Few groups personified the aesthetic grace, evangelical fervor, and the prophetic impulse of American gospel music more than the Staple Singers. Over the fertile period between their signing with Vee-Jay Records in 1956 and their departure from Stax in the mid-‘70s, the Chicago-based group released an impressive body of work which reflected the spirit and struggles of the times.
Feeling gospel artists needed to address more than otherworldly concerns, the Staples recorded music unabashedly critical of the injustices inflicted upon African Americans, yet uplifting enough to ward off feelings of hopelessness. Their lyrical depth coupled with their amazing sound enabled them to build a large following outside the church. Enjoying moderate crossover success in the folk world during their brief tenure with Epic Records, the Staples’ fortunes improved dramatically after joining forces with Stax in the late ‘60s. Their smash hit “I’ll Take You There”, along with several other songs from their brilliant 1972 album, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, launched the gospel group to the top of the soul and pop charts.
Fittingly in the year Be Altitude celebrates its 35th anniversary, several recordings documenting the group’s forays into traditional gospel, folk, soul, and funk have been released. Vee-Jay’s latest reissue, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, presents the Staple Singers at their sanctified best. Venture into any African American church where the traditional gospel sound still dominates and you’re bound to hear many of the songs on this 1961 recording. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find anyone playing their axe with the soul and dexterity of the group’s patriarch, Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
The level of musicianship on Swing Low is first rate, and much of this can be attributed to Pops. Undoubtedly the skilled guitarist loved the Lord, but the Mississippi-born musician who had worked on the famed Dockery plantation adored the blues as well. The influence of Charlie Patton and other great bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta can be heard throughout Swing Low, from the stunning title track to the moving “Going Down”.
The early years
Even though the music’s sound is steeped in the Delta blues, the group’s religiosity can not be denied. Neither can the talent of the young yet amazing Mavis Staples, who delivers nothing but the unadulterated gospel truth. Count Mavis among those gospel greats blessed with one of those distinctively impassioned voices possessing both regal and earthy properties. Truth be told, it’s hard to believe a singer whose voice exudes so much soul, color, and history was only in her early 20s at the time of this recording.
Like the great James Cleveland or the Mighty Clouds of Joy’s Joe Ligon, Mavis can induce spiritual convulsions with a simple guttural moan or shout. Her brightest moments on the disc are “Pray On”, “Help Me Jesus”, and “Uncloudy Day”. Carrying so much more than melody on “Uncloudy Day”, Mavis’ voluptuous contralto reaches deep into the history of the black experience, showing the connections between the spirituals, work songs, and even the modern quartet sound. On this stellar track, sister Cleotha, brother Purvis, and Pops perfectly blend their voices with Mavis’ to create a sound as glorious as Sunday morning.
Truly spectacular, Swing Low Sweet Chariot provides a snapshot of an amazing group endowed with an abundance of talent. If you’re a fan of the Staple Singers and gospel music, or simply appreciative of good art filled with life and meaning, the group’s latest reissue is a must have.
// Notes from the Road
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