Mom Can Carry a Pretty Mean Tune : Pop music: Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney, will receive a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award on Thursday for her work as a backing singer.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Background singers are, figuratively speaking, the unsung heroes of music.

You could hardly imagine most of Elvis Presley's greatest recordings without the Jordanaires--but can you name a single member of that backing group?

Or can you name any of the Sweet Inspirations? That's the female quartet whose gospel-derived exultation shaped the sound of '60s soul, spiking, among many, "Respect," "Chain of Fools" and virtually every other Aretha Franklin hit from the era.

Well, you might know one of the Sweet Inspirations, but that's probably because she happens to be the mother of Whitney Houston.

"Oh yeah!" says Cissy Houston, sitting at the foot of the bed in a Universal City hotel room, in town to tape an installment of the "Leeza" talk show dealing with celebrity moms. "I'm the mother of a superstar now--people take that into consideration."

But when the elder Houston is given a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award on Thursday at the Hollywood Palladium, it will be for her own accomplishments--not her daughter's.

The award, one of a dozen that will be made by the organization, serves as long-due recognition for Houston, who founded the Sweet Inspirations in 1967 with Sylvia Shemwell, Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown.

"We used to sit and say, 'You know, people never mention us,' " says Houston, 61. "But Aretha never would have had all those hits if the background wasn't so good."

So, you'd think nothing would have made Houston happier than helping launch her daughter on the road to stardom.

Nope.

"I didn't want her in the business," Houston says. "I had seen what it could do to you, how people are ready to hurt you."

Nonetheless, Cissy cultivated her daughter's talents, using her in both studio sessions and in club shows in New York while Whitney was still a teen.

"I remember one night, I was maybe 17, I was at the beauty parlor getting my hair done and my mother called," said Whitney, now 31, in a phone interview from Arizona on location for the movie "Waiting to Exhale."

"I had been working with her for some time and we were supposed to do a show that night at Mikell's club," Whitney continued. "She called and sounded hoarse and said, 'My voice! I can't sing! You'll have to do it without me.' I said, 'Forget it! I can't do that!' She said, 'Of course you can, you're good.' "

Whitney did just fine. But when she called her mother, she discovered the whole thing had been a set-up--Cissy's voice was fine.

Recalled Whitney, "She said, 'Well, I was kinda sick, but I really had to show you that you could do this and if that's what you want, you have to go do it.' "

Whitney knew that she wanted to be a singer from the earliest times she saw her mom at work.

"I remember every time that my mother would (sing) with Aretha it was like being in church or at home swinging with the family," Whitney recalled.

It was, in fact, at church and at home that Cissy (born Emily Drinkard) learned to sing.

"We sang in our house all the time, but strictly gospel," the mother recalls of her early years as the youngest of eight children born and raised in Newark, N.J., where she still lives. "Singing anything else--the devil's music--was unheard of."

She and other family members formed the Drinkard Singers, which in 1957 became one of the first gospel groups to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. An RCA gospel album from the festival, "A Joyful Noise," raised the group's star. But it wasn't enough for Cissy to give up her day job at RCA's cathode tube factory.

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In the early '60s, her then-husband, John Houston, started managing Dionne Warwick and other New York session singers. (He now manages Whitney.) But when composer Burt Bacharach turned Warwick into his star singer, Houston had a void in his business.

"My husband lost his top voice," Cissy says. "So I stepped in to take her place--and never stopped working since."

It was out of that work that the Sweet Inspirations formed, becoming a constantly in-demand unit, appearing on numerous hits by Warwick, Wilson Pickett, the Drifters, Dusty Springfield and Solomon Burke, among many others. And the quartet had its own hit in 1968 with the sultry "Sweet Inspiration." The singers also became part of Presley's backing group on many shows following his 1969 comeback.

There was some consolation for the lack of recognition in that Houston had something many other R&B; singers lacked: steady work and career longevity. She was able to transcend numerous upheavals in music styles in the '70s and '80s, doing sessions for the likes of Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross.

Today, thanks to her superstar daughter, Houston can be choosy about work, though she still enjoys doing sessions on occasion and in 1992 teamed with veteran singer Chuck Jackson for the album "I'll Take Care of You." In recent years she has also been the CEO of the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children and has added acting to her resume, with roles in several TV dramas and sitcoms and in the Off Broadway play "Taking My Time."

"I'm doing most of the acting things just to see if I can do it," she says. "You grasp that moment in time and just keep going. I don't think there's anything I can't do. I know that through Christ all things are possible."

* The Rhythm & Blues Foundation's Pioneer Awards show--with Darlene Love, the Moonglows, Lloyd Price, Booker T. & the MGs, among the other recipients--will be held Thursday, 8 p.m. at Hollywood Palladium, 6250 Sunset Blvd. Tickets are $50 for general admission, $100 reserved and $500 for VIP seats that include a pre-show reception. (800) 258-3799.

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