Sweet Inspiration

New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey was home base for the fabulously dynamic gospel group The Drinkard Singers, a family act that, as of early 1958, consisted of five members (three women and two men). They specialized in rousing, energy-filled spiritual tunes like "That's Enough" with lead vocalist Judy Guions from the 1958 album Gospel Singing on Verve Records, a live recording in Newport, Rhode Island released with the Drinkards on one side and another Jersey-based gospel act, The Back Home Choir, on the other. Later that year Joyful Noise, a full studio album by the Drinkard Singers, appeared on RCA Victor; by that time they numbered seven (five female voices!), though it's doubtful anyone imagined some of the women in the Drinkard and related-by-marriage Warrick families would go on to long careers and great success on the music industry's high-profile secular stage.

Guions made non-gospel recordings as Judy Clay starting in 1961 and enjoyed several minor hit singles between 1967 and 1970 (duets with male vocal partners seemed to be her specialty as her best-known singles were "Storybook Childen" and "Country Girl - City Man" with Billy Vera and "Private Number" with William Bell). But before the Drinkard Singers' standout lead achieved this different kind of notoriety, her sisters (Judy had been adopted by the Warrick family), who sang briefly with the gospel act, embarked on successful pop music careers under a slight variation of the family name. Dionne Warwick amassed a run of hits lasting more than a quarter-century beginning in 1962; younger sis Delia, as Dee Dee Warwick, had a shorter yet eventful career spanning about a decade. Then we have their aunt, Emily Drinkard, who spent the longest time doing what she loved (more than 70 years, starting when she sang in public with the Drinkards as a young child in the late 1930s), though much of it was spent as a backing singer...for, inarguably, some of the greatest singing stars of all time.

In the early '60s Emily, who'd married show business manager John Russell Houston, Jr., took the stage name Cissy Houston and sang with her daughters and their friend, Doris Troy (for awhile they were called The Gospelaires). Studio work in New York City led to the formation of The Sweet Inspirations with Dee Dee singing lead and Cissy and Sylvia Shemwell (Judy's blood sister) rounding out the trio; Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler is credited with coming up with the name, which could be taken as spiritual or secular. Dee Dee made a few solo recordings (the first: "You're No Good" in the fall of '63) and left around 1965 when her songs started hitting the charts. She was replaced by Myrna Smith, another home town friend; Cissy took over at that time as the group's lead singer. With the addition of Estelle Brown, the act became a quartet and would soon become more familiar to record buyers.

The in-demand foursome spent the next few years singing behind a who's-who of stars. Besides providing backing for many Dionne Warwick hits (starting with her debut, "Don't Make Me Over") and Doris Troy's top ten smash "Just One Look," they sweetened the sound on singles by Solomon Burke, Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, Betty Harris, Irma Thomas, Nina Simone and Freddie Scott, Jackie DeShannon's prayer-like pop hit "What the World Needs Now is Love" and too many others to accurately count. Cissy was 33 when the group landed a contract with Atlantic Records in 1967, Sylvia and Myrna were 25, Estelle 23, and none of them let it go to their heads, as they continued to do regular session work in addition to the busy schedule of recording, promoting and performing as a superbly soulful not-so-girlish girl group.

Cissy Houston, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shemwell, Estelle Brown

The self-titled debut LP had two singles, a cover of The Staple Singers' "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)" and "Let it Be Me" (made famous by The Everly Brothers seven years earlier), both of which had minor runs on the national charts. Meanwhile Aretha Franklin, who'd joined Atlantic just prior to the group's signing, utilized their talents on several of her early recordings. They also backed former partner Judy Clay on her Atlantic duets with Billy Vera (he's familiar these days as the "Too much good stuff" voice on AM-PM store commercials), while a second album pointed more in the direction of their roots; Songs of Faith & Inspiration was credited to Cissy Drinkard and the Sweet Inspirations, though they - and the record company - kept looking to score that one big hit.

"Sweet Inspiration" was written by established Memphis hitmakers Dan Penn and "Spooner" Oldham (James and Bobby Purify, Percy Sledge and The Box Tops had already benefited from their skills); a track from the debut LP, it had previously been passed over for release on the sixth time became the charm in early '68. With lyrics adaptable to romance or religion ('...I've got the power, every hour of the day...I need your swee-ee-eet go on livin', to keep on givin' this way'), it went top 20 pop and top five R&B in April and made the Sweet Inspirations one of a few recording acts of the era to have a song with the same title (or nearly so) as the artist's name, the others being The Yellow Balloon ("Yellow Balloon"), Kool and the Gang ("Kool and the Gang") and Chairmen of the Board ("Chairman of the Board").

Other S.I. singles employed the tactic of reworking borderline secular/spiritual compositions and included The Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," '50s movie theme "Unchained Melody," Everly hit "Crying in the Rain" and an all-Sweet "What the World Needs Now is Love." These were beautifully performed and arranged, but perhaps the group would have had better luck gaining airplay and sales if they'd gone with material they could lay singular claim "Sweet Inspiration." Studio background work was always an option and the quartet was a big part of Brit songstress Dusty Springfield's landmark Atlantic album Dusty in Memphis. The chance of a lifetime came when the biggest of singing stars, Elvis Presley, asked them to join him for his early 1969 sessions at Chips Moman's American Sound Studio, which resulted in giant hits like "In the Ghetto" and "Suspicious Minds."

The more-worldly-than-usual "(Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover," penned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, was produced in Philadelphia. Cissy Houston departed in 1969 and was replaced for a short time by Ann Williams; they backed The Rascals (on "Glory Glory") and Paul Davis (on "Mississippi River") while making more of their own music for Atlantic. In 1971, Sylvia, Myrna and Estelle went forward as a trio, signing with Stax in '73 for a short stay. Elvis counted himself among their biggest fans and hired them for his concerts; daughter Lisa Marie Presley, at the age of seven or eight, was often in the studio or backstage and became close with the three as they toured behind the "King of Rock and Roll" for several weeks each year until his death in 1977. Later they recorded for Caribou (in 1977) and RSO (singing on "Grease," Frankie Valli's chart-topping hit from 1978, and a few sides of their own). The Sweet Inspirations broke up near the end of the decade, but reunited in 1994. A new member, Portia Griffin, brought their number back to four and helped prolong the vocal sweetness for quite a few years.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Sweet Inspiration