Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Second Sweet Inspiration

Before the Inspirations, Part I

You all know the Jackson family, LaToya, the late Michael, Jermaine and all the others, including the earringed patriarch Joseph »Joe« Jackson and arguably the last one of the family to walk around with the face God has given him. One of the most influential families in the music business ever, no doubt about it. But how many of you remember the Drinkard family? Doesn't ring a bell? Maybe the bell starts ringing if I add that part of that family goes by the name of »Houston«, another by that of »Warrick«. The latter was, in 1962, mis-printed on a Scepter label as »Warwick«. »I wanted to pull the record to have the spelling corrected but was promised that the correction would be made on the second pressing. Apparently, that never happened. I remained a wick instead of a rick« says Dionne Warwick in her recently published autobiography My Life, As I See It (New York 2010, p. 22).
     With »Houston« and »Warwick« I'm sure several bells started ringin'. And well they should. The Drinkard-Houston-Warwick family cluster, with all appandages to it and further ramifications, may justly be considered more important than the Jack- son clan; they certainly are longer around in the business. (Don't forget also that opera singer Leontyne Price is a cousin of Dionne Warwick and that Sarah Vaughan grew up with her mother!) But, you ask, what has this to do with the Sweet Inspirat- ions? A whole lot, starting with the simple fact that Emily »Cissy« Drinkard Houston (the mother of Whitney Houston) was part of the group until the late autumn of '69. This is the obvious bit. Less obvious and generally less known is the fact that the Sweet Inspirations evolved out of two or three gospel outfits that had common roots and shared many of their members.
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First and foremost, the Drinkard Singers. On the left photo (publ. in JET-Magazine in the June 15, 1998, issue p. 58) you can see all the members of the group as of ca. 1957 (left to right): Emily »Cissy« Drinkard, Lee Drinkard Warrick, Marie »Rebie« Drinkard Epps, Larry Drinkard, Anne »Annie« Drinkard Moss and Judy Guions (aka Judy Clay), on the piano Nicholas »Nick« Drinkard. They all were brothers and sisters with the exception of Judy Guions who had been adopted (not officially, though) by Lee Warrick.
     In the beginning, the group was formed in the late 1930s when the family was still living in Savannah, Georgia. They later moved to East Orange, N.J., and it was there that their fame spread. Several family members remember East Orange as a very cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic place devoid of racial tensions. Today, the town has almost 90% Black or Afro-American population (making this one of the highest per- centages in the entire U.S.), and in 2008 Obama's Democrats reaped 98% (!!) of all votes cast. In 1951, the Drinkard Singers performed in the legendary Carnegie Hall and backed gospel greats of the day, Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but also Clara Ward. Then, in 1954, they recorded some tunes to appear on a Savoy LP, and in 1956 they had a single out, again on Savoy.

Verve LP # V-8245 (1959)
Yet they hit it big in July 1957 when they were invited to appear at the Newport Jazz Festival, sharing the stage with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and countless other renowned musicians. Verve Records, aptly headed as well as managed by Norman Granz, taped the entire festival, and the stage show of the Drinkard Singers, on the afternoon of July 7, 1957, was released, in December 1957 as the A-side of Verve LP # MG V-8245 (Gospel Singing At Newport). Meanwhile, and aided by appear- ances on local TV stations in nearby Newark, the Drinkard Singers came to the attention of RCA. Thus another LP was recorded, in April 1958, entitled A Joyful Noise (RCA Victor LPM-1852) and actually their first fully-fledged studio album.

During their performance at Newport several members of the group had solo spots or leading parts, Marie Epps, Ann(e) Moss and Judy Guions. The only member of the later Sweet Inspirations to have participated in Newport was Cissy Houston, 23 years old at the time, but unfortunately the Verve LP as released contains no song where she does the lead singing (according to Hayes / Laughton's Gospel Discography, the song »My Rock« with lead vocals by Emily »Cissy« Drinkard was recorded but remained unissued). So, the obvious choice for this blog is to make you listen to the song which features Judy Guions as lead singer. She was later not a member of the Sweet Inspirations but still had close ties to them because Judy's sister, Sylvia Shemwell, was. As for Judy, she became a moderately successful soul singer in her own right, billed from 1961 onwards as »Judy Clay«. She recorded for Ember, Scepter, Stax and Atlantic, and many dozens of her unissued recordings have been made accessible on CD. Her greatest success came when she teamed up with white soul singer Billy Vera, together being the first racially integrated duo ever to appear nationwide in the U.S. (or rather, not always to appear as they would have liked to because several TV stations below the Mason-Dixon line wouldn't present a black & white duo on their screens ... as late as 1967!).
     In the beautiful 6-minute-plus rendering of »That's Enough« you can hear Judy Guions Clay (clearly) and Emily »Cissy« Drinkard (Houston) (less clearly because part of the choir, but she probably did the high soprano parts you can hear in the song). Apart from being a performance worth listening to, it is an important document for anybody interested in the »gospel roots« of singers who in the '60s left their mark on the secular soul scene. The introduction at the beginning is spoken by Joe Bostic, a famous gospel DJ of the day (read about him here and here). He had brought the Drinkard Singers to Carnegie Hall back in 1951 and for some years managed them; he then announced them at the Newport Festival on July 7, 1957:

The Drinkard Singers (feat. Judy Guions): »That's Enough« from the Verve LP # V-8245 (1957):

Note: For a while I thought (and had written so in the text above) that the Verve LP # 8245 was only released in 1959; several discographies (printed and on the web) do state this. However, a look into the contemporary music press (especially the issues of Billboard) clearly confirm that the album was released already in December 1957.

To be continued ...

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