The Sweet Inspirations were an all-female gospel/soul quartet consisting of Cissy Houston, mother of the late Whitney Houston, Sylvia Shernwell, Myrna Smith, and Estelle Brown. They were well-known for their backup singing and lent their voices to such classic recordings as Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, and Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”, not to mention albums by Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley. They also had hits on their own, including one written for them by Linden ‘Spooner’ Oldham and Dan Penn called “Sweet Inspiration”. That’s included here, as well as the eight other US R&B charted singles from the group’s heyday.
This multi-CD collection, Let It Be Me (The Atlantic Recordings 1967-1970), contains a whopping 66 tracks that include all five of their original five Atlantic albums in addition to 12 non-album cuts from the period. The set is divided into three discs labeled: “Blues Stay Away From Me”, “Unchained Melody”, and “Light Sings”. The differences between the three albums are slight compared with the material’s similarity—except for eight songs on the last disc, which features Ann Williams replacing Cissy Houston on lead vocals. These tracks have not been previously released despite the fact they were initially meant to be issued as a complete album back in the day.
It’s unclear why the songs here are ordered the way they are. They are not listed chronologically. For example, the first track on the anthology was the eighth one on their debut album, and the final song on the third (last) record is the fourth one on their second (of five) original albums. The song selection flows well enough as all of the music was initially recorded within a short three-year period.
As the first disc’s title suggests, this is the most bluesy of the three and features several sad songs such as Ike Turner’s “I’m Blue”, Pops Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad”, Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler’s “I Don’t Want to Go on Without You” and the Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away From Me”. The Sweet Inspirations sing these songs at a slow pace and let the pain ooze out the material. This is true for the other tracks on the record, which is mostly comprised of covers of popular soulful tunes from the period such as a killer take on Sam & Dave’s “When Something is Wrong With My Baby”, a tearful version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”, and a harmony-rich rendition of Jerry Butler / Betty Everett’s hit “Let It Be Me”.
The “Unchained Melody” disc showcases the Sweet Inspirations, covering more hits from the times. Still, several of the songs are more pop-oriented including a relaxed groove on “Alfie” (as compared with Houston’s niece Dionne Warwick hit version). There’s a tender version of “Crying in the Rain” where the heartache seems more adult than the Everly Brothers’ treatment of the Carole King tune. On “Unchained Melody”, the singers stretch out the syllables much more than the Righteous Brothers did on their hit performance.
The third volume, “Light Sings”, features the quartet’s gospel recordings and includes such notable songs as “Down By the Riverside”, “The 23rd Psalm”, and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. There are far fewer cover songs here, and those that are display an adventurousness in the arrangements, such as the medley “Little Green Apples / Something / Think”. The cut “Light Sings” itself (a Fifth Dimension cover) is brighter and more hopeful than most material on the first two discs.
The Sweet Inspirations as a separate act never achieved the same fame as backup singers, but this anthology reveals what other artists like Elvis and Aretha always knew. They had marvelous voices and knew how to wrap themselves around a song, even if you just let them be by themselves.