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The Sweet Inspirations were founded by Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney Houston, and sister of Lee Warrick (herself the mother of well-known sisters 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.
The original backup group that was so in demand among producers, publishers, artists, and songwriters in the early ▒60’s included Doris Troy and the two Warwick sisters, with both Doris and Dionne enjoying solo careers with hits ("Just One Look" and "Don’t Make Me Over" respectively) 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 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.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."
Shortly after cutting the gospel set, the group was back in Atlantic’s studios to record their third album. The late April session yielded a version of The Bee Gees’ "To Love Somebody", which became the group’s fourth R&B; chart hit, and a version of The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody," which surprisingly gave the group a charted, though minor hit.
In 1968, The Sweet Inspirations began working with Elvis Presley as both background singers and his warm-up act, as well as doing occasional ▒live’ dates with Aretha Franklin.
The Sweet Inspirations’ fourth album was recorded in February 1969 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section, who had played on hit recordings by a number of acts including Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and Clarence Carter.
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" appeared on the group’s fifth album (Sweet Sweet Soul).
The remainder of the album was recorded in November 1970, with Sylvia, Estelle, Myrna and new member Ann Williams, a friend of Estelle’s who stayed for what turned out to be the group’s last full Atlantic album. Also included from that set are "That’s The Way My Baby Is", and "Flash In The Pan". Anne disappeared during a tour with Elvis Presley and did not return to the group.
A final Atlantic session in June 1970 brought the group (now a trio with Estelle, Myrna, and Sylvia) its last two singles for the label: "This World" (from the musical "The Me Nobody Knows"), and "Evidence".
In 1973, Estelle, Myrna, and Sylvia recorded an album for Stax Records. By 1979, Estelle had quit the group and was replaced by Gloria Brown, who toured with them but didn’t sing on The Sweet Inspirations’ last LP, Hot Butterfly, on RSO, with singer Pat Terry featured on the actual recording. They group broke up shortly thereafter.
In 1978, the group sang backing vocals on Frankie Valli's No.1 hit "Grease" from the film of the same name.
The Sweet Inspirations (Estelle, Myrna and Sylvia) got back together again in 1994, with new member Portia Griffin. They perform at Elvis Presley tribute shows and are set to release new material in 2005. Sylvia suffered a stroke in 2001 that has kept her from performing with the group.
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