During the 1960’s, the Atlantic label was a mecca for soul and rhythm & blues music. Dozens of artists including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Drifters, Percy Sledge, Arthur Conley, The Coasters, and dozens more churned out hit singles with regularity. That brings us to Cissy Houston, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Myrna Smith who were the regular in-house female backing session singers for the label and appeared on hundreds of tracks.
The four women became such a tight group that in 1967 Atlantic signed them to a recording contract and named them the Sweet Inspirations. Real Gone Music has now gathered all of their singles, a few album cuts, and a number of previously unreleased tracks and released it all under the title The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus. It all adds up to a generous 37 tracks.
The Sweet Inspirations had a sound that fused pop and soul. As with many girl groups, they built their songs through the use of harmony. Their voices created a wonderful pop sound which ran counter to the grittier nature of the lead vocals, especially when Cissy Houston took the lead, which moved everything back toward a traditional soul/R&B sound.
While the group members would write the occasional song, for the most part they covered popular tunes of the day. The Bee Gees “To Love Somebody,” old staples such as “Let It Be Me” and “Unchained Melody,” and the Pomus/Shuman composition “Sweets For My Sweet” were all released as A side singles. Each song is transformed from a pure pop piece into their unique blend of styles.
In some ways the B sides were as strong as the potential hit sides. Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” a smooth “I’m Blue,” and a soaring version of the Fifth Dimension’s “Light Sings” all return from the discard bin of music history.
The best of the previously unreleased tracks is a clever medley of “Little Green Apples/Think/Something” and a passionate take on the Bacharach/David hit “Make It Easy On Yourself.”
The question remains as to why the Sweet Inspirations were not more commercially successful. It may have been they straddled the line between pop and soul but did not really completely embrace either style. A more likely explanation is they continued to serve as session singers and were so good in that capacity that Atlantic did not really push their releases very hard.
They left Atlantic in 1970 but quickly landed on their feet as the backing female singers for Elvis Presley in the studio and on the road until his death.
The Sweet Inspirations is a very competent vocal group that does not come to mind very often. The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus is a fine overview of their career. It contains a lot of music worth exploring.