Friday, July 08, 2011

The First Sweet Inspiration

»I think they're fantastic«

Of all the female vocal groups of the '60s and the beginning of the following decade we know the most about the Sweet Inspirations, with the arguable exception of the Supremes. There are reasons for this: The Supremes aroused continuous interest by the personal conflicts within the group and the very peculiar character of Diane Ross (known as such to the birth register and to the outside world as »Diana«). The lasting fame of the Sweet Inspirations is due to Elvis Presley, who at the beginning of his down-winding career decided to hire the group as backing vocals for his live shows. They were to stay with him for eight long years, from 1969 to 1977.
     Since the claim that Diana Ross is a talented singer would be hard to defend before any court, there is little injustice in that the Supremes became mainly known for the quarrels among their members. Taken out Florence Ballard, it would have been difficult to achieve the same notoriety by purely musical means. But let's forget about the Supremes. In the case of the Sweet Inspirations, there is injustice indeed in that their global fame was cemented by Elvis. After all, they did their best work, and actually almost all their known recordings, before they ever met him. And when Cissy Drinkard Houston left the group after the first series of concerts in Las Vegas in '69, the true story of the Sweet Inspirations was already at its end. The three remaining Inspirations mainly worked for Elvis, did some background singing in recording sessions and relased but one LP in seven years (Stax 3017, 1973). They never again could escape the shadow of Elvis and after his death toured with impersonators. Such was the weight of TCB.

From left to right: Cissy Drinkard Houston, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shemwell, Estelle Brown.
It would be unfair, though, to not acknowledge the fact that Elvis made the Sweet Inspirations known to the wider world. Most people will have heard their name for the first time during one of his concerts or on Elvis records. As a tribute to this fact I put together a track where you can hear Elvis introducing the Sweets. The sound clips are from the following concerts: June 10, 1972, Madison Square Garden (after- noon show) / May 31, 1975, Huntsville, Alabama (matinee show) / June 1, 1975, Huntsville, Alabama (evening show) / Oct. 14, 1976, Chicago Stadium / Oct. 15, 1976, Chicago Stadium / June 19, 1977, Omaha Civic Center:

Elvis introduces The Sweet Inspirations:

In its truest sense, the story of the Sweet Inspirations lasted merely from the spring of '67 to somewhere towards the end of '69. However, by name the group existed before that and after. It will take me several »sweet inspirations« to tell the story. Today, we're just in for the introduction. And some details of the story are rather murky, especially with regard to the early stages. Then there is the fact that hords of Elvis fans throughout the world show unabated interest in the Sweets because they belong to the outer rim of their TCB-universe. Unfortunately, they most often are pretty ignorant of '60 soul and gospel music, and on the myriad of webpages dedicated to Elvis wrong or partly-mistaken information about the Sweets can be found in abundance. We'll come to all that.

Left: Billboard ad (May 20, 1967) showing the Sweet Inspirations and placed in occasion of the release of their debut single on Atlantic, »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)«. Behind from left: Sylvia Shemwell, Cissy Drinkard Houston. Front from left: Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown.

The Sweets recorded their debut single (Atlantic # 2410) in New York on April 25 and 26, 1967. The A-side was to be the Staples' song »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)«, penned by Daddy Roebuck. The Staple Singers in 1966/7 recorded two versions of that song, one (the first) politically charged and released on Epic LP # 26196 in May 1966 (check it out here), the second re-arranged in a pop fashion in spring 1967 and released on Epic # 10158. Originally, the song was a protest song, but the Sweets' version features substantially changed lyrics in comparison with the Staples' version, converting the tune into a love song (I'm all alone ... I'm gonna walk up to my baby's door, ask him why he don't love me no more ... he was wrong, said I was to blame, but I walk on in and love him just the same, though he treats me so bad ...). The beautiful performance of that song by the Sweets is a masterful exercise in close harmony singing. Cissy Houston is doing the lead voice, but apart from some humming there is as good as no lead in this song. As such, the song recalls many of the tunes which the Raelettes were putting out at the same time and, especially, on their later album Tangerine LP 1515 (Ray Charles presents The Raeletts: yesterday ... today ... tomorrow).

And yes, I can't think of a better song that could have started their career, their »first starring record« as Billboard had it in the issue of May 20, 1967 (page 14). It obviously underlines the closely-woven and harmoniously tight »together-sound« which for many since has been the hallmark of the Sweets' vocal artistry. Certainly Jerry Wexler, the grey eminence behind all decisions at Atlantic, and in this function overruling at times commercial prospects by his never-failing instinct for artistic value, had the same feeling. It was he who pushed the career of the Sweets from 1967 to 1969 and saw to it that his most talented contracted singer, Aretha Franklin, was supported by them, notably on such classics as »Chain Of Fools« and »Ain't No Way«. Seen from today's perspective, Atlantic was at the very height of its success when they released the Sweets' »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)«. In June 1967, the following Atlantic sides were on the Hot 100 (and I cannot even list them all): »Respect« (Aretha Franklin), »Sweet Soul Music« (Arthur Conley), »You Can't Stand Alone« (Wilson Pickett), »Plastic Man« (Sonny & Cher) ... and the Sweets' »Why«. Stax (still distributed by Atlantic) contributed »Tramp« (Carla Thomas & Otis Redding), »Hip Hug-Her« (Booker T), »Soul Finger« (The Bar-Kays) and »Soothe Me« (Sam & Dave). Well, what an impressive list! And the Sweet Inspirations were part of it, mind you. Here they are:

The Sweet Inspirations: »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)« from the Atlantic LP # SD 8155 (1967):

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POSTSCRIPT / with a comment added 11/16/2011:
From Richie Unterberger's Liner Notes for the Atlantic LP »The Sweet Inspirations«. Please note, however, that »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« is not contained on the 1965 Epic LP Freedom Highway (it only features on a modern CD re-issue by the name of Freedom Highway which does not reproduce the original Epic album):
»The group's career got off to a strong start with the mid-1967 single "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?" It was about as closely tied to gospel music as any soul single could be in that era, having been recorded by the Staple Singers for their live-in-the-church 1965 LP Freedom Highway. As Houston observed in her  autobiography, "It was a slow, languid blues written by gospel singer Roebuck Staples, of the Staples. It was so funky it sounded like it was recorded down in a Louisiana bayou complete with tasty blues licks, a walking bass and seductive horns." The single made the R&B Top Forty and got up to #57 in the pop charts ...«

To be continued ...

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