The original backup group that was so in demand among producers, publishers, artists, and songwriters in the early 1960s 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, both of which the Sweet Inspirations can be heard on) 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 Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Esther Phillips. 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.
In a recording session on March 28, 1967, The Sweet Inspirations provided the back up vocals for Van Morrison on his classic hit “Brown Eyed Girl”. It was released in June 1967 and rose to No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. In October 2007, Morrison was awarded a Million-Air certificate by BMI for 8 million air plays of “Brown Eyed Girl”.
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.”
On March 30, 1968, the group scored their first and only top forty hit on the Billboard Top 40 Pop Chart with the song “Sweet Inspiration” on Atlantic Records. The record was on the chart for ten weeks and peaked at number 18. The group at this point was composed of Houston, Brown, Shernwell and Smith.
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 1967, the group did backing vocals for the Jimi Hendrix single “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” which was later featured on the album Electric Ladyland in 1968. They also backed Dusty Springfield on her album Dusty in Memphis.
In 1969, The Sweet Inspirations began recording and touring with Elvis Presley as both background singers and his warm-up act, as well as doing occasional ‘live’ dates with Aretha Franklin. The association with Presley became well-publicized as he routinely introduced the Sweet Inspirations (along with the TCB band members, the JD Sumner & Stamps Quartet, and Kathy Westmoreland) on his telecast concerts and live recordings.
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”. Ann 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 Records, 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. In 1979, the group toured with The Bee Gees during their U.S. Spirits Having Flown Tour singing backup.
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 released new material in 2005. Sylvia suffered a stroke in 2001 that has kept her from performing with the group. They also recorded choir backing for The Killers’ 2004 recording, “Hot Fuss”, on songs “Andy, You’re a Star” and “All These Things That I’ve Done”. Sylvia Shernwell died on February 13, 2010.
In March 2010, while on a European tour for Elvis: The Concert, Myrna Smith developed pneumonia. Once back in the U.S., her condition continued to deteriorate, as she suffered kidney failure, further complicated by a severe stroke. By October 2010, she was a patient at the Canyon Oaks Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Canoga Park, California. Myrna Smith died on December 24, 2010.
Estelle Brown made the difficult decision to replace Myrna; as of March 2011, The Sweet Inspirations are continuing to perform backup vocals with Elvis: The Concert.