Cissy has sung behind countless superstars, from Elvis to Aretha, particularly during her stint as leader of the Sweet Inspirations. She's now out front again and here she brings B&S up-to-date with her current activities.
ALTHOUGH she may not be totally aware of it herself, Ms. Cissy Houston is many ways a legend in her own time. We've heard the phrase bandied about to describe countless folk but consider the facts: this lady's voice has enhanced the recordings of stars and superstars for over a decade.
Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Herbie Mann, Nina Simone, Garnet Mimms, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Esther Phillips, The Drifters, Bette Midler, Neil Diamond, Maxine Brown, Chuck Jackson, Paul Simon, Brook Benton, Dusty Springfield — the list is truly endless.
As the leader of The Sweet Inspirations, Cissy travelled across the world with the likes of Aretha and Elvis as well as enjoying considerable success with the group, with hits like "Sweet Inspiration", "Sweets For My Sweet", "Reach Out For Me" and "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)", all on Atlantic.
In fact, it was Jerry Wexler — then executive at Atlantic and producer of Aretha — who coined the name "Sweet Inspirations" for the premier group of back-up singers, who included in their ranks two of Cissy's nieces, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick and Judy Clay when the three ladies were at the very beginning of their careers. With Cissy as one of the true mainstays of the group, the Warwicks and Ms. Clay were also part of the renowned Drinkard Singers, whose gospel sound marked them as one of New Jersey's most prize vocal possessions.
Cissy has never left gospel, never left her roots and even today, she candidly admits that her first love is working with her own choir in Newark, New Jersey, known as the Radio Choir of the New Hope Baptist Church. But more about that later.
Cissy has a brand new album out on Private Stock Records but it isn't her first. She recorded for the defunct Commonwealth United Records back in the early Seventies after she split from The Sweet Inspirations and the album is a true classic, containing stunning versions of the old Ronettes' hit, "Be My Baby", "The Long & Winding Road" and a medley of "He — I Believe".
Cissy's solo recording career took her to Janus Records where she recorded several singles including the original of "Midnight Train To Georgia" but all without any really outstanding success. Consequently, her pacting to Private Stock — in fact, her return to working as a solo artiste period, was not something that she felt compelled to do.
"My previous experiences with record companies left me discouraged and disappointed. In fact, after the Janus experience, I had decided just to concentrate on doing background sessions and commercials." Indeed, Cissy's voice is one that can be heard frequently on U.S. television and radio and she even did a commercial especially for England several years back for the Texaco oil company.
"It was part of a master plan on my part to really deal with those avenues because frankly, there is so much hassle attached to being on the road and, all in all, you don't end up making that much money after you've paid your musicians and everyone. And when you do have records out, you do have to go on the road. So I decided to just leave that side of my career for the time being."
That is until producer Michael Zager approached Cissy about doing an album with him.
"I'd done several sessions with Michael and in fact we were doing one for an album for Roulette, The Love Child's Afro Cuban Band, when he suggested it I told him that if the terms were right, I might consider it. I needed something stable, something that I knew would work out. Anyway, we met with Larry Uttal at Private Stock and it seemed that all the things I wanted I could get there, so we started picking material."
Cissy's initial session in 1976 produced the single, "Love Is Something That Leads You" and a subsequent session resulted in another single, "Tomorrow" from the Broadway play, "Annie".
Cissy explains: "I knew the writer of the song and in fact, we did the original demo for it before the play even came out. And they gave us first preference on it, so we went ahead. When the show came out, it definitely helped spark a lot of interest in the record for me."
Cissy has very definite views in regard to material and she states: "I will not do any material that I can't feel. And there has never been a time when I've had to. Sure, there are some songs I like better than others, but I've never cut anything I didn't like. Because I have to be true to myself and I must relate to the song and what it means, which is why lyrics are so important to me.
"And the song has to allow me room to sing it my way, to build with it. You see, I have certain standards and I don't see it necessary to compromise them to make money.
"Don't get me wrong: I do want success for myself but I'm not willing to compromise or sell out my talent to get it."
Cissy admits that since she's kept busy with commercials and background work, it has helped her build a financial foundation so that she doesn't have to do just whatever comes along.
"Yes, it was all planned that way. Of course, doing commercials isn't easy work, either. You have to fit in with what the advertiser wants to say. There are some that I've particularly enjoyed, like one we have here for R.C. Cola. That one really gave me a chance to use my vocal style and it had a good story to it."
The lady admits to being very satisfied with her new album, stating: "I think it represents me well — the material reflects what I want to say. Take "Make It Easy On Yourself". That's a song that I've been doing in my act for some time and I always thought that we should capture the way I heard it, on record. And we've done it. Plus the company really seems to be behind the album and that naturally makes me feel good."
Will the album's strong sales mean that Cissy will be spending more time in performance? "Let's put it this way," she laughs, "I'm not a teenager anymore and I do have a family — my husband and three children, my eldest son is at college. So I don't want to be out there for a long time.
"But I have slowed down for the last couple of years so the way I see things, I will be picking up again and maybe for the immediate future, things will be a bit crazy. But after that, I'll probably slow down even more! But I don't see a day coming when I'll completely quit doing commercials and sessions."
Meanwhile, in between everything else, Cissy has been steadily working with her choir. "We featured them on one cut on the album — "Your Song" — and there are sixty people in all.
"Yes, that was the first time I've ever worked with that many people in the studio at the same time! But working with the choir is really fulfilling. It's very gratifying to work with people, to teach them.
"Originally, we started out with maybe just fourteen or fifteen people. Now, we cover all age groups. It takes a lot of work because you're really cultivating voices — lay voices, people who haven't been in the business, who don't necessarily read or write music. And it's a challenge. I really love it!
"In fact. I am the Minister of Music at the church in Newark but I have to add that some people have gotten confused — that doesn't mean I'm a preacher or that I've been ordained — it just means that I'm in charge of the music there."
Yet one more activity that's been keeping Cissy busy of late involves giving private vocal tuition. Now before everyone rushes off letters c/o Blues & Soul, we should explain that Cissy only teaches three or four students in all!
She explains: "I used to give lessons way back before 1967 when the Sweet Inspirations 'officially' came into being. But then things just got too busy. Since I've been appearing down at Reno Sweeney's here in New York, I've had a lot of people come up to me to ask if I'd give lessons. I had just a little time so I decided to say yes.
"Basically, what I try and teach are things like breathing — which is extremely important and is something that an amazing number of people don't even think about. Then, delivery and above all, getting people to 'feel' things. It's all about being able to convey what you feel through your voice. And that's the hardest part of it.
"So far, I've had four students and one of them is now ready for a recording contract and so on."
For those who may wonder, Cissy indicates that she worked at strengthening her voice to the point where she can reach those truly stratospheric notes.
"Very early in life, I realized that in order to be able to maintain my voice, I would have to continually practice. After all, your voice is another muscle and if it isn't used properly, it won't work."
Cissy concludes when reviewing what has been a prestigious career to date that one of the highlights was performing an opera in San Francisco a couple of years back.
"We did an opera entitled "Gospel Muse" by Carmen Moore, with one of the world's leading conductors. It was something I'd always wanted to do and we did it for four nights. Yes, it was definitely hard work but we're hoping to maybe stage it here in New York for just one night."
Meanwhile, Cissy is going to continue to be one of the most sought after session singers, one of the most listened to voices anywhere and, the way it looks, a hit recording artiste to boot.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.