‘Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia’ — The perfect Sweet Inspirations playlist

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The Sweet Inspirations were one of the premier female harmony groups of the 1960s, supporting Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, and Wilson Pickett. Their most unified album statement is 1973's “Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia.” Produced by David Porter [songwriting partner of Isaac Hayes], the LP was recorded at the nadir of Stax Records’ influence on popular music and received little support from the label. Stick around as their greatest hits and essential songs are also dissected. Holding two red roses apiece and wearing white evening gowns above are Estelle Brown, Myrna Smith, and Sylvia Shemwell. Art Direction by Ron Gorden / Concord Music Group / FECC Elvis-Collectors user Dr. John Carpenter

In 1973 the Sweet Inspirations, one of the premier vocal harmony quartets of the 20th century best known for supporting Elvis Presley in concert, decamped to Stax Studios in Memphis for the recording of their criminally neglected soul masterpiece, Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia.

The group came to prominence during the late ’60s, largely uncredited for backing scores of artists, regardless of genre classification, with a wholly original melding of pop, gospel, and soul sensibilities. The soul sisters were acknowledged with a long-awaited induction into the R&B Hall of Fame in 2014.

Led by Whitney Houston’s mother, first soprano Cissy Houston, the Sweets lent their sublime vocals to hit recordings by Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, The Rascals, Dusty Springfield, the Bee Gees, and one straight out of left field in the aughts — the Killers.

Their very own recording contract with Atlantic Records, chiefly due to their pioneering contributions to Franklin’s hit singles such as “[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Chain of Fools,” arrived at the dawn of 1967.

Inexplicably, the aptly titled “Sweet Inspiration” became their only major single, rising to No. 18 pop and No. 5 R&B in March 1968. Other minor hits included a gorgeous, near a capella rendition of “Let It Be Me”, “Why [Am I Treated So Bad]”, and “[Gotta Find] A Brand New Lover.”

An eight-year association with Presley soon supplanted their stalled solo career, ultimately becoming their calling card decades later. Houston, second soprano Myrna Smith, alto Estelle Brown, and second tenor Sylvia Shemwell first joined Presley in July 1969 without an audition, as the singer had become quite enamored with the “Sweet Inspiration” single. Debuting during his triumphant return to live performances in Las Vegas, the Sweets performed at all of the King of Rock and Roll’s live dates until his untimely passing in 1977 and became a trusted part of his inner circle.

Perhaps their most underrated, unified statement as an album is Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia, the group’s second LP created after Houston opted to go solo and focus on raising her children. Produced by David Porter and Ronnie Williams, the former is best known to classic soul fans as one-half of the legendary songwriting/production team spearheaded by Isaac Hayes.

Signed to Stax Records at the beginning of 1973, the project was recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis in late February and March, immediately after Presley wrapped up his historic Aloha From Hawaii special and latest engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton on February 23. Incidentally, five months later Presley made his debut sojourn to the studio, possibly under the subliminal suggestion of the Sweets, tackling a trio of albums tracked through the end of the year highlighted by the funky, horn-driven “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and a blazing cover of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”.

Consisting of nine tracks — half run past the five-minute mark — largely written by Porter and Williams, the album opens with shimmering one-note piano chords signaling “Wishes and Dishes”, a smoking R&B ballad with a haunting lead vocal from Shemwell. The Presley connection continues as the Sweets name check a “little TLC (Tender Loving Care)”, a term of endearment emblazoned on the necklaces given by the King to his closest female friends. A tight rhythm section and an overdubbed string section anchor the track, too.

An exemplary ballad is the syncopated “You Roam When You Don’t Get It at Home”, later sampled by rap artists Ghostface Killah and Diddy, respectively. The song is an early example of the quiet storm slow jams which became mainstays of R&B several years, popularized by Barry White and Luther Vandross.

“Slipped and Tripped” was dropped as the lone single from the album. The inventive, catchy chorus, accentuated by the Memphis Horns and a chicken scratch electric rhythm guitar part, along with Shemwell’s defiant, sassy attitude, should have resulted in a major hit single, but Stax’s inner turmoil and imminent bankruptcy hindered sales, and the song failed to chart. Without question, the funky “Slipped and Tripped” is worthy of rediscovery.

“All It Takes Is You and Me” follows a slow groove with some in-the-pocket bass playing. “Call Me When All Else Fails” especially resembles the group’s gospel roots with tight three-part harmony and some perfectly integrated piano and organ. On “The Whole World Is Out”, Smith’s angelic soprano reaches high notes that fall somewhere above the stratosphere.

“Pity Yourself” is a joint, upbeat songwriting effort among the Sweets. Kudos to the cinematic string section courtesy of the Memphis Symphony and the deliberately rising-in-the-mix organ. The party vibe nearly masks Shemwell’s animosity towards those female friends who unwisely question her relationship with her significant other. “Emergency” is probably the poppiest number on the record and is basically a throwaway performance.

The production of Porter and Williams — drums, sustained dual guitar interplay, horns, and strings — on the final six and a half minute song, “Why Marry”, is astounding. Why it is not more widely known to the record-buying public remains a mystery, although in 2010 Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Method Man recognized its brilliance and sampled it on their hip hop track “Criminology 2.5”.

Smith takes over lead vocals and ponders what may have been controversial lines in 1973: “Walking on my way, heard somebody say, why marry? I’m in love with you, you’re in love with me, so why marry? Daddy proudly gives me away, wedding and best man, champagne and cake, oh the love affair ended when we said ‘I do.’”

Just after the four-minute mark, the musical accompaniment ceases, except for bells and soft strings. Shemwell delivers a spoken word passage where she laments the state of the protagonist’s dying marriage. Complex three-part vocals then convey the chorus again and again over a faintly mixed instrumental passage. Definitely a track that stands comfortably alongside their greatest recording, “Sweet Inspiration.”

Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia was the act’s second and final album to chart on Billboard, stopping at №60 on the R&B charts in September 1973 after pitiful promotion from Stax. Re-released in 1991, it is still in-print and available for $7 on Amazon. Thoroughly recommended.

“Dirty Tricks”, an infectious, rockin’ ode to the ramifications of Watergate co-written by Smith, appeared the following year as a stand alone single. It quickly sank into oblivion, and Stax terminated the Sweets’ recording contract.

Hot Butterfly, a further one-off album for Robert Stigwood’s RSO Records — the impresario managed the Bee Gees, who asked the Sweets to briefly tour with them — generated publicity when it appeared in 1979. Unfortunately, the disco fad was in full bloom, and the style was ill-suited to the group’s traditional sensibilities. The album was universally panned by critics.

Smith eventually became the Sweets’ de facto leader after she married Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling. During the early stages of the couple’s courtship in 1976, Presley invited Smith to become the only Sweet to sing on his studio recordings, including the latter-day hits “Hurt,” “For the Heart,” “Moody Blue,” and “Way Down.” When Beach Boys leader Carl Wilson briefly went solo in the early ’80s, Smith also served as his primary co-writer on the Carl Wilson and Youngblood albums, respectively.

Multifaceted vocalist Portia Griffin officially joined the group in 1994. Some three years later the Sweets began performing globally with Elvis: The Concert, a show reuniting Presley’s original TCB Band. Shemwell suffered a debilitating stroke in 2001 and was forced off the road, passing away some nine years later.

A few months after Shemwell’s passing, Smith became ill during an Elvis: The Concert tour stop in London, initially citing pneumonia and exhaustion. While in the hospital, Smith suffered a stroke and was forced to undergo kidney dialysis. She sadly died on Christmas Eve 2010 of kidney failure. With Brown serving as the only original member, the Sweets continue to tour with Elvis tribute artists such as Shawn Klush.

What follows is a complete discography for the Sweets’ charted singles on Billboard, including essential deep cuts that Atlantic relegated to studio albums. In other words, here is the perfect Sweet Inspirations playlist — guaranteed.

The Complete Billboard Hit Singles

  1. Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” [No. 57 POP, No. 36 R&B May 1967, The Sweet Inspirations]
  2. Let It Be Me” [No. 94 POP, No. 13 R&B July 1967, The Sweet Inspirations]
  3. Sweet Inspiration” [No. 18 POP, No. 5 R&B February 1968, The Sweet Inspirations]
  4. To Love Somebody” [No. 74 POP, No. 30 R&B June 1968, What the World Needs Now Is Love]
  5. Unchained Melody” [No. 73 POP, No. 41 R&B August 1968, What the World Needs Now Is Love]
  6. What the World Needs Now Is Love” [No. 128 POP November 1968, What the World Needs Now Is Love]
  7. Crying in the Rain” [No. 112 POP, No. 42 R&B March 1969, Sweets for My Sweet]
  8. (Gotta Find) A Brand New Lover” [No. 117 POP, No. 25 R&B December 1969, Sweet Sweet Soul]
  9. This World” [No. 123 POP, No. 45 R&B July 1970, B-side only of “Light Sings”]
  10. Evidence” [No. 44 R&B, A-side only March 1971]
  11. “Love Is on the Way” [No. 104 POP, No. 26 Club Play June 1979, Hot Butterfly]

Essential Singles and Deep Tracks

  1. When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” [B-side only of “Let It Be Me,” July 1967]
  2. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” [B-side only of “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” August 1967]
  3. Oh! What a Fool I’ve Been” [A-side October 1967, The Sweet Inspirations]
  4. Do Right Woman — Do Right Man” [A-side December 1967, The Sweet Inspirations]
  5. Sweets for My Sweets” [A-side June 1969, Sweets for My Sweet]
  6. Chained” [A-side July 1969, Sweets for My Sweet]
  7. That’s the Way My Baby Is” [B-side of “At Last I Found a Love” March 1970, Sweet Sweet Soul]
  8. Flash in the Pan” [B-side of “Them Boys” May 1970, Sweet Sweet Soul]
  9. Slipped and Tripped” [A-side October 1973, Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia]
  10. Why Marry” [Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia]
  11. Dirty Tricks” [A-side only April 1974, final Stax single]
  12. “Do It Right” [Hot Butterfly, 1979]

All of the above tracks can be downloaded via iTunes or Amazon, except “Do It Right” and “Love Is on the Way.” The latter two are only available on the original vinyl Hot Butterfly 1979 album. However, low quality MP3’s, ripped from the vinyl, are floating around on the Internet as torrents or via YouTube videos which can be converted by resourceful folks into audio files by a site like Vubey.

For $26, listening enthusiasts who prefer to actually hold physical liner notes and hear higher resolution files can revel in the expertly compiled The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus, unleashed in 2014 as a 37-track, two-CD set — also available in MP3 — from Real Gone Music, a “a reissue label dedicated to serving both the collector community and the casual music fan with a robust release schedule combining big-name artists with esoteric cult favorites.”

© Jeremy Roberts, 2013, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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