The early 1970s was a momentous time for African-American music as the soul stars of the previous decade confidently articulated the challenges facing the US after the tumult of the previous decade. They did so by experimenting, pushing & shoving the sound that took their message around the world to see where they were coming from, what’s going on & what’s happening brother. The Psychedelic Soul of Funkadelic & Sly Stone freed our minds while our asses followed the sweaty funk of Isaac Hayes & the Isley Brothers. Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye ? Well, the Motown masters just picked up the title belt dropped by the Beatles & produced the best music you could wish to hear.
Included in that group of Funk Soul Brothers, from a time of conspicuous fashion, hairstyles & drug use, is an avuncular man who was already in his late-50s when his music took up residence in the US R&B charts. His understated & wonderful guitar playing accompanied the harmonies of his 3 beautiful daughters on some of the sweetest funk, songs of life-affirming positivity. Man, “Pops” Staples & the Staple Singers were really saying something back then.
WELL ! Don’t read this…watch that ! In May 1972 this call & response beauty was the #1 hit in America. Written & produced by Al Bell, the co-owner of Stax Records, created with the array of talent at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, “I’ll Take You There” is popular music as Art. I am proud to be a member of the species that can achieve something so radiant…really.
Roebuck “Pops” Staples had a preacherly air about him &, of course, the Staple Singers could only have developed in the church. They were a successful Gospel-Folk act with an eye and an ear on the changing world. They recorded “Blowing In the Wind” just after Peter,Paul & Mary. They were on Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” in 1967 when their label Epic tried to change it up a little. The family group stayed with Gospel longer than many of their contemporaries. Even when they signed with Stax the music was, at first, clumsily tagged “Soul Folk”. It was in 1970 when brother Purvis left the group & sister Yvonne joined Cleotha & Mavis. The move was made to Funky Street & boy, was the world ready for the Staple Singers.
Pops was a friend of Dr King during the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s & his group now sang a message of self-empowerment. “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Dr King said that. The Staple Singers spread the word by way of an unhurried insistent groove. Pops’ guitar had hints of his Mississippi upbringing but, he contended, he did not play the Blues. His talented daughters perfectly linked the rhythm & the rhyme. Aretha was still the Queen but Mavis Staples was a stunning new Soul Princess.
“We The People” is from the first LP produced by Al Bell. It is a personal favourite but there are so many tunes that were so perfectly Staplified at this time. I have left “Respect Yourself” off of this but if you really do only know the Bruce Willis version then get ye to the Y-tube right now ! In 1975 the group hooked up with fellow Chicagoan Curtis Mayfield, another musician who had mastered the shift from spiritual to secular. Pops was reluctant to let his girls sing the more sensual lyrics of “Let’s Do It Again”, the title track of the soundtrack LP they recorded. On his 61st birthday the record (a pretty damn lubricious one) was #1 in the US charts.
Some of the Staples’ songs are less successful because the insistence on a positive message could lead to simplification. While Curtis sang “If There’s A Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go)” the Staple Singers counselled “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend”. It was though, a memo that needed to be sent. Black Pride had to be about more than confrontation with white society. Anyway, these were the radio-friendly singles, on the LPs there are still songs of protest & anger when the group shows that they still know the score.
“When Will We Paid” is a litany of the sufferings & the contribution made by Black people in America. It is a sophisticated & dignified demand for recognition & reparation which never fails to affect me. This clip is taken from “Soul to Soul” a film of a concert held in Accra, Ghana in 1971 when a raft of black American acts went back to Africa. In the 1980s I worked with a wonderful Ghanaian man, Emmanuel. Manny had attended this concert, it was a very big deal in Accra. I spent more than a few lunch breaks when I asked him about the time he saw the Staple Singers play & just let him tell his stories. Good memories for both of us.
(Just a sidebar here. In “I’ll Take You There” when Mavis entreats “Daddy…” to do his thing it is not Pop who plays the guitar solo but the Muscle Shoals session dude Eddie Hinton. If you don’t know too much about this talented but troubled man then click here. He made some great music.)