porter and Williams [i.e. drums, sustained dual guitar interplay, horns, and strings] on the final six and a half minute song, "Why Marry", is astounding. Why it is not more widely known to the record-buying public remains a mystery, although in 2010 Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Method Man recognized its brilliance and sampled it on their hip hop track "Criminology 2.5".
Smith takes over lead vocals and ponders what may have been controversial lines in 1973: "Walking on my way, heard somebody say, why marry? I'm in love with you, you're in love with me, so why marry? Daddy proudly gives me away, wedding and best man, champagne and cake, oh the love affair ended when we said 'I do'".
Just after the four-minute mark, the musical accompaniment ceases, except for bells and soft strings. Shemwell delivers a spoken word passage where she laments the state of the protagonist's dying marriage. Complex three-part vocals then convey the chorus again and again over a faintly mixed instrumental passage. Definitely a track that stands comfortably alongside their greatest recording, "Sweet Inspiration."
Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia was the act's second and final album to chart on Billboard, stopping at No. 60 on the R&B charts in September 1973 after pitiful promotion from Stax. "Dirty Tricks", an infectious, rockin' ode to the ramifications of Watergate co-written by Smith, appeared the following year as a stand alone single. It quickly sank into oblivion, and Stax terminated their contract with the Sweets shortly thereafter.
Hot Butterfly, a further one-off album for Robert Stigwood's RSO Records [the impresario managed the Bee Gees, who asked the Sweets to briefly tour with them], generated publicity when it appeared in 1979. Unfortunately, the disco fad was in full bloom, and the style was ill-suited to the group's traditional sensibilities. The album was universally panned by critics.
Smith eventually became the Sweets' de facto leader in the public's eye after she married Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling [they subsequently divorced]. During the early stages of the couple's courtship in 1976, Elvis invited Smith to become the only Sweet to sing on his studio recordings, including the latter-day hits "Hurt," "For the Heart," "Moody Blue," and "Way Down."
When Beach Boys leader Carl Wilson briefly went solo in the early '80s, Smith also served as his primary co-writer on the Carl Wilson and Youngblood albums, respectively.
In 1997 the Sweets began performing globally with Elvis: The Concert, a show reuniting Elvis's original TCB Band. Shemwell suffered a debilitating stroke in 2001 and was forced off the road, passing away some nine years later.
A few months after Shemwell's passing, Smith became ill during an Elvis tour stop in London, initially citing pneumonia and exhaustion. While in the hospital, Smith suffered a stroke and was forced to undergo kidney dialysis. She sadly died on Christmas Eve 2010 of kidney failure. With Brown serving as the only original member, the Sweets continue to tour with Elvis: The Concert.
Incredibly, there are no available compilations spanning the group's greatest hits. What follows is a complete discography for the Sweets' charted singles on Billboard, including essential deep cuts that Atlantic relegated to studio albums. In other words, here is the perfect Sweet Inspirations playlist...
The Complete Billboard Hit Singles
- Why (Am I Treated So Bad) [No. 57 POP: No. 36 R&B June 1967; on The Sweet Inspirations LP]
- Let It Be Me [No. 94 POP: No. 13 R&B July 1967; The Sweet Inspirations]
- Sweet Inspiration [No. 18 POP: No. 5 R&B March 1968: The Sweet Inspirations]
- To Love Somebody [No. 74 POP: No. 30 R&B July 1968: What The World Needs Now]
- Unchained Melody [No. 73 POP: No. 41 R&B 9/68: What The World Needs Now]
- What The World Needs Now Is Love [No. 128 POP: LP title cut]
- Crying In The Rain [No. 112 POP: No. 42 R&B April 1969: Sweets For My Sweet]
- (Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover [No. 117 POP: No. 25 R&B 12/69: Sweet Sweet Soul]
- This World [No. 123 POP: No. 45 R&B October 1970: Single only]
- Evidence [No. 44 R&B April 1971: Single only]
- Love Is On The Way [No. 104 POP: No. 26 Club Play August 1979: Hot Butterfly]
Essential Singles and Deep Tracks
- When Something Is Wrong With My Baby [B-side only of "Let It Be Me", July 1967]
- I've Been Loving You Too Long [A-side only late 1967]
- Oh! What A Fool I've Been [A-side; on The Sweet Inspirations LP, March 1968]
- Do Right Woman -- Do Right Man [A-side; The Sweet Inspirations]
- Sweets For My Sweets [A-side summer 1969: Sweets For My Sweet]
- Chained [A-side fall 1969: Sweets For My Sweet]
- That's The Way My Baby Is [A-side early 1970: Sweet Sweet Soul]
- Flash In The Pan [A-side: Sweet Sweet Soul]
- Slipped & Tripped [A-side: Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia, September 1973]
- Why Marry [Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia]
- Dirty Tricks [A-side only 1974; final Stax single]
- Do It Right [Hot Butterfly, 1979]
All of the above tracks can be downloaded via iTunes or Amazon, except "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "This World," "Evidence," "Slipped and Tripped," "Dirty Tricks", "Do It Right," and "Love Is On The Way."
"When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "This World," and "Evidence" can be purchased on The Best of the Sweet Inspirations (1994), the only best-of compilation released so far on the group. Although sadly out-of-print, used copies of the generous 19-track CD can be found in the $25 dollar range on Amazon.
"Slipped and Tripped" is available on Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia. Re-released in 1991, it is still in-print and available for under $10 on Amazon. It remains an essential, highly recommended album.
"Dirty Tricks" is a bit more difficult to locate. It has been released on several Stax compilations. The easiest album to locate on CD at an affordable cost is Stax of Funk, Vol. 2: More Funky Truth, a 21-track compilation released in 2002 on Beat Goes Public Records, a UK-based reissue label. The record costs approximately $20 on Amazon or $14 [including shipping and handling] from the site's marketplace sellers.
"Do It Right" and "Love Is on the Way" are only available on the original vinyl Hot Butterfly 1979 album. However, low quality MP3's, ripped from the vinyl, are floating around on the Internet as torrents. Resourceful folks can also discover the rest of these hard-to-find songs in a similar fashion.
Don't forget to investigate the 15-image slideshow accompanying this article. Celebrating the absolute peak of the Sweet Inspirations' prolific career, many of the images have been recently unearthed. Their long-running professional relationship with Elvis Presley is also documented for good measure.
Author's Note: Solomon Burke experienced a nearly 50-year recording career. Inexplicably, he never gained the level of fame afforded to his R&B contemporaries including James Brown, Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke; instead, white artists such as The Rolling Stones and the Blues Brothers introduced him to a wider audience through their cover versions. In fact, "Cry To Me" appeared over 20 years later in the 1987 blockbuster Dirty Dancing, garnering renewed interest in the singer. To read about the song stylist who not coincidentally recorded with The Sweet Inspirations during his Atlantic Records heyday in the late '60s, visit the following link: "Remembering Soul Legend Solomon Burke: Hit Singles and Definitive Performances".
Further Reading: Jordanaire Ray Walker recorded and performed in concert with B.J. Thomas, Rick Nelson, and Elvis Presley for decades. In a 2011 article written by this writer, the genial bassist recalled what it was like to sit front row center during an Elvis recording session. Things got pretty crazy when the "Alabama Wild Man", Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar to a few country rock numbers. Visit the following article, "Jordanaire Ray Walker Recalls Studio Nights With Elvis Presley and Jerry Reed," for the complete lowdown.
Exclusive Interview: Trailblazing Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis Presley. His bold efforts ultimately broke Presley north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the '50s. The deejay also had a prominent role in the highly sought after but still lost concert film, 'The Pied Piper of Cleveland', which documented the first time Presley was filmed by a professional camera. To read about the King of Rock and Roll's meteoric rise to worldwide fame, and why one prominent authority controversially believes "Mystery Train" was the singer's last honest recording until he returned from the Army in March 1960, visit the following link: ["On The Brink of Becoming An Artistic Phenomenon..."].
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