The Sweet Inspirations

The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus

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The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus Review

by Mark Deming

Atlantic Records must have felt conflicted when they signed the Sweet Inspirations to a record deal in 1967. On one hand, the group was clearly one of the finest female vocal groups (arguably the finest) in the history of R&B, featuring four outstanding singers who could dazzle individually or in harmony. But at the same time, the Sweet Inspirations were in great demand as backing vocalists, having worked magic on sessions for some of Atlantic's biggest stars, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and Esther Phillips, and by making them stars on their own, the label could spoil a formula that had been working well for them. Between 1967 and 1971, Atlantic released 17 singles by the Sweet Inspirations, and while several of them fared well on the R&B charts, none of them became major crossover hits or pushed them into true soul stardom, even though they were teamed with some of the best producers and arrangers in the business. If the Sweet Inspirations didn't earn much chart action, it was never a matter of talent or the quality of their product, as confirmed by a listen to The Complete Atlantic Singles Plus, which pulls together the A- and B-sides from those 17 45s, along with four bonus tracks, three seeing their first release here. The Sweet Inspirations -- Cissy Houston (Whitney's mother), Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, and Sylvia Shemwell, with Ann William replacing Houston in 1969 -- never sound less than expert on any of these 37 tracks, and put a soulful stamp of their own on tracks that were already hits for others, including "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," and "To Love Somebody" (the latter recorded while the Bee Gees looked on in amazement). Atlantic clearly spared no expense on these sessions, with Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and Ugene Dozier among the producers and arrangers who worked on this material, and the graceful strut of the music is as much of a pleasure as the fine voices they accompany. The Sweet Inspirations are ultimately better remembered for their work behind the scenes than their recordings as headliners, but these sides make it clear they were four of the finest vocalists birthed by the Southern soul movement of the '60s; this set ignores the gospel sides they recorded for Atlantic, making it less than a definitive overview of their career, but if you're only looking for their soul sessions, this is pure magic, and as good as it gets.

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