The Sweet Inspirations
“Listen – Sweet Inspiration MP3″
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. .