December 27, 2010 was not an easy day for soul music fans worldwide and certainly not for me. personally. Aside from the sudden and unexpected passing of Teena Marie, there was news of the passing also of Myrna Smith, one of the original members of The Sweet Inspirations.
From the first time I heard them in 1967, The Sweets were the ultimate in soulful, gospel-fused harmony. I loved others but the blend of Myrna, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell and Cissy Houston was unmatched and unparalleled. Even though I didn’t know it, I had been listening to these same voices on some of my favorite records before The Sweet Inspirations became a recording group in their own right. Various combinations – that initially included Myrna’s cousins Dionne Warwick and her sister Dee Dee, their adopted sister Judy Clay and my good friend Doris Troy – had sung behind countless great artists from the early ‘60s on.
It was only after Atlantic Records’ executive Jerry Wexler felt it was time for the quartet to step from the background to the foreground in 1967 that the music world became aware of the faces behind the voices on records by label stars like Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Esther Phillips and Ben E. King. I recall hearing the group’s first single, their rendition of a tune written by Pops Staples, “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?”. I was at the Monmouth Street location of Soul City, the shop I co-owned with Dave Godin and Robert Blackmore and bravely, Polydor Records – then licensees for Atlantic in Britain – had released the single in the UK. Of course, it meant little to anyone other than devotees of black female groups and hardcore soul fans who loved their music with passion and emotion, for The Sweets imbued the song with such soulful feeling that I was instantly hooked.
But a few months later, I remember ordering Atlantic SD 8155 from the importers in Florida who supplied Soul City with our weekly shipment. That catalogue number remains indelibly etched in my memory banks for when the self-titled Sweet Inspirations LP arrived, I was in soul heaven. Track for track – “Blues Stay Away From Me,” “Here I Am (Take Me),” “Oh! What A Fool I’ve Been” and of course, their big hit, “Sweet Inspiration” – the album was brilliant. My love affair with The Sweet Inspirations began in earnest.
The 1968 release of the album “What The World Needs Now Is Love” prompted a whistle-stop visit to Britain for a quick TV appearance while the group journeyed on to perform at a private party in Portugal for a millionaire! I dutifully went to the airport to meet them alongside the Atlantic Records rep at the time but our exchange was brief and it would be decades before I would see the group again.
By the time I did – in 1994 when I was responsible for the Ichiban Soul Classics “Best of The Sweet Inspirations” compilation – Cissy had long gone (leaving for a solo career in 1970) and the group had broken up and reformed with the addition of Portia Griffin. I recall meeting the ladies at Hamburger Hamlet, a famous dining spot in Los Angeles, while I shared news about the release of the CD. They were as thrilled as the late Luther Vandross who loved him some Sweet Inspirations and I recall giving him his own copy of the CD at a tribute to Dionne Warwick some months later.
In 2002, through the Ambassador Soul Classics label, I arranged for the reissue of four of the group‘s great Atlantic albums and that brought me back in touch with Myrna who was happy to share with me her recollections of the sessions for the liner notes. A year later, I gingerly called her to ask if she, Estelle and Portia – Sylvia by this time no longer performing due to ill health – would possibly even consider singing backgrounds on a few tracks for my own first album, “Reinvention.” When Myrna called back to say ‘yes,’ I was beside myself. The idea that I would have these incredible voices, voices that I had grown up, voices that had sung behind so many greats, on my own CD was mind-blowing!
True to form, the trio showed up at the Venice, California studio where the album was recorded and literally invented parts on the spot for a quartet of songs including a reworking of the standard “Cry Me A River,” Brazilian-style and a cover of Donny Hathaway’s “Tryin’ Times.” Seeing Myrna, Estelle and Portia in the same room with me, creating backgrounds for my own record was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. They brought their soulful magic to each tune and I was elated.
A few years later, the same trio agreed to perform at a Santa Monica benefit for The Rhythm & Blues Foundation. The rehearsals didn’t go quite as smoothly as we hoped and Myrna – always a character – became agitated. We prayed that the actual show would work out fine and when the three ladies turned up at the tiny McCabe’s club, they brought with them a surprise: Sylvia Shemwell, still dealing with health challenges, made an appearance, reuniting three of the four original members of The Sweet Inspirations to the delight of all present.
That was my very last encounter with Myrna and I remember that particular show with great fondness. I was so grateful to the ladies for giving their time to the Foundation but as important for me personally was the realization that I was in the presence of these soulful women whose music had been with me for decades.
I can’t say that I got to know Myrna well but I can say that I always e enjoyed speaking with her. Her contribution to the world of music – through countless tours with Estelle, Portia and earlier with Sylvia – in tribute to the late Elvis Presley (with whom The Sweet Inspirations worked for a number of years starting in 1969), through the group’s recordings for Atlantic, Stax and RSO, was priceless. While we mourn Myrna’s passing on December 26, 2010 through health problems, we remember her through the legacy of great soul music she left behind.
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.