Myrna Smith interview

Myrna Smith, of The Sweet Inspirations, talks in depth with EIN

EIN Exclusive Interview - by Piers Beagley

Myrna Smith is one of the original Sweet Inspirations, the backing group who sang with Elvis in concert from 1969 until the end.

She has also worked with stars from Aretha Franklin to Van Morrison and has provided the world with some of the best soulful harmonies that have ever been recorded.

In 2004 EIN's Piers Beagley interviewed Myrna Smith when she was in Australia along with the TCB Band.

She talked in depth about her time with Elvis and also how she introduced a young Lisa Marie to Michael Jackson.

Myrna Smith passed away Christmas Eve: It is with great sadness that we have to report that Myrna Smith passed away on Christmas Eve 2010 around 11.49pm. EIN was lucky enough to spend some time with Myrna when she was in Australia touring with the TCB Band. She was an absolute delight to socialise with, always full of life, happiness and a wonderful positive person to be around.
Myrna Smith was a key member of the group 'The Sweet Inspirations' who were founded back in the fifties by Cissy Houston.
Over the years the group sang backup vocals for a series of key artists such as Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Dusty Springfield and even Van Morrison.
The "Sweets" started touring with Elvis in summer 1969 after he decided to incorporate some Gospel-Soul into his basically rock'n'roll Las Vegas comeback shows.
The core group became Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell (who died in 2001 after a stroke), along with new member Portia Griffin.

While performing on the 'Elvis: The Concert' European tour in March this year, Myrna developed pneumonia which eventually led to kidney failure and a stroke. She died in Canyon Oaks Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, LA.

Another key member of Elvis' great legacy leaves us way too soon.
Myrna Smith will be greatly missed.

EIN's Piers Beagley was lucky enough to spend a while with Myrna talking about soul music, life and Elvis.


(Right: The ever-youthful Myrna Smith gets close with the lucky EIN interviewer! - Sydney 2004)

EIN - When did The Sweets Inspirations get together and where were you all from?

MS - There were a few girl groups at the time working around New York, including friends like Dionne & Dee Dee Warwick as well as Cissy Houston. Sylvia had won an amateur night contest at the Harlem Apollo earlier but The Sweets really formed in 1967 with Estelle, Sylvia and me. We're all from New Jersey originally. Sylvia is from North Carolina but as a teenager she went to New York and her sister Judy Clay, another famous soul singer, was also a part of the 1950's gospel group The Drinkard Sisters who would eventually become The Sweets.

EIN - Today I was listening to some classic Memphis soul, including Dusty Springfield's 'Son of a Preacher Man', and I think that a lot of Elvis fans wouldn't realize that you sang on so many soul classics.

MS - You know we even sang on both Dusty's and Aretha Franklin's version of that song! In fact the song was offered to The Sweet Inspirations before it was offered to either of them, and we turned it down! We just didn't hear what they heard on the demo but of course it turned out to be a real hit. That was recorded in American Studios where we worked and also where Elvis recorded 'Suspicious Minds'.

EIN - Before Elvis I know you worked with some amazing soul singers like Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke & Aretha Franklin but what was your first session?

MS - My first session was in fact with Dionne Warwick on the 1963 hit 'Don't make Me Over' but previously we were all in the choir together at the Baptist Church. I used to go around with my brother and Dionne & Dee Dee Warwick in a group called 'The Gospelaires' and we used to go round and sing in different churches when we had time.

EIN - You sang on so many great Memphis soul performances that I wondered how the Memphis connection came about.

MS - Actually, no, at first we didn't work in Memphis. The main tracks would be done in Memphis but then they were sent to New York where we would put the 'backgrounds' on them at Atlantic Studios, New York. The first time we recorded in Memphis was for the 1968 'Sweet Inspiration' LP session at the American Studios.

EIN - At what point did you get the call to work with Elvis live on stage?

MS - We got a call from our booking agency who said that Elvis had phoned wanting us to sing with him. At the time we weren't that impressed as they sent us what seemed like 200 albums of songs to learn since we weren't that familiar with Elvis' material! This was 1969 when Elvis had been recording those movie soundtracks and the older songs like 'Teddy Bear' & 'Love Me Tender' just wasn't the type of music that we listened to.

(Right: The classic original 'Sweet Inspirations' LP that Elvis discovered)


EIN - Although Elvis had always been a fabulous gospel singer, the soul connections seemed to come later. So I imagine from your perspective, with songs like 'Teddy Bear', you must have wondered what the hell you were getting yourselves in to!

MS - (Laughing) Right! When we initially got the call we thought, "What are we going to do with this?!" So what we did was decide that it was all too much and we just waited until we got to Las Vegas to find out what it was all about. It was later on that we discovered how much Elvis liked our song 'Sweet Inspiration' and that that was the catalyst. We figured that once we tried his songs out we'd learn them real quick.

Elvis let us do that and we didn't follow the background parts exactly as in the old records and he didn't expect us to. He'd let us experiment and go way beyond what the 'old sound' would be. He was also very gracious when telling us what new parts he didn't like. One night he even surprised us by singing our song 'Sweet Inspiration' on stage. We didn't know that he knew it. Elvis just broke into it and so we started singing background and he was singing lead and we were shocked. It sounded good. It's those odd little extras that made the individual concerts so special.

EIN - You were closer to Elvis than most since you were married to Elvis' friend Jerry Schilling for some time.

MS - In fact I was married to Jerry from 1982 - 1987 and we're still good friends. Jerry and I started dating in 1973 and so I got a chance to spend more time with Elvis than others. I flew on Elvis' plane, spent time at Graceland and usually stayed on the same floor as Elvis in the hotels when were on tour. In California I would stay at Elvis' house on Monovale.


(Right:Myrna Smith & Sweet Inspirations during TTWII filming)

EIN - There is a fascinating new book out about Colonel Parker, how did you relate to him?

MS - My initial experiences with him were not pleasant. The Colonel had this way about him where he wanted you to think of him as unapproachable. So any time I'd go downstairs and say, 'Hello Colonel' he'd walk right past me like he didn't see me. This continued until I decided to start ignoring him and then he suddenly changed and started saying, 'Hello Miss Smith' which broke the ice!

After Elvis died my husband Jerry Schilling was working with The Beach Boys and in fact we were dining with the Colonel the very night that Dennis Wilson drowned.

After that we became friends and we would probably have dinner every weekend with The Colonel & Loanne! And after I started working with Tom Jones, whenever I was in Vegas The Colonel would come to Caesar's Palace and arrange for us to meet up for lunch & I'd invite him to the show. So I did spend a lot of time with him but that was after Elvis' death of course.

EIN - It does seem that The Colonel became a sad man at the end but I don't feel particularly sorry for him when I read what he did to some people. And there is that feeling that neither he, nor Dr. Nick, were any good for Elvis at all in his later career?

MS - I actually can't agree with you about Dr. Nick because I happen to think that Dr. Nick did much more good than people know. I think he has been unfairly accused and blamed. Elvis had his own mind and was very stubborn in that respect. Elvis did what Elvis wanted to do and Dr. Nick tried his best by giving him placebos and did all that he could. Elvis was the type of person that could convince you to do what he wanted you to do.

So Dr. Nick got caught up in that, as well as all the other doctors. Some have never even been accused of the harm that they caused. Dr. Nick was not the worst. Someone like 'Dr. Flash' never even gets mentioned. We never even knew his name, but he just came in before the show, gave Elvis a shot and was out of there in a flash! He was bad & he did a lot of harm.

EIN - Did Elvis ever warm up before a show by singing gospel numbers with you or did they always come after the show as a means to chill down?

MS - No, to relax before the shows he would do some stretching exercises with one of his bodyguards like Jerry Schilling. There was also a bottle of oxygen besides the stage and he would take a couple of deep breaths of that before going on. Then he would just go out on stage and be totally into it. But by the end of the show he'd be so wound up that he'd need to relax. So some nights, it wouldn't be every night, he find us and we'd sing. Most nights before he went upstairs he'd come into our dressing room and he'd just sit down and talk to us.

Sometimes he just didn't want to be bothered with 'the guys' or 'the girls' and he knew he that could find solace in our room. We knew who he wanted to avoid and so we'd cover for him. He loved singing gospel stuff to calm down. In fact our first rehearsal was on the stage of The International but after the first meeting I soon realised that he was no longer that unapproachable gorgeous, god-like, human being but he just became Elvis the super-talented human being! That's how he was to me. Now, looking back, I see him in a different light. Honestly he was just a talented, gorgeous and very caring human being.

EIN - Now it has become such a huge hit, do you remember singing 'Rubberneckin' live on stage with him in 1969.

MS - You know I really don't remember! When I heard 'Rubberneckin' recently I thought that it was the first I had heard it. I really don't remember ever rehearsing it! But I'm sure it must be out on a bootleg somewhere! Last year's 'ALLC' seemed new to me too and I'm sure we never did that on stage. I'm not very familiar with those movie songs.

EIN - I believe that you were the first person to introduce Lisa Marie to Michael Jackson!

MS - Yes, Jerry and I did that! She would have been 6 years old I think and she wanted to see The Jackson 5. So we took her to see the show and afterwards we went backstage to meet them. But she didn't remember that! I saw her on my birthday recently and she asked me about it because Michael had remembered the meeting and reminded her of it. Apparently Michael had tried to get in touch with her long before she started seeing him but until Lisa was 18 years old her Mother had her kinda' under her thumb.

EIN - Now was that was a weird relationship, wasn't it?

MS - In my mind it was a strange one. Lisa didn't talk to me for a couple of years because I told her that, "No way are you going to get together with Michael Jackson"! She defied me anyway. She knows her own mind and she's going to try it whether it's right or wrong. She's definitely like her Dad in that respect.

EIN - Have you seen her since she's had the hit record and toured?

MS - We do keep in touch. I saw her at her birthday party. We talk on the phone occasionally. She's a sweetheart. She loves me dearly and I love her dearly, that will never change. As far as I hear, she and Nic Cage are back together but I don't get involved in her love life anymore as I don't want her to stop talking to me again! You know Nic is such a nice guy and in many respects he is good for her. At least he has his own money and his own fame and she needs that. There is a certain glue holding them together. (Laughing) He wouldn't be boring to live with and neither is she!

EIN - Some people like to make out that Elvis was racist in some ways. Is the story true that on a Texan Tour the promoters didn't want Elvis working with black backing singers and Elvis made the stand saying, "No Sweets, No Elvis"?

MS - That's what we heard. And the promoter's daughter was made to drive us in an open convertible to the stage! So that promoter never defied Elvis again! In fact I don't think that we never worked with him again anyway. I know that no matter what colour I was Elvis would have loved me the same. As far as he treated me, there was not racial bone in his body. I mean in the early days he even sneaked into those black gospel churches in Memphis which would have taken a lot of nerve. White boys just wouldn't go there, it was a brave thing to do but he was just determined.

EIN - Didn't you go to Vail on skiing holidays with Elvis and one of them was for his 40th Birthday?

MS - Yeah we had some good times there. Elvis of course didn't go out during the day but at night he would put me on the back of one of those snow-mobiles and he'd tear down the slopes and we'd turn over in the snow. He thought it was one of the funniest things having us go flying off one of the snow mobiles!

The second time he wanted to go there was for his 40th birthday. He seemed happy at first but then he decided he didn't want to celebrate it after all. It must be tough being 40 if you are a sex symbol and I think he was also worried about the early death of his Mother too. Plus there were a lot of other things factored into him not wanting to be a certain age. In fact on his Birthday night, after everyone disappeared, Elvis did find me & Jerry and we went up to his house. Then we all celebrated his birthday together with Linda Thompson who was there. I was glad that I got the chance to do that and we had a great time that night, with just the four of us.

EIN - The later years must have been hard on Elvis with the pressure on him to stay thin & looking young. I notice that Elvis is often looking over to you for a reaction.

MS - I remember one time when he was wearing a buttered leather suit with tight pants & tight jacket and Elvis was kinda' busting out of this thing! He walks over to us and we were admiring the suit and Elvis says, with all sincerity, "You know, you have to be razor thin to wear this." And we all looked at him thinking, "My God what kind of mirror is he looking in?!" We could see that even Elvis himself didn't realise or wouldn't admit it. But we had the right name you know, because he looked at us for inspiration a lot. If he sang well or held out a note that sounded gorgeous he'd look at us like, "Well, was that cool girls?"


EIN - Looking back at them, the 1976 & 1977 seem to be such sad years.

MS - That's true, but being around Elvis a lot, the weight gain thing, I'd seen it a lot before and seen him look great and also not so great. I'd seen Elvis in Baptist Hospital lots of times and I'd go & visit him. Then he'd get well, and be out and be fine. It was like he was invincible. When it was time to perform he'd trim down and look terrific again. When he did that last CBS TV show filming I actually thought he did look great because he had lost some weight and being around him we didn't really notice the overall change. I thought he looked fabulous and then when they showed it on TV, after he died, I was really shocked and thought, "How could I think he looked so good?" I even thought that they might have done something to the cameras! I really didn't believe it. As I said, we were all wearing blinders.

EIN - What were the last Graceland recording sessions like?

MS - For that one Elvis just requested me to be there because I was a friend. There was a nice blend of just me and Kathy singing on those. But it didn't seem that we were getting a whole lot done. There was a lot of sitting around and waiting for him to come downstairs. The RCA recording truck was outside, costing a lot of money, but it didn't matter to him. If he felt like singing he'd come down for a couple of hours and then he'd say, "OK, that's it for the night." Or he could decide to sing all night long but actually record nothing!

EIN - Have you heard the FTD 'Jungle Room sessions' CD without the syrupy strings and overdubs? It's just you and the group singing.

MS - Yes I have. Sometimes Elvis liked those rough versions better than the overproduced final releases and it just sounds more contemporary nowadays. You know 'Hurt' is my favourite Elvis song of all time. It was his key song of those final concerts and it just shows his vocal prowess, his range, his strength and his emotion, everything. His soul is in that song for me. Looking back at those sessions a song like 'It's Easy For You' was an emotional song. I guess Elvis knew that he wasn't as well, or as healthy, as he wanted to be, but I sure didn't know it. I wish I had. I just never thought that anything could happen to him.

EIN - There's a rumour that there's a new Sweet Inspiration CD coming out this year, is this true?

MS - Sadly Sylvia, who had a stroke, still hasn't recovered as yet but the rest of us are doing a CD that will be out soon and called 'In The Right Place'. We're just finishing off the final tracks and we'll also make sure that Sylvia will be there in some way & give a message to the fans to thank them for their cards & support. We've done a remake of 'Sweet Inspiration' for it and it sounds fantastic.

EIN - Let me tell you how much I loved the concert in Sydney that you did recently. Part of the joy of the show was the fact that you were all so obviously enjoying singing together and performing Elvis' music.

MS - Well we do have such a good time. We had a great time with Elvis and we have such a good time with people keeping his memory alive.

EIN - Thank you so much for talking to us, it has been a real thrill.


(Right: Myrna Smith & EIN's Piers Beagley in Sydney)

Review by Piers Beagley.
-Copyright EIN December 2004

EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.

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