He said, “Listen you all, I really like this man’s message. And I think if he can preach that, we can sing it.” And we said, “Okay, Daddy.” So we started writing protest songs. Our first protest song we wrote was “March Up Freedom’s Highway”. That was for the march from Montgomery to Selma. Then we wrote “Washington Is a Long Walk to D.C.” for the march to Washington D.C., and on and on. “We’ll Get Over”. “When Will We Be Paid for the Work We Done”. We joined the movement.
—Mavis Staples, on “Pops” Staples meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, as told to Chicago Stories
It’s likely that the Staple Singers would have enjoyed success no matter what label they were on. The combination of Roebuck “Pops” Staples’s shimmery Delta-informed guitar and the soulful vocals of daughters Cleotha and Mavis, son Pervis, and—after Pervis left in 1970—third daughter Yvonne created a sound that was somehow transcendent and earthy at the same time. Their talent was obvious from the start, as they courted gospel and folk audiences (particularly with “Uncloudy Day” and their cover of the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in their early Vee-Jay days, and a take on Stephen Stills’s “For What It’s Worth” on Epic), but it wasn’t until they signed with Stax that the Staple Singers as we know them really came together.
Their stint at Stax—roughly from ‘68 to ‘74—was a time of convergences. The civil rights movement provided focus for the family’s sense of social and spiritual responsibility, and the Staple Singers began translating the uplift of their gospel roots into songs like “Long Walk to D.C.”, “I’ll Take You There”, and “When Will We Be Paid”—songs that admitted the going would be hard, but which never succumbed to pessimism. Plenty of groups preached from the pulpit or from the campaign stump in those days, but the Staples’ time at Stax saw their music blossom to match their message. Receiving backing from Steve Cropper and Booker T. & the MGs on their first two Stax efforts, the Staple Singers couldn’t avoid getting positively funky. When the group found themselves recording their third disc for the label in Muscle Shoals, Alabama—courtesy of producer Al Bell—they began racking up the hits, finding a synthesis for their gospel upbringing, Pops’s experience as a blues guitarist, the addition of Yvonne’s vocals, and the famed Muscle Shoals Sound. Name a Staple Singers hit, and it was probably recorded during this period.
Maybe it’s just the fact that some things never change, that if you build a dam against discrimination in one place, its poison will run downhill to fill another available spot, but nearly everything on The Very Best Of sounds like it could have been written now. Certainly, the Muscle Shoals Sound is timeless, but when Mavis starts to wail on civil rights anthems like “Long Walk to D.C.”, “When Will We Be Paid”, or “Oh La De Da”, they certainly don’t sound like chapters from a closed book—either in sound or content. The message of the Staple Singers during these years is so consistent that even their stunning cover of the seemingly placid “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” sounds like a call to action.
As Stax wound down, the Staple Singers moved on, first with Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label, and then others. They scored some hits, but never replicated the success or sound of the Stax years. In 1994, “Pops” Staples won a Grammy for his solo effort, Father, Father—a feat that Mavis Staples stands a good chance of repeating this year for her fiery recollection of growing up with the civil rights struggle, We’ll Never Turn Back.
The Very Best Of the Staple Singers isn’t quite a replacement for 1990’s old reliable warhorse, The Best of the Staple Singers. This new collection boasts four more tracks, but there has also been some shuffling of what was already there; classic moments like their covers of “The Weight” and “This Old Town”, for example, are now gone. On the other hand, you do get additions like “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas”, “Long Walk to D.C.”, and “Brand New Day”. As a document of the group’s pivotal and career-defining Stax years, The Very Best of the Staple Singers isn’t perfect, but it’s close.