In 1965, Estelle Brown went from being a Gospel singer in Harlem to being a part of the legendary vocal group The Sweet Inspirations. As part of The Sweet Inspirations, Brown sang background vocals for Aretha Franklin (“Chain of Fools”), Van Morrison (“Brown Eyed Girl”), Dusty Springfield (“Son of a Preacher Man”) and Dionne Warwick (“I Say a Little Prayer”) among many others. The Sweet Inspirations recorded a number of their own albums and singles, and they toured and recorded with Elvis Presley from 1969-1977. Founding band member Cissy Houston left the group in 1969, and founding members Sylvia Shemwell and Myrna Smith have recently passed away. The film This Time, released on DVD and iTunes May 31st, tells the story of The Sweet Inspirations from the early days through the years before Smith passed away. This Time also provides an intimate view of the band (including Brown, Smith and more recent member Portia Griffin, who joined in the ‘90s) recording a new album, reuniting with other surviving members, and going back on the road. This Time also tells the inspiring stories of several artists (read my interview with filmmaker Victor Mignatti here). I was recently able to talk with Estelle Brown about This Time and her legendary career.
Estelle Brown: We were each in different Gospel groups. That’s how we met… Houston was doing a recording session, and she needed some girls to make up a group. We went and started doing some recording sessions at Atlantic Records, for anybody who was on Atlantic… [Atlantic Records] thought our sound was so unique, they wanted to put us together as a group. They started calling us The Sweet Inspirations.
TATM: When you were singing on a song, would The Sweet Inspirations work with the producer, or the artists, or both?
Brown: We would work with both. Basically, they allowed us to make up our own background [vocals]. Unless they had something specific in mind that they wanted… The artist would be there…and the band…and they seemed to like what we were doing, so they accepted it.
TATM: What was working with Aretha Franklin like?
Brown: Working with [Franklin] was a dream because she was such a down-to-earth person… She had no contentions, we had no arguments.
TATM: The Sweets sang on a lot of songs written by Burt Bacharach. Did you ever personally meet or work with him at all?
Brown: Whatever we [sang] with [Warwick], we used to go over to his house for rehearsal… You know how you go over to a friend’s house and you just kick it and have fun? That’s how it was working with [Bacharach]… We used to have so much fun with him, because he is really a cool guy.
Brown: was crazy. We had seen once before in the recording studio and didn’t really remember her. When she saw us, she knew exactly who we were… That was cool. “Son of a Preacher Man” was originally given to The Sweet Inspirations to sing, but we declined it. We turned around, and look who had a hit… We didn’t particularly like the song… So we didn’t do it.
TATM: What was recording with Pickett like?
Brown: Oh Lord! [Pickett] loved women. You had to be careful with [Pickett]… Nobody we worked with was a problem… So it was really good. We all knew that we were there to do a job. We did the job, and that was it.
TATM: Another song you sang on was Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.”
Brown: “Brown-Eyed Girl” was a sinch. We loved that one so much that we wanted it for ourselves. But being that [Morrison] had it, and had already done it, we had to leave it alone.
TATM: Talk about opening concerts for Franklin. Is it true she wouldn’t let The Sweet Inspirations keep opening for her, because you were so good she didn’t want to follow you on-stage?
Brown: That was the first and only time that happened… We continued to open for her, but there was a LONG intermission between her and us… That would give the audience time enough to quiet down and re-boot and be ready for the star of the show.
Brown: We worked harder on making The Sweet Inspirations albums than we did on anybody else’s, even though we didn’t get the play that we thought we deserved. I really think that we were before our time. I think the type of music and the sound of our music was way ahead and too advanced for what was happening then… I really believe that because we were the main background group for Atlantic Records, and they wanted to keep us there. So they did not push our records as they should have been pushed.
TATM: Having worked closely with Presley for a lot of years, what would you like people to know about him that they might not know already?
Brown: I want everybody to recognize the fact that [Presley] made sure that we acted as family… I don’t know of any other entertainer that has background vocals or a band…And the audience knows everybody by name… I don’t think any other group had done that.
TATM: In the past decade or so, The Sweet Inspirations have played a lot of shows with Elvis impersonators. What went into the decision to do those shows?
Brown: It’s still a somewhat difficult decision. It depends on whether you are a tribute artist, or an imitator… If you’re going to be a tribute artist, that means you’re going to keep his music alive. Other than that, you’re trying to be him. When you try to be him, you lose your identity. We don’t mind working with any tribute artist. All of them, short, fat, tall, skinny, it doesn’t matter.
TATM: What’s your relationship with Houston? How did you feel about her coming back to record with the group after all those years?
Brown: I still love [Houston]. [Houston] and I talk almost weekly. She’s a good friend of mine. She’s very, very dedicated. Even though she doesn’t sing with The Sweet Inspirations anymore, she still loves The Sweet Inspirations. If she could get around like she wanted to, she would be out on the road with us. But it’s kind of hard for her right now, because of physical reasons… I miss her a whole lot.
TATM: So there was no animosity when she left The Sweet Inspirations in 1969 to pursue a solo career?
Brown: No animosity. We recognized that she wanted to be home with her children. So that’s what she did.
Brown: [Shemwell and Smith] I considered my sisters. They’re surely missed… [Shemwell] was a dynamite person, she had a lovely voice. She sang most of the lead [vocals] on most of our albums. [Smith] was a top-voice singer, who could hold her own.
TATM: Why do you think it’s important audiences make sure to see This Time? What do you hope they’ll take away from it?
Brown: Everyone needs to know that if you have a dream, it can be accomplished. Keep at it, and you will win. Don’t give up on your dream because dreams do, and will, come true.
TATM: How has This Time impacted your life so far?
Brown: [Mignatti] even came to the church I was attending, and he filmed some of that. That impacts me a whole lot. That says a lot to me. Because no matter what my dreams are or were, I never gave up on my faith.
TATM: So what’s next for you, either personally or with The Sweet Inspirations?
Brown: All I can say is that since [Smith] and [Shemwell] are gone, and since [Houston] doesn’t work with us anymore, I feel like I’m the only man standing. I feel like I’m going to keep on standing, keep on doing what we’re doing until God says, “That’s enough.” I would like for everybody to keep us in your prayers, that we will continue to hold on and continue to go on. As long as we have strength to do it, as long as we are physically able to do it, then we will.
TATM: Are you still singing with Portia Griffin?
Brown: [Griffin] and I still work together. I think [Griffin’s] been with us 18-20 years… She has become my new sister.
TATM: If people love the film and want to hear you sing more, what can they keep an eye out for?
Brown: “I’m Coming Out” is our new album. But I don’t know how soon that will be released… [Stay updated] on www.sweetinspirations.org.