New Staple Singers box set, the gospel and beyond
It is 1960 in Mississippi and Roebuck “Pops” Staples is singing the blues in church, a solo version of “Too Close” that opens up into an ecstatic Staple Singers performance. The medley stretches to 16 minutes of testifying and harmonizing, a rapturous conversation among Pops and daughters Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne Staples.
Pops’ words, about a lonely traveler approaching the gates of heaven, brim with religious imagery. But his sly wit and reverberating guitar notes evoke his idol, blues pioneer Charley Patton, performing on Dockery Farm in Mississippi, where young Roebuck grew into manhood during the 1920s and early ’30s. This was revolutionary stuff, but for Pops Staples, the line between Sunday church service and Saturday night juke-joint celebrating was always a thin one. In combining the two worlds, he created a sound and a family group that would bend music history.
The medley, only a portion of which had been previously released, is among the rare and revelatory recordings on a new Staple Singers box set, “Faith & Grace” (Concord Music).
After decades of neglect, the Staple Singers’ recordings are finally getting some attention this year, in part due to the growing acclaim accorded Mavis Staples as a solo artist in the years since her father’s death in 2000.
In February, Anti released “Don’t Lose This,” Pops Staples final recordings from the late ’90s, including the last Staple Singers recordings. A month later, the family’s landmark 1965 concert at a Chicago church was finally presented in its entirety as “Freedom Highway Complete.” Now the four-CD “Faith & Grace” arrives, a solid overview of the Staples’ most productive years, 1953-1976. Though it excludes some crucial music made by family members — notably the solo careers of Pops and Mavis, as well as some of the Staples’ still-vital ’80s recordings, including their cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” — it presents the best introduction yet to this groundbreaking group.
The box set unearths the family’s earliest recording, a homemade single that contains interpretations of gospel perennials “Faith and Grace” and “These are They,” with Mavis on deep contralto vocals that belie her age (she was 14 at the time of the 1953 recording). The group’s sound is already cutting against the gospel grain, with its twangy country voicings and mournful throwback feel, but the Staples were still too novel to make much of an impact. Pops bought an amplifier for his guitar in 1950, which gave it a reverberating, “nervous” tone in combination with his children’s harmonies that were drawn straight from the decades-old church music he learned while working the cotton fields in Mississippi.
It was a visionary mix of blues and gospel — the “devil’s music” mingled with the sound of salvation — and no one knew what to make of it. More conventional early recordings with piano replacing the guitar as primary instrument didn’t connect with an audience on a gospel circuit teeming with superstars such as Chicago’s Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers with a young Sam Cooke, both friends of the family.
But with “Uncloudy Day” in 1957, the Staples nailed their sound — Pops’ guitar shimmering like the Mississippi mist beneath the family’s insistent harmonies (“Yes, oh, yes, they tell me”) and Mavis’ powerhouse wail. Mavis was still in high school and feeling so ill that she couldn’t even stand at the microphone during the recording session for Chicago’s legendary Vee-Jay label, but her voice cut through the ghostly sounds around her with a world-weary mix of desperation and hope.
By the time of the live “Too Close” in 1960, the Staples had begun to hone their chops as a live act, “shouting” to congregations across the country. They even ventured into the Deep South to perform at small-town churches, despite the life-threatening racial violence that lurked on the rural roads they traveled in Pops’ car, equipped with a gun in the glove compartment.
Nearly as bold was the way Pops Staples found to secularize the group’s sound without sacrificing its integrity. The Staples were among the first gospel groups to adopt the protest songs of the folk movement.
Bob Dylan, smitten from an early age by the Staples’ sound and with Mavis in particular, crafted songs that the family embraced long before their peers did. Their constrained cover of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963 was topped six months later by Pops’ chilling reading of the singer-songwriter’s “Masters of War.”
Pops Staples began writing original songs in that spirit throughout the ’60s. His response to the bloody Selma-to-Montgomery protest march, “Freedom Highway,” shows the Staples roaring in front of a fierce rhythm section that includes Chicago stalwarts Al Duncan on drums and Phil Upchurch on bass. Pops was writing some timeless guitar riffs during this era, as the musicians who “borrowed” from him, including Keith Richards, John Fogerty and Ry Cooder, could attest.
Still, the group’s ascent to the kind of mainstream acceptance accorded some of their family friends — Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls — who had crossed over from gospel to soul didn’t arrive until the late ’60s when they signed to Stax Records in Memphis and began recording with a white rhythm section in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The biracial mix created some of the era’s best and best-selling music, including Mavis’ largely improvised performance on the Staples’ “I’ll Take You There.” The arrangements worked out in the studio often took songs specifically written for the group in new directions, as illustrated by “Respect Yourself.” Mack Rice’s original acoustic demo envisioned an uptempo rave-up, but the Staples reconfigured it as a simmering, supremely funky slow-burner.
A few more rarities such as this would have served the box set well; excluded are any hints of what producer Al Bell has said is a 30-minute version of “I’ll Take You There” that matches the power of the official release. A few other flaws crop up, including some sloppy fact-checking in the liner notes (the birthdates of Pops Staples and youngest daughter Cynthia are incorrect). In addition, Pops’ role as one of the 20th century’s true musical visionaries is underplayed.
Gospel had as big part in shaping what became known as rock ‘n’ roll and contemporary music as blues and country did, but rarely shares equal credit.
The Staple Singers in particular were dedicated genre-busters, embracing and thriving in the folk, protest, soul and funk eras without losing their essence (with the exception of what proved to be their biggest hit, the Curtis Mayfield-written bedroom slow-jam, “Let’s Do it Again”). “Faith & Grace” arrives as a long-overdue entry point into that tower of song.
‘Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976’
The Staples singers