The origin of the group lies in the Drinkard Singers, whose existing members remain an important and leading attraction in the gospel field. From their ranks came DIONNE and DEE DEE WARWICK, their 'adopted' sister, JUDY CLAY, and Mrs. Warwick Sr.'s sister, EMILY (CISSY) HOUSTON. Dee Dee was instrumental in forming the session group, when in 1962 she appeared with Dionne at short notice to replace two girls on the bill at Harlem's Apollo Theater.
The back-up group was originally known as Dee Dee and her girls and in addition to Dee Dee, Dionne, Judy and Cissy there was Sylvia Shemwell (Judy Clay's sister) and somewhere along the way, Doris Troy. From 1962 on, the group recorded with practically every major r&b artist in New York and were frequently called upon to travel across the country for just one session. The list of artists they backed is far too long to reprint here – it includes Wilson Pickett (it's Emily Houston who duets with him on his Midnight Hour album), Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Esther Phillips, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin (on her New York-cut Columbia sessions), Lou Johnson, Garnet Mimms and the Drifters.
It was on a Drifters' session in 1964, during the waxing of 'Mexican Divorce' in fact, that composer Burt Bacharach singled out DIONNE WARWICK and asked her to cut a demo on one of his compositions, 'Make It Easy On Yourself' – shortly afterwards a hit for Jerry Butler. Dionne obliged and the rest is history. She signed with Scepter Records in New York (for whom she had worked as a session singer with the other girls on discs by Maxine Brown, Chuck Jackson and The Shirelles) and began a phenomenal career which has made her a star of international fame. Since most people are aware of Dionne's achievements – her string of chart successes would last for several lines, likewise a list of her successful live engagements – we can add little but that she emerged as the most successful, if not the most soul-slanted of the original group.
With Dionne's departure, the group continued their ever-busy schedule, frequently featuring on as many as three sessions a day for five days running! DEE DEE, still leading the group, then cut some solo sides for Tiger and then Jubilee. For the latter company, she did the original of 'You're No Good', later a national hit for Betty Everett. And for the record, it was Dee Dee who first recorded 'I Who Have Nothing' for Hurd Records, later to become a standard via Ben E. King and Shirley Bassey! Dee Dee continued to take part in the backing sessions, right up until 1965 when she signed with Blue Rock Records, the r&b wing of Mercury. Her first disc with the company – 'Do It With All Your Heart' was a regional breakout in many parts of the States, but failed to register nationally. Although she cut some magnificent sides for the company – 'We're Doing Fine' and 'Gotta Get A Hold Of Myself' are two prime examples – it wasn't until 1966 with the demise of Blue Rock and her transfer to Mercury that Dee Dee scored chartwise. The song was 'I Want To Be With You' and her follow-up (again the original!) was 'I'm Gonna Make You Love Me'. Despite several singles for the company, Dee Dee failed to come up with another chart item until 1969 when she hit with 'Foolish Fool'. At the expiry of her Mercury contract, it came as no surprise that Dee Dee signed with Atco Records, for whom she hit first time out with the beautiful 'She Didn't Know (She Kept On Talking)' which paved the way for her Turning Around album. There can be little doubt that Dee Dee's apprenticeship as the leader of the backing group contributed greatly to her vocal talent and artistry and one can only speculate that it is perhaps due to her image as "Dionne's sister" as distinct from a star in her own right, that has prevented her from achieving a greater measure of success.
With Dee Dee now embarked on a solo career, the group consisted of Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shemwell, Estelle Brown and lead singer Cissy Houston. It seems difficult to ascertain quite where Judy Clay and Doris Troy came and went, but JUDY CLAY, who had been cutting solo sides for Scepter from 1965 on, signed with Stax Records in 1967. During 1968, Judy was 'on loan' to Atlantic for her most successful sides with Billy Vera ('Storybook Children' was Top 10 nationally in the States). Her only success with Stax came in 1969 when she duetted with William Bell on 'Private Number' and since joining Atlantic in 1969, she has only had two singles. However she has been working more recently with Cissy Houston and Sylvia Shemwell on sessions with Wilson Pickett, Mongo Santamaria and Van Morrison!
As for DORIS TROY, she came over to the U.K. permanently in 1969 and signed with Apple Records for whom she cut an album. Since then she has remained an important session singer in this country. Quite where she figures in the history of The Sweet Inspirations is hard to tell!
The career of The Sweet Inspirations as a separate entity began in 1967 at the instigation of Jerry Wexler. The quartet continued backing work whilst scoring nationally with their Atlantic debut single, 'Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?' and despite several relatively unsuccessful singles ('Oh What A Fool I've Been', 'Don't Fight It' and 'That's How Strong My Love Is'), the Sweet Inspirations broke through on all fronts with 'Sweet Inspiration' in 1968.
Their debut album for Atlantic came out shortly afterwards and meantime the girls continued as the main session group for Atlantic, providing some brilliant vocal work on Aretha Franklin's early Atlantic smashes and then accompanying Lady Soul on big concert engagements during 1968 and 1969.
It wasn't long before the group were headed for the top of the field in the soul world and earning awards such as "Most Promising Vocal Group" from major American trade publications. Their second album was entitled Cissy Houston and The Sweet Inspirations Sing Songs of Faith and Inspiration and showcased the girls on religious titles and traditional hymns. Their third album was What The World Needs Now Is Love and it was as part of their promotional work on the single of the same name that the girls came to England in 1969 for an all too-brief but very memorable visit. They went on to Italy to appear in the San Remo Festival and at the same time recorded several sides in Italian for Atlantic!
The girls were becoming an increasing important live attraction, but continued their backing work. Their fourth album came in 1969 – Sweets For My Sweet and the single of the same name attracted a good deal of attention but failed to register chartwise in the States. 1970 was an important and significant year for the girls since it was during this year that the girls were hired to back Elvis Presley in his Las Vegas' comeback appearances as well as working as a warm-up attraction for him.
In 1970 too, CISSY HOUSTON and the Sweet Inspirations parted company. In March of last year, Cissy signed with Commonwealth United Records, cutting her thus-far only album. Her initial single, 'He I Believe' did well and everything looked fine for Cissy until the company went out of business! Cissy's contract and the master-tapes of her album were bought by Janus Records late last year and she is now enjoying her first real taste of success as a solo attraction right now with 'Be My Baby' still rising in the States and shaping up for a pop hit for her. Although she has been working as a solo artiste for a year now, Cissy has continued backing work – and she is the very sexy voice on Brook Benton's 'Let Me Fix It' (on his Home Style album)!
With the departure of Cissy, the girls cut a new album entitled Sweet Sweet Soul in Philadelphia under the competent guidance of Gamble and Huff and this undoubtedly ranks as one of their best albums to date. Since then the girls have worked with Elvis Presley again and have had two singles – 'This World' (from the musical Light Sings) which they cut in Muscle Shoals, and more recently 'Evidence' which is on the r&b charts right now.
Despite their own live work and recording, the Sweet Inspirations continue their backing sessions for Atlantic and can frequently be heard assisting on many of today's r&b hits with their highly distinctive vocal harmony work. There can be little doubt that the Sweets are the most important of all the r&b session stars and have been, right from their early beginnings with Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick through to the present day.
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.