Gospel legends the Staple Singers say let's do it again with two albums

American gospel legends The Staple Singers are back in the limelight with the release of two resurrected recordings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm


Occasionally, for reasons of fate or coincidence, sounds from the past converge in the present at key moments. Consider The Staple Singers, whose gospel recordings starting in the early 1960s carried them through the next four decades and included secular pop hits I'll Take You There and Let's Do It Again.

Lauded by musical aesthetes but less known among the public, the family quartet and its founder-patriarch, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, have recently attracted new attention that serves as a reminder that history sometimes needs a few decades - and unexpected nudges - to catch up with innovators.

There was Bob Dylan's mention last month of The Staple Singers during his MusiCares Person of the Year speech, in which he praised the quartet - then composed of Pops and children Mavis, Yvonne and Pervis - for recording some of his early songs. Calling them "one of my favourite groups of all time", Dylan credited the Staples, and specifically Pervis, for carrying his work to their fans. "They were the type of artists that I wanted recording my songs," he said.

A few months earlier, during the final episode of The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert signed off with a seeming non sequitur when acknowledging the thousands of guests who appeared on his show: "I've just got too many to thank. So you know what? I'll just thank Mavis Staples. Mavis, if you could just call everybody tomorrow, that would be great."

It was as though some force were propelling The Staple Singers into the public consciousness again, timed to coincide with the arrival of a pair of resurrected recordings. A remastered, extended reissue of their momentous live album Freedom Highway: Live at the New Nazareth Missionary Baptist Church 1965 documents a Chicago performance cum civil rights rally in the weeks after the Selma march, and the posthumous release of Don't Lose This, the final record from Pops, finished with the help of the Wilco recording studio's Jeff Tweedy and his son Spence 15 years after the patriarch's death.

"Pops was something else, I tell you," says Mavis, now 75. Before he died, she promised her father to guard the recording. She did that and more. "The record sounds good, and I've been getting good feedback, and I'm just so grateful. I can relax now. I've done what I'm supposed to do. I've done what he asked me to do: 'Don't lose this.'"

If Freedom Highway projects a glorious future filled with the promise of racial equality, Don't Lose This meditates on a life near its end - yet somehow remains filled with faith that a better day will come. It's this fervour that's at the heart of The Staple Singers' enduring legacy.

"I think it's monumental," Tweedy says of the group's work. "A lot of music that we take for granted I don't think would be there without them. I don't think Dylan would be the same without them."

The evidence is all over Freedom Highway. A recording rife with epiphanies, the album failed to make a commercial impression when it was first released through Epic and quickly vanished. Even Mavis didn't own a copy. Were it not for another twist of fate it would have remained in obscurity.

While browsing online, Sony Legacy producer Steve Berkowitz came upon an image of the Epic release on eBay. From his long affiliation with the label, Berkowitz thought he knew everything Epic put out. Then, skimming through I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era at a Mississippi bookstore, Berkowitz noted author Greg Kot's description of Freedom Highway as "one of the best live albums ever made". That sealed the deal.

After tracking down the record and masters in the vaults, Berkowitz and his co-producer, gospel music historian and choir director Nedra Olds-Neal, collaborated to issue the full, unedited recording, including a mid-set call for offering by the church pastor. Taken as a whole, the album reconfirms the vital role that churches served in organising citizens to embark on acts of civil disobedience.

The long-overdue reissue of the April 9 performance at New Nazareth makes repeated references to the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. A jubilant programme featuring Staples originals and gospel standards including We Shall Overcome, Take My Hand, Precious Lord and When the Saints Go Marching In, The Staples and a congregation of hand-clapping, foot-stomping worshippers inject righteous fury into songs until they nearly burst.

A friend to Martin Luther King Jnr, Pops and his family worked churches throughout the American South during the movement. With a Chicago home base, The Staple Singers toured to spread gospel and gospel-inspired protest songs, filling sanctuaries with Pops' influential guitar work, rich with an electrified tremolo tone, and the family's pitch-perfect harmonies.

A lot of music that we take for granted I don’t think would be there without The Staple Singers. I don’t think Bob Dylan would be the same without them

Mavis was 25 when they played the New Nazareth. "I never looked at it as political," she says. "I knew it was good that we were doing that because I had seen why we were doing it. As a kid, I had been in the South with my grandmother, and then after Pops started singing and we started singing these protest songs, I knew that we were doing a good thing."

The direction forward seemed obvious, she says. "I just looked at it like, we're in the civil rights movement with Dr King, and they need freedom songs. They need protest songs, and we are the ones to do it."

The Staple Singers eventually moved from Epic to Stax Records, where, with the backing of both Booker T & The MGs and the lauded Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio session men, the group transitioned to secular music. In doing so, they became affiliated with that singular blues-soul sound, connected alongside acts such as Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and Albert King.

They earned one of their biggest hits, Let's Do It Again, on the soundtrack to a film of the same name released on Curtis Mayfield's Curtom imprint in 1975.

In the years that followed, Pops and Mavis continued to record, as did the family group. Pops won a Grammy in 1994 for his album Father Father, and in 1999 The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Pops died a year later at the age of 85. In 2011, Mavis' You Are Not Alone, produced by Tweedy, won a Grammy for Americana album. Mavis continues to perform, most recently as part of the 2014 Kennedy Centre Honours concert in Washington.

For reasons both fortunate and unfortunate, the reissue of The Staple Singers' landmark concert achievement couldn't be more timely. The deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, New York and elsewhere has injected new life into the protest movement and serves as a reminder of a promise unfulfilled.

Freedom Highway, bursting with music delivered from the eye of the civil rights hurricane, will resonate with anyone moved by John Legend and Common's performance of their Oscar-winning Glory at the recent Academy Awards ceremony.

So too will Pops' poignant, seemingly death-defying last sessions. Don't Lose This was recorded in the late 1990s with daughters Mavis, Yvonne and Cleotha (Pervis left the group in 1970). "Don't lose this," Pops told Mavis after listening to the recordings in his bedroom. "I said, 'OK, Daddy, I won't lose this'."

Not only did she keep them safe, but with the help of Tweedy, who has collaborated with Mavis on her two most recent albums, and his drummer son, Spencer, they were built into a glorious Pops platform adding restrained, respectfully dot-connecting bass, guitar and drums.

As originally recorded, Tweedy says, the album had a dated '90s sheen designed to attract gospel and R&B fans of the time. But when he isolated the tracks to hear Pops' vocals and guitar, "it automatically sounded like a new man, a different person singing. It was the same vocal take, but it was so much more vibrant. He almost sounded like a prisoner or something in the rough mixes that we had from previous recording sessions." Tweedy understood what was possible.

When the Tweedys finished, all gathered at Wilco's studio in Chicago to present the work to Mavis and Yvonne. Mavis describes that day with a quiver in her voice. "It was a tear festival," she says."At points tears were flowing from everyone in the room."

"It was one of the most moving, most beautiful days I've ever had in a recording studio," says Tweedy, citing reasons that eclipse mere aesthetic success. His wife, Susie - Spencer's mother - had just been diagnosed with cancer. "Susie and Mavis are very close," Tweedy says, "and [Susie] was there with us, and everybody just cried and cried and listened."

"I call her my daughter," Mavis says. "She laid her head and I held her, and we just cried. It was such a good feeling. I felt so light. I felt so relieved. Light as a feather, like so much was lifted off me. I looked at Tweedy - I just had to hug Tweedy and Spencer. You know, it was like a family reunion."

Mavis also felt as though she were reuniting with her father, especially during a bit of intimately expressed banter between them captured during the recording process. "That always gets me, boy. I can just see him. I can see that twinkle in his eye, you know, when he'd get tickled," she says.

"It's so … his voice. It sounds so fresh. It sounds as if we're right there together."

Los Angeles Times