The Sweet Inspirations : Elvis Presley's Backup Group 1969-1977

By: David Troedson / Red Kelly
Source: Elvis Australia
December 15, 2016

The Sweet Inspirations

The Sweet Inspirations were founded by 'Cissy' Houston (Born Emily Drinkard, married to Gary Houston at age 21 for two years) mother of Whitney Houston, and sister of Lee Warrick (herself the mother of well-known sisters, Myrna Smith's cousins Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick). Emily and Lee were members of The Drinkard Singers, a family group that had the distinction of recording the first Gospel album to appear on a major label: A live recording from The Newport Jazz Festival in 1959. The line-up included Judy Guions (who later became Judy Clay), Marie Epps, Larry Drinkard, Nicholas Drinkard, Ann Moss, Lee and Emily. (See, I Will Always Love You).

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio Listen to 'Sweet Inspiration' (02:56)

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The Sweet Inspirations had evolved from the Gospelaires group. This original backup group that was so in demand among producers, publishers, artists, and songwriters in the early '60s included Myrna's cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, Doris Troy and Judy Guions (later Judy Clay). With both Doris and Dionne enjoying solo careers with hits (Just One Look and Don't Make Me Over respectively, both of which the 'Sweet Inspirations' can be heard on) in 1963. At that time, Sylvia Shemwell (sister of Judy Clay) replaced Doris; while Cissy Houston took over from Dionne, with Dee Dee Warwick as the group's official leader. The group sang backup for many stars, including Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Esther Phillips and Aretha Franklin. Dee Dee left in 1965 when her solo career began to take off. She was replaced by Myrna Smith. Estelle Brown joined the team soon after, and the line-up that was to become an Atlantic recording group was set.

'The Sweet Inspirations' CD.The Sweet Inspirations continued to work as sessions singers during this period, appearing on classic cuts by artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin (Chain of Fools), Dusty Springfield (Son of a Preacher Man), Van Morrison (Brown Eyed Girl) and Jimi Hendrix (Burning of the Midnight Lamp).

First 'Solo' Recording

The Sweet Inspirations recorded by themselves for the first time in April 1967 for Atlantic Records. That session produced the first two singles released by Atlantic, a version of Why (Am I Treated So Bad), a song previously recorded by 'The Staple Singers' and a soulful version of Let It Be Me, a French song which had been a pop and R&B hit for Betty Everett & Jerry Butler in 1964. Though their first singles lacked much chart success, Atlantic was committed to the group, and an August session in Memphis yielded the bulk of songs used for the group's self-titled debut album, released in the late fall of 1967. The groups most successful song was Sweet Inspiration, which was cut during a two-day session at American Sound in Memphis in August 1967. The track hit number five on the R&B chart and was a top 20 pop hit. The song also caught Elvis Presley's attention.

Within a month of their chart climb, the group began work on their second album - a gospel record entitled Songs Of Faith & Inspiration. It was released in 1968 under the name 'Cissy Drinkard & The Sweet Inspirations'. Cissy's last recording session with 'The Sweet Inspirations' was in October 1969, since she wanted to pursue a solo career and concentrate on her family. The session produced the group's biggest R&B hit in some time. A Gamble & Huff composition, Gotta Find Me A Brand New Lover.

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio Listen to 'Knock On Wood' (02:22)

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Elvis Presley

As stated above, the song Sweet Inspiration caught Elvis' attention, however it was the group, The Blossoms, who backed Elvis on his '68 Comeback Special that was first choice for his 1969 return to the stage in Las Vegas. When they were unable to come to Vegas because of prior commitments, Elvis didn't hesitate; he signed the 'Sweets' with no audition required. The Sweet Inspirations met him when they arrived for the first rehearsals for the '69 engagement. The 'Sweets' worked with Elvis in Vegas, on his national concert tours and on recordings from 1969 to 1977. Myrna Smith also backed Elvis up during his 1976 Graceland recordings, both in February of that year and in the October/November sessions, resulting in two albums.

The Original Sweet Inspirations 
Clockwise from top. The Sweet Inspirations 1969: Sylvia Shemwell, Cissy Houston, Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown.

Fighting Racism

Elvis demonstrated his desire for racial reconciliation in the musicians he chose, and in the treatment they received. When he made his first appearance in texas at the Astrodome, according to Myrna Smith, Elvis was told, 'Well, you can leave the black girls home. You don't have to bring them'.

Myna Smith: Elvis responded with, 'Well if they don't come, I don't come'. But he was really upset about it. There was one person in particular who had sent the message. So when we got there, we were greeted by this little blonde in a convertible and she had to drive us around and she was his daughter. So Elvis always made sure he got even. I'm sure he said, 'And I want your daughter to drive them'.

A Little Deeper: They were bigger than you might have known !!!

When Emily 'Cissy' Drinkard was five years old, she began singing in a family Gospel group called The Drinkard Singers. Originally from Savannah, Georgia, the Drinkards moved to New Jersey in the early fifties. Emily's older sister, Lee, served as the manager of the group, which soon got noticed by Mahalia Jackson. In 1951, they would appear with Jackson, Clara Ward, and Rosetta Tharpe at a sold-out Carnegie Hall, after which they would record a few singles for Savoy, in addition to broadcasting live from Symphony Hall in New Jersey every Sunday. Lee, who was the mother of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, had also adopted another daughter named Judy Guions (who would later become known as Judy Clay). Judy joined the group, along with Ann Moss and Marie Epps, and their appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival introduced them to a wider audience. After being included on a 'Newport Spiritual Stars' compilation in 1954, their performances at the festival were always well attended. When they brought down the house at the 1957 festival, they were signed to RCA on the spot, and they released the critically acclaimed 'A Joyful Noise' the following year.

Cissy, meanwhile, was also the director of the Gospelaires, the young people's choir at her church, New Hope Baptist, in Newark. Both Dionne and Dee Dee were members, as was their cousin Myrna Smith and Judy's sister, Sylvia Shemwell. The Gospelaires began appearing publicly with The Drinkard Singers, and their talents were soon recognized by the local record companies, who began using the girls as background vocalists on sessions, the first being the Burt Bacharach penned Mexican Divorce with 'The Drifters' in 1961. Bacharach, of course, would go on to make history with Dionne at Scepter, while Dee Dee and Judy Clay embarked on solo careers themselves shortly thereafter. I don't think you can say enough about the importance of these ladies' vocals to the phenomenal 'New York Soul' records that were being produced in and around the city in the early sixties. In addition to the work they were doing at Atlantic (basically taking the place of The Cookies who, as The Raelettes, had moved on when Brother Ray did in 1960), they would also back folks like Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown for Wand, and become an integral part of the 'session scene' in town. Perhaps the most striking example of their contributions during this period is their uncredited mind-blowing appearance behind Garnet Mimms on Cry Baby in 1963. Justly acknowledged as the groundbreaking, chart-topping tour de force it is, it's hard to imagine what this legendary Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy production would sound like without the girls from Newark. Berns would go on to use them on just about every record he cut from then on, most notably on the subsequent string of hits he produced on Solomon Burke for Atlantic.

Somewhere around in here, Sylvia cut a one-off single that was released on Philips in 1963, He'll Come Back. Written by Van McCoy and arranged by Teacho Wiltshire, it's become quite the favorite with Northern Soul fans, and will set you back about $250 if you can find a copy. As far as we can tell, it's the only record Sylvia would make as a solo artist.

When Jerry Wexler signed Aretha in early 1967, he brought in Cissy (now going by her married name of Houston) to sing background with Franklin's sisters Erma and Carolyn on the timeless 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)' LP. Just prior to that, Cissy had sung with the rest of her group (which now included Estelle Brown) on 'King Curtis Plays The Great Memphis Hits'. It was Wexler who dubbed them 'The Sweet Inspirations' and, as he said in the book, 'Rhythm and the Blues', they 'they became one of the pillars of the Atlantic Church of Sixties Soul ... ultimately it was only a matter of common decency to put them under contract as a featured group'. Which is just what he did, producing their first sessions for the company himself, just a week after they finished up work on the Aretha album.

Chosen as their first Atlantic release, their phenomenal version of Pops Staples' 1965 Civil Rights anthem Why (Am I treated So Bad) would break into the R&B top 40 (and even hit #57 on the Hot 100) during the Summer of Love. The follow-up, Let It Be Me, which had been recorded at those same New York sessions, did even better, just missing the R&B top ten. They would provide the background vocals that June as they were recording Aretha's 'Lady Soul' (that's them on Chain Of Fools!!), and would become closely allied with her for the rest of her tenure at Atlantic. When the label decided it needed more material to complete an LP on 'The Sweets', as they were informally known, they sent them down with Tom Dowd to American Sound in Memphis. Wexler had been one of Chips Moman's first customers and had already cut Esther Phillips, King Curtis and Wilson Pickett at the studio. During a sweltering two day session in late August of 1967, Dowd and Tommy Cogbill would produce some of the studio's finest work, not only on the Sweet Inspirations but on King Curtis and Don Covay as well. As the story goes, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham got up off the couch, wrote a song for The Sweets, and cut it themselves while Dowd and the rest of the Atlantic crew went to lunch.

Sweet Inspiration: A Monster Hit

Sweet Inspiration
Sweet Inspiration
Released as the first single from the album, that song, Sweet Inspiration, became a monster hit (top 5 R&B, top 20 Pop) in early 1968. Check out the ad [Below] that Atlantic ran in Billboard that March. Talk about cooking on all burners! Note Sylvia's sister Judy Clay right there alongside her... very cool! This rockin' selection we have here today was released as the flip of that single, and features some more 'in the pocket' work from the American Group behind their awesome vocal interplay. Written by Ike Turner, the original Ikettes version had been a hit for ATCO back in 1962. This one's better, I think... 'The Sweets' would continue to chart that summer, covering hits like To Love Somebody and Unchained Melody, as well as singing on records by Aretha, Solomon Burke, and Billy Vera and Judy Clay.

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio The original Sweet Inspiration Song (02:44)

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The ad that Atlantic ran in Billboard.
The ad that Atlantic ran in Billboard.

All of which kind of makes Atlantic's decision to cut a Gospel album on them at the height of their success kind of strange. 'Songs of Faith and Inspiration' by 'Cissy Drinkard & The Sweet Inspirations' would be released in the summer of 1968, right in between 'Tighten Up' by Archie Bell & the Drells and The Midnight Mover by Wilson Pickett. I guess you have to give Wexler credit, I mean he knew that Gospel was their first love, and he let them sing it... They would also overdub their unbelievable background vocals in New York that summer when Atlantic brought back the tapes that they had recorded with Dusty Springfield at American in Memphis. Just listen to Son of a Preacher Man sometime and you get the idea of how important the Sweet Inspirations were to the Atlantic Sound. I don't think they've received nearly enough credit for that.

Cissy Drinkard Houston, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shemwell and Estelle Brown.
'The Sweet Inspirations', four girls from New York, are in Britain to promote their latest recording hit, What the World Needs Now.
They are, left to right: Cissy Drinkard Houston, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shemwell and Estelle Brown.

Elvis, emboldened by his own American Studio recordings that had put him back in the top ten in 1969, Elvis decided to return to performing in public. His engagement that christened The International Hotel in Vegas that July would mark his first appearance in over eight years. He could have chosen anybody to sing with him, but he chose The Sweet Inspirations. Deep down inside, he knew the deal. The Sweets provided his shows with some much-needed soul, and I think he appreciated that. They would sing behind him for the rest of his life.

The Sweet Inspirations LP.
The Sweet Inspirations LP.
Tom Dowd had accompanied the ladies down to Fame in Muscle Shoals and cut the brilliant Sweets For My Sweet in early 1969, and the single they chose to release from the LP, 'Crying In the Rain' (a cover of the Everly Brothers hit) would just miss the R&B top forty. This is really a great album and captures the fabled 'second rhythm section' at the height of their powers. The Sweets were still singing backup for everybody from Yusef Lateef to 'the Rascals' for the label, and Wexler even brought them down to work with Pickett and 'Cold Grits' at 'Atlantic South' in Miami.

At the end of the year, The Sweets would record Sweet Sweet Soul with Ugene Dozier and Thom Bell at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, and (Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover would become their biggest hit since Sweet Inspiration in early 1970. Two more singles released from the LP failed to chart, however, and Cissy Houston left the group shortly after that. Although they would hit the R&B chart twice more for the label, by 1971, with Wexler now merely an employee and the Warner owned company's focus shifting to acts like Led Zeppelin, Derek & the Dominoes and Crosby, Stills and Nash, they chose not to renew The Sweets' contract in 1972.

The Sweet Inspirations
The Sweet Inspirations.

Unbowed, they would sign with Stax (a company where it was still okay to be Black) as a trio in 1973. Despite excellent songwriting and production from David Porter and Ronnie Williams, 'Slipped and Tripped', the 45 released from Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia failed to dent the charts. One more single that didn't do much would follow in 1974 and, when Stax went under the following year, they took their contract with them. Through this, they were still performing with Elvis. When he died on August 16, 1977, The Sweet Inspirations were scheduled to perform with him in Portland, Maine the following evening ...

In 1978, The Sweet Inspirations sang background on Frankie Valli's number one smash, Grease (!), which had been written and produced by Barry Gibb and released on RSO records. In 1979, after Estelle Brown left the group, they were asked by The Bee Gees to go on tour with them and signed by Robert Stigwood to RSO. Pat Terry would take Estelle's place on their disco flavored album, Hot Butterfly, which didn't sell much - probably due to the fact that the company had overextended itself by then, and was busy fighting off a lawsuit from those self-same Brothers Gibb. By mutual agreement, the girls broke up later that year.

In 1994, original members Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia reformed 'The Sweet Inspirations', adding a fourth singer, Portia Griffin. They began performing again and were in demand by the legions of Elvis fans who had seen them in the seventies with the King, in addition to the Soul intelligentsia overseas, where they retained a huge following. In 2001, Sylvia suffered a stroke which left her unable to perform. The group continued on, however, and recorded their first album in 25 years, 'In'the Right Place', in 2005.

Sylvia Shemwell died February 13, 2010. 
Myrna Smith died December 24, 2010.

Myrna Smith

Born in Newark, New Jersey. Myrna Smith began singing at the age of five she when she sang Jesus Loves Me with her father's gospel group, on 'The Sons of Harmony Radio Show'. By the time she was 8 years old, she was singing in a youth group called C.H. Walters Choir. She became a high school English teacher in South Brunswick, New Jersey in the 1960s, while she also pursued her singing career.

She later became the lead singer of The Sweet Inspirations, and in 1969, Myrna began her eight-year association with Elvis Presley when the 'Sweet Inspirations' were chosen as his opening act and backing singers for his engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The Sweet Inspirations appeared with Elvis in more than 1,000 concerts and featured in the concert movies 'That's The Way It Is' and 'Elvis On'tour', as well as the television specials 'Aloha from Hawaii' and 'Elvis in Concert'.

Myrna was still making records with the Sweet Inspirations during her period with Elvis, but with limited commercial success. However, following Elvis' tragic death, they backed Frankie Valli on his number one single 'Grease'. They also toured with the Bee Gees and released the disco album 'Hot Butterfly' in this period, but with the record achieving limited success the group decided to break up.

After years apart, the Sweet Inspirations reformed in 1994 and continued to perform up until recently.

The Elvis association in particular assured them regular work, including touring with the 'Elvis: The Concert' show, which featured Elvis on screen and his original backing band playing live.

Myrna was a great soul singer whose voice was featured on some of the finest records of the second half of the 20th century. She was married previously to Jerry Schilling from 1982-1987.

'The Sweet Inspirations' CD.Presumably, Elvis' decision to have The Sweet Inspirations join him as part of his band must have been based partly on the strength of this album.

No wonder that he used to have them open his concerts.

By the way, I'm writing this with the album playing away. Really, really, like it. Really, really recommend it. I really, really want to get their other studio albums. Buy it ...

Track listing

  1. Oh! What a Fool I've Been
  2. Blues Stay Away from Me
  3. Don't Let Me Lose This Dream
  4. Knock on Wood
  5. Do Right Woman - Do Right Man
  6. Don't Fight It
  7. Sweet Inspiration
  8. Let It Be Me
  9. I'm Blue
  10. Reach Out for Me
  11. Here I Am (Take Me)
  12. Why Am I Treated So Bad

Articles about Elvis Presley Interview with Myrna Smith
Elvis Presley Video Cissy Houston Remembers Elvis Presley.
Articles about Elvis Presley Elvis Presley and Racism: The Ultimate, Definitive Guide

Discography :

Year : Title : Label

1967 : Sweet Inspirations : Atlantic
1968 : Songs of Faith & Inspiration : Atlantic
1969 : Sweets for my Sweet : Atlantic
1969 : What the World Needs Now is Love : Atlantic
1970 : Sweet Sweet Soul : Atlantic
1973 : The Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia : Stax
1979 : Hot Butterfly : RSO

Albums :

Peak : Title : Chart Label : Year

#12 : The Sweet Inspirations :Black albums : 1968
#90 The Sweet Inspirations : Pop albums :1968

Singles :

Peak : Title : Chart : Year

#13 : Let It Be Me : R&B|Black singles : 1967
#94 : Let It Be Me Pop singles : 1967
#36 : Why (Am I Treated so Bad) : Black singles : 1967
#57 : Why (Am I Treated so Bad) : Pop singles : 1967
#5 : Sweet Inspiration : Black singles : 1968
#18 : Sweet Inspiration : Pop singles : 1968
#30 : To Love Somebody : Black singles : 1968
#74 : To Love Somebody : Pop singles : 1968
#41 : Unchained Melody : Black singles : 1968
#73 : Unchained Melody : Pop singles 1968
#42 Crying in the Rain Black singles : 1969
#25 : A Brand New Lover : Black singles : 1970
#44 : Evidence : Black singles : 1971
#26 : Love is on the Way : Club Play singles : 1979
#34 : Celebration : Hot Dance music/Club Play : 2005

Articles about Elvis Presley Interview with Myrna Smith
Elvis Presley Video Cissy Houston Remembers Elvis Presley.
Articles about Elvis Presley Elvis Presley and Racism : The Ultimate, Definitive Guide


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