The Sweet Inspirations – Sweet Inspiration


The Sweet Inspirations


Listen – Sweet Inspiration MP3″

Greetings all.

I hope the beginning of a new week finds you all well.

The arrival of the new Grogan went pretty smoothly, and mother and baby are doing fine, as we all adjust to a return to the “new baby” schedule (and all of the sleep deprivation therein). That’s not to say that it isn’t an absolute joy, which it is, and I would recommend it (parenthood, that is) to anyone that is suitably prepared to make the leap.

There’s absolutely nothing like it.

I didn’t expect to be doing any new posts until next week, but I’ve managed – via some creative distribution of man/woman power on the child care front – to put aside some time to get a new post and track up for your perusal.

Rest assured, that although the Funky16Corners blog is currently running on an abbreviated schedule, I have some truly excellent tracks – and some very cool new installments of Funky16Corners Radio – ready to go in the upcoming weeks. I hope that getting your hopes up for what is yet to come doesn’t damn today’s selection, because it’s a longtime fave of mine, which I think you’ll dig. It just happens to be something that I selected and recorded weeks ago, and in the excitement of the impending birth of my son it got pushed (unfairly) to the sidelines. I bring it to you this evening, firm in the belief that age (as it is) has only rendered it all the sweeter.

If the name of the Sweet Inspirations doesn’t ring a bell, their voices certainly ought to. Rooted in the late 50’s Gospel group the Drinkard Singers – which in it’s early history included Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, Judy Clay and Doris Troy among its members – the Sweet Inspirations recorded backing vocals for countless R&B and soul records before being signed to Atlantic and recording under their own name.

By 1968, the group was led by Cissy Houston*, aunt of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, Sylvia Shemwell (sister of Judy Clay), Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown, all then based in the New York area. Though their roots were in Gospel, they were taking that sound and moving in a decidedly secular direction.

Their self-titled debut LP included covers of tunes by Eddie Floyd, the Ikettes (another great backing group that produced some great records and great soloists), Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin (with whom they would work extensively). The only direct link to their Gospel past was a version of the Staple Singers “Why Am I Treated So Bad”, which to be fair, was also covered by a number of non-Gospel artists, including Cannonball Adderly, Brian Auger, Henry Cain, the Three Sounds and reggae singer Lyn Taitt.

 Jerry Wexler recognized the depth of talent in the group, and put them in the studio with the legendary Tom Dowd, as well as Southern Soul heavy hitters like Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman.

Today’s selection, the eponymous ‘Sweet Inspiration’ was their biggest hit, making it into the R&B Top Ten and the Pop Top 20. I first heard the song – never having heard of the group – more than 20 years ago, when I picked up a 1969 Atlantic Records compilation LP. When ‘Sweet Inspiration’ came under the stylus, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The tune starts off with laid back – but decidedly southern-fried – guitar and bass riff, augmented strangely enough by marimbas. As soon as the vocals come in, it was immediately evident to me then (without knowledge of the personnel) – as it should be to anyone hearing the track for the first time – that this was a group with Gospel roots. The harmonies are tight, and the solo flights are pulled right out of the Amen Corner. Much like a track I featured recently – the Van Dykes ‘No Man Is An Island’ – ‘Sweet Inspiration’ sounds like one of those songs that with the tiniest bit of tweaking would be suitable for performance in a sanctified environment. As it is, the Sweet Inspirations take the earthy “love” lyric (written by Wallace Pennington and Spooner Oldham) and imbue it with all of the mighty power of the choir loft, so much so that if you weren’t paying close enough attention, it might be understandably mistaken for pure Gospel music.

The tune swings along soulfully, until out of the blue, the grits and gravy are pushed aside for an otherworldly string breakdown that takes the record to another level entirely. The warm guitar is gone, replaced by a swelling wall of violins (and understated brass) over which Houston sails into the stratosphere. These strings are perhaps the most interesting part of a decidedly interesting record. Arranged by the legendary (and recently deceased) Arif Mardin, and the lesser-known (but no less brilliant) jazz arranger Ralph Burns (who penned innovative charts for the Woody Herman band, among others), the icy bite of the strings stands in direct contrast to the rest of the record, but is so brilliantly presented, that it ends up making perfect sense. It’s the kind of dramatic departure that may have crippled a lesser record (created by lesser hands), but in this instance becomes the focal point. It’s like the rest of the record was created to serve as a kind of platform from which this interlude might be launched.

It makes ‘Sweet Inspiration’ one of the truly great soul records of the late 60’s, and a monument to the countless records of amazing quality that despite their chart position, remain largely forgotten by “oldies” radio. Not long after the success of ‘Sweet Inspiration’, none other than Elvis Presley decided that he needed to add the sound of the Sweet Inspirations to his show. They became his opening act and his backing vocalists, a position they would maintain for years (long after Cissy Houston left the group).

* This being the closest you will ever get to hearing about Whitney Houston – Cissy being her Mother – in this space. .

12 Responses to “The Sweet Inspirations – Sweet Inspiration”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Amen, brother!

  2. Wazza Says:

    Love this song – thanks for the post. Just received delivery today of ‘Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters’ and this contains a previously unissued track by the Sweet Inspirations – ‘Ain’t nothing gonna change me’. I agree – it’s great to see this fantastic music making it’s way out of the vaults.

  3. dcin chatt Says:

    NICE TRACK. I’ve enjoyed a bunch (and learned a bunch here, too!). Thanks for sharing cuts and knowledge.

    Not sure if “Wallace Pennington” is his real name or a pen name, but Spooner’s writing parnter is Dan Penn, and I think I’m safe in saying they wrote this one (and finally recorded it together on a recent live album, MOMENTS FROM THIS THEATER.) They “penned” a slew of southern soul classics.

    Thanks again for all your hard work and good stuff. Congrats on the youngster!


  4. funky16corners Says:

    I suspected that “Wallace Pennington” might be Dan Penn, since Spooner is credited as “Lindon Dewey Oldham”, but Penn is credited properly elsewhere on the LP, so I wasn’t sure.

  5. allen Says:

    all of the songs on the excellent, “moments from this theatre” album are composed, in-part, by the great Dan Penn, including “Sweet Inspiration.”

  6. Art(uro) Says:

    I just picked this up on a red label Atlantic 45. My mint copy is a tad punchier than the LP version, which adds to the dance appeal. Groovin’ gospel fo sho!

  7. The 5th Dimension - Feelin’ Alright? « Funky16Corners Says:

    […] The skies here in NJ are dark and cloudy, but I honestly couldn’t care less. I expect to spend the weekend catching up with my wife and sons, and doing run of the mill, suburban errand running, laundry doing etcetera. I couldn’t be happier about it. As I said on Wednesday, I’ve taken advantage of my solitude to stockpile and digitize vinyl (individual tracks as well as future editions of Funky16Corners Radio), so – as unlikely as this sounds – I’ve got the vinyl monkey off my back (however briefly) and can concentrate on regular stuff for the first time in a while. I might even read a page or two if the opportunity presents itself. Anyway…today’s selection is a prime example of the power of a good song. I can’t imagine that when Dave Mason – sitting around with his pals in Traffic – penned ‘Feelin’ Alright’, he had even the slightest inkling that it would become something of a standard, recorded countless times by rock, soul and pop artists, from Joe Cocker to Grand Funk Railroad, to Lulu, to the Jackson Five to the Supremes. I also doubt he had any idea that not long after he recorded the song in 1968, he would be fired from the group he co-founded. Either way, one would hope that he recovered nicely and smiled as the royalty checks filled his mailbox to capacity. It was only recently that I accidentally discovered one of the unlikeliest contributors to Mason’s bank account was none other than the 5th Dimension. Now, I know that for a lot of folks (especially soul music fans), the name 5th Dimension doesn’t exactly conjure up images of hard hitting, gritty soul music. There’s a good reason for that, mainly that they were for all intents and purposes a pop group. If I were to find one of their contemporaries to compare them to, I’d probably point to the Mamas & Papas (the 5th Dimension even had one of their first hits with a cover of the Ms&Ps ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’). This is not to say that they were not at times a soulful collective. Though their bread and butter was covering singer/songwriters like Laura Nyro and Jim Webb, they also recorded one of the first covers of Ashford & Simpson’s ‘California Soul’. When I was a kid, despite the fact that I had piles and piles of jazz and classical music to listen to, I can only remember two contemporary pop albums in the house. One was Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and the other was ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ by the 5th Dimension. I used to play that album a LOT, and I remember years later, when I finally heard Marlena Shaw, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s versions of ‘California Soul’, and recalling how much I dug that song when I was 6 or 7 years old (not to suggest that I was preternaturally hip, but that sometimes youth and hipness do intersect accidentally). Anyway (again)…. A few months ago I was going through a pile of garage sale 45s that my father-in-law was kind enough to send my way, and managed to flip by a 5th Dimension 45, which just happened to have its b-side facing my way. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the flipside of ‘One Less Bell to Answer’ (a song that I could be comfortable NEVER hearing again) was a version of ‘Feelin’ Alright?’. Of course I had to give it a spin, and I’m glad I did. Despite the fact that the voice most people think of when they remember the 5th Dimension is Marilyn McCoo’s buttery smooth contralto (the sultry yin to Karen Carpenters yang), her husband Billy Davis had a fantastic, soulful growl that didn’t make it onto too many of their more popular records. Davis takes the lead on ‘Feelin’ Alright?’ and his vocal, the groups harmonies and a funky arrangement make for one of the better versions of the song. The overall feel is distinctly un-5th Dimension-ish, which may either be a good or bad thing, depending of course on the appeal to the individual listener of their other material (which I happen to dig). Interestingly enough, the record was arranged not only by Bob Alcivar and Bones Howe (their regular arranger/producer) but also by Bill Holman. Holman was/is a legendary jazz arranger (he did some great, progressive charts for Stan Kenton and Woody Herman among many others). When I see a name like that on a pop/soul record (as with Ralph Burns work on the Sweet Inspirations album) I wonder how many other jazz cats on that level were actually making the majority of their bread arranging pop sessions. […]

  8. Frank Hummelgaard Says:

    I got a inspiration that’s sweet, I heard that tune in the 60’ties and thought that the group didn’t exist anymore but i heard that the Sweet Inspiration were a backing group for Elvis Presley.

    I love that tune!

  9. O.P. Says:


  10. Joe Hankins Jr Says:

    The Inspiration were great and i first heard the song in 1968 while in Louisana with a dear friend i loved it

  11. Dave Ciarella Murray Says:

    Hi there inspriation, just thought I’d let you know my latest’s creation is up,
    called Who Said the King Is Gone, in the song I sing about Elvis and the inspriation and James Bordon, As the storey goes’ I went to one of the first
    Elvis on tour shows in England a while back , man it was amazing, the King
    was 40 foot high, just had to write a song about it, now I know my songs are
    strange, but that’s just me, I have the artists guys working on my cover for
    work in progress album, now should be finished in days, its going to be a
    strange concept album but hay, who wants to be like everyone else, not me, I am
    who i am, thanks for the support from
    I have heard my Elvis songs are getting played allover in the fan clubs and
    even on several radio stations. I will be contacting some fan clubs in England
    soon to get some gigs to promote my little album, I’l keep you updated, if
    there’ any would like me to gig there fan club with my songs about Elvis, i
    can be contacted on my site, check my new song out on

    cheers Dave

  12. Diz Harris Says:

    Can someone tell me how to contact Myrna Smith?

Comments are closed.

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