The Staple Singers: Chronicling the amazing career of the gospel-to-R&B pioneers

Wednesday 30th January 2008

Tony Cummings charts the history of THE STAPLE SINGERS from their early days of raw rural gospel to their soul hits of the '70s.

The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers

The accolades that have surrounded the release of 'We'll Never Turn Back' by Mavis Staples brings back to a mass audience once again one of the GREAT voices of R&B and gospel. Such fresh recognition is hugely deserved especially as it also delivers a fresh round of interest to the R&B and pop hitmakers of the '70s the Staples Singers. As any student of soul music will tell you, the Staples were pioneers. But they also exemplified the tension that has long existed between the world of mainstream R&B music and church-based gospel music. In a recent interview with Cross Rhythms, Mavis Staples summed up that tension. "Back in the '60s the Staples Singers made a transition from strictly gospel songs to freedom songs. Then we wanted to move on, made another transition from freedom songs to message songs, which were songs like 'Respect Yourself', 'If You Are Ready (Come Go With Me)', 'Reach Out, Touch A Hand' and 'I'll Take You There'. The people wanted to put us out of church for singing 'I'll Take You There'. They were saying, 'They are singing the Devil's music!' Because the song went across the board, it went on R&B radio, you know. I had to do so many interviews telling the people that the Devil ain't got no music!"

I first interviewed the Staples Singers in 1974, a day before they were to give a truly breathtaking performance at London's Royal Festival Hall. The group's founder Roebuck 'Pops' Staples told me then, "I played the blues and I still dig those old time blues songs. But I've always been a churchman and so it seemed nat'ral to singing gospel. At first I was a gospel singer alone. I was solo, just me and my guitar."

Roebuck was born in Winona, Mississippi on 28th December 1915. He grew up knowing hard times. . . and the blues. He sang blues and played at neighbours' houseparties. But he found the Lord and took to singing at the local Baptist church. In 1931 he joined a local spiritual group, the Golden Trumpets. For two years they toured the churches. But times were hard and when the depression started to squeeze the life out of cotton country Pops took his wife Oceola and his two children, Cleotha and Pervis, and moved to Chicago looking for work and a better life. On hitting Windy City he sang with another gospel group, the Trumpet Jubliees when not fighting for a buck.

As the American economy, and the Staples' meagre budget, normalised, Oceola bore two more children: Yvonne, born in '39, and Mavis, one year later. As they grew so did Roebuck's belief in the musical ability of his family. A family gospel group emerged in 1951, prior to which Roebuck had pulled his family through some empty food cupboard years, not to mention a World War. Roebuck, by now known affectionately as Pops, worked in the car wash, or the stockyard, the construction pit or the steelyard but somehow he hung on in there.

In '51, Pops, playing as mean a blues guitar as in those far off Mississippi days, proudly presented Cleotha, Pervis and Mavis to a Baptist church congregation. Their sincere, wailing, spirit-lifting singing gained a standing ovation and a routine was set: every Sunday the Staples Singers would convert some souls with their music.

Yvonne and Mavis finished school in 1954 and soon the group entered a recording studio for the first time. The Chicago recording scene in the '50s had dozens of small independents hustling for a piece of the "race market" action and one of them, United Records, recorded the group doing a traditional number "Sit Down Servant". Remembered Pops, "It sold about 200 that first thing. They heard us - a lady from the record company - and liked us, so we recorded. But the man who owned the company, he wanted us to do rock and roll, we wanted no part of rock and roll. So he held us for two years on contract with that one record. When his contract was up Vee Jay asked us to come and do a record, so we did and that record sold 1,000. The first Vee Jay record we made was 'If I Can Get My Brother To Pray Again' and 'God's Wonderful Love' and as it sold 1,000 I thought Vee Jay was disappointed with us so we were ready to quit. But Vee Jay said, 'No, no, when will you be ready to go into the studio?' And I said, 'I'm ready to go in now.' So we went and we made 'Uncloudy Day' and it sold like rock and roll."

"Uncloudy Day" is a minor classic, with the solemn blues figure of Pop's echoing electric guitar, and Mavis' husky, soaring lead vocal promising a better life one day. And Mavis was still a kid. She remembers, "I was in school when we started and when people started wanting to see the group I would have to miss just about every Monday, like maybe we would leave that Saturday, work the Sunday and drive back home on Monday. So my teachers would allow me to take my homework on the road and bring it back to school the following Tuesday."

The Staple Singers: Chronicling the amazing career of the gospel-to-R&B pioneers

"Uncloudy Day"'s success cemented a four year stay with Vee Jay records. Over those years the 40 or so tracks recorded showed a raw, bluesy and deeply soulful style which set them apart from most other gospel teams. Although the devices employed (call and response, melismatic lead, emotional climaxes, etc) were those of the standard gospel tradition, the songs, more often than not written by Roebuck, were based on the blues chords of his guitar. Explained Pops, "The whole foundation was a Southern style, not a Chicago style. After the first few sides we added a bass (Phil Upchurch) and drums (Al Duncan). 'Uncloudy' was our biggest Vee Jay record. 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken' about the next and 'Help Me Jesus' the third. We made a lot of big sellers, big gospel you know." They also wrote and recorded a song called "This May Be My Last Time", which the Rolling Stones later "borrowed" for their hit "The Last Time".

But with Vee Jay unable to produce another record with pop-like sales a la "Uncloudy
Day", the group moved to a new company. But, surprisingly, they didn't choose one established in the black gospel field. In 1960 the folk boom was beginning to hootenanny its way across white campuses and overnight anyone who could pluck a banjo and croon "Frankie And Johnny" was assured of an audience. Some black performers (Josh White, the Chambers Brothers, Leon Bibb and Odetta) made good money singing traditional or quasi-traditional music in student packed coffee houses.

The Staples Singers were asked to perform at the Newport Folk Festival and the group began to sing "freedom songs" directly targeting the segregation that still blighted America's southern States. The Staples signed with the New York jazz and folk label Riverside Records. The songs released on the 1962 album 'Hammer And Nails' were mainly gospel standards ("Amazing Grace", "Didn't It Rain") though the title track - released as a single - was a new song penned by Aaron Schroeder and David Hill. More Riverside albums, 1962's 'The 25th Day Of December' (featuring rather stilted renditions of "Silent Night" and "Sweet Little Jesus Boy") and 1963's 'Gamblin' Man', followed and by the time the group released their last Riverside album, 1964's 'This Little Light', the group had taken on the whole ethos of the folk protest movement with renditions of protest standards "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Master Of War". The group moved on to Columbia/Epic Records but their first album with them, 1965's 'Amen!', didn't sell. The next album, the fiery live 'Freedom Highway', was the best album the group had cut for years but that too didn't shift too many. It was their third album for Epic/Columbia, 'For What It's Worth', which began to register with an R&B audience. Including a gospel-soul interpretation of the title track, previously a hit for rock band Buffalo Springfield, and a seeringly bluesy Pops Staples song "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)" penned after seeing the Little Rock Nine integration riots on TV, it was a milestone album. The single of "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)" made the Hot 100, though only in a minor way, but the song eventually became and R&B standard recorded successfully by such diverse talents as Cannonball Adderley and the Sweet Inspirations. Pops remembered, "Riverside really tried to put us in a folk bag so we could be more commercial so we could sell records but we still didn't quite make it with them. When it didn't work we tried Columbia. Our first producer there, Billy Sherrill, couldn't find us either so they brought in Larry Williams."

With the single "For What It's Worth" peaking at 66 on Billboard's pop charts in the autumn of 1967 the group signed to the legendary home of Memphis soul, Stax Records. Remembered Pops, "The way we got with Stax. . . we knew a young man Al Bell who was a disc jockey and he was crazy about our records. He started running a record company and they called him out of Washington. He started working with Stax, so he knew the group and he dug the group. We signed to Stax, but somebody else produced for us for the first two years, they couldn't find us and we were fixing to split from Stax and then Al said he wanted to produce us."

The "somebody else" who produced the Staples was Steve Cropper. The first Stax single "Long Walk To DC" was a driving, gutsy record, though a relative sales failure. Stax had been taken over a little time before by the Gulf & Western conglomerate and for a while Stax struggled to find again the midas touch which had made Otis and Sam & Dave household names. The group put out good music and hoped success's pendulum would swing there again. Certainly the two Cropper produced albums 'Soul Folk In Action' (1968) and 'We'll Get Over' (1969) had plenty of drive and some fine accompaniments from the MGs but somehow the Staples were presented as folky, down home philosophers. . . and such an image had little wide appeal in the increasingly slick soul market.

The difference in Al Bell's production from Steve Cropper's brought the group immediate success. Pervis left the group in 1970 around the time of the appallingly titled 'The Staple Swingers' (1971) and was replaced by Yvonne who was returning to the Staples fold. Sighed Mavis with a discernible note of admiration in her voice, "'Heavy Makes You Happy' went really high and we knew Al had the sound we were looking for. We started doing much bigger shows, rock concerts. Al took us down to Muscle Shoals and we were knocked out with the groove those guys could get behind our singing. We just got bigger and bigger. A songwriter in Memphis, Mack Rice, brought this song to us. We listened to it and we just couldn't get it to the studio fast enough. 'Respect Yourself' earned us a gold disc of course. It started with the kids, you know they had little slogans saying 'Respect Yourself' which they'd attach on the backs of their shirts and stuff."

The idea for the "Respect Yourself" lyric resulted from a discussion Rice had with R&B star Luther Ingram. At one point Ingram stated something along the lines of "black folk need to learn to respect themselves." Rice took the idea and quickly cut a demo of the song with the help of singer/songwriter Tommy Tate in Stax's Studio C. Songwriter Bettye Crutcher heard the demo and suggested the song and the Staple Singers would be a perfect fit. Remembered Rice, "We cut (the demo) in a really sanctified uptempo sort of groove." Producer Al Bell remembered keyboardist Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins playing a key role in creating the mesmerising funk groove on the Staples' reading of "Respect Yourself". It became a huge hit. In March 1972 Stax released the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There". Cut at the same sessions as "Respect Yourself" it topped Billboard's pop and R&B charts.

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