Music

How the Staple Singers Became the Soul of Protest Music

Photo Courtesy of Stax Archives. Front: Pops, Back (L-R): Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis Staples. [Concord Records]

The Staple Singers' Stax recording, Come Go with Me, captures their transformation from the church-wrecking gospel highway to the soul-filling pop charts.

Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection
The Staple Singers

Craft Recordings

21 February 2020

Other

It starts as an echo of a loping reggae beat -- an instrumental version of a minor hit from the endless fount of '60s Jamaican pop -- but is transformed almost immediately, first by horns and then by that voice.

The horns hit a bright, two-note punctuation where the original riddim stays flat, then we hear that voice moan and sigh from a wellspring honed by years on the gospel highway. The sequence repeats, then she brings us into her confidence. "I know a place," she assures us, "ain't nobody cryin', ain't nobody worried, ain't no smiling faces." Then the other voices assure her assurances, completing her thought with "Lyin' to the races!" In short order those voices, answering the lead's "somebody help me now" call, announce, "I'll take you there!"

And thus we are off on a singular musical journey, part of an era in which a new such adventure arrived on the radio almost daily. The lead voice coaxes a solo from the electric piano, then a guitar line (she's saying "Daddy" but that wasn't Daddy playing -- more on that in a bit). In comes the bass player, mimicking her notes as he goes. The horns come back, and the lead repeats her declaration and takes it on out for another couple of minutes, with the others ready to take us there every step of the way. The vocal spirit is so strong you might miss how the band behind them maintains the pocket of that loping beat, now a soulful groove transported forevermore from the spirit of Jamaican invention to the heart of American soul.

"I'll Take You There", recorded in 1971, became the theme song that had, until then, eluded the Staple Singers for more than a decade. Roebuck "Pops" Staples taught his children -- Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne and Mavis, the youngest of the family -- gospel songs and harmonies tied to his distinctive, blues-inflected guitar in mid-'50s Chicago. The Staple Singers would soon become a gospel sensation ("Uncloudy Day", "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"), with Pops' economically soulful guitar anchoring the rhythm and Mavis's impassioned lead vocals wrecking churches across the land. Inspired by the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they expanded their earnest, folksy righteousness in the early '60s from the churches to the black freedom movement. But despite a long run as gospel stars, plus well-received protest-minded albums for the Riverside and Epic labels, what they needed most of all was a hit.

That hit stands as the centerpiece of their years at Stax Records, where they recorded six albums between 1968 and 1972 that put their earnest, folksy righteousness onto the pop charts (it also provided the title of Greg Kot's 2014 biography of Mavis, I'll Take You There, and by extension, the rest of the family). The seven-album box set Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection, issued by Craft Recordings digitally in December 2019 and on vinyl in February 2020, tracks their evolution during the Stax years, as they became secular stars without compromising their spiritual, justice-seeking roots.

Album image from Pexels (modified) Pixabay License / Pixabay

Stax Beginnings: Soul Folk in Action (1968) and We'll Get Over (1970)

The Staples came to Stax through their longtime association with Al Bell, a former disc jockey who had become the soul label's head of promotion in the mid-'60s. After the unforseen consequences of a deal to sell the label to new ownership stripped Stax of its mighty back catalogue, full of classic hits by Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the MGs and many others, Bell launched an ambitious plan for a new incarnation of Stax, and the Staples quickly became a key part of it.

"What [the Staples] were doing at the tail end at Epic, it was still something that hadn't percolated up to the pop action, especially among black folk," explains Levon Williams, former curator of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and co-author of the Come Go With Me liner notes, in a phone interview with him and folklorist Dr. Langston Collin Wilkins shortly after the set's digital release. What the Staples offered Bell would be a major piece of his rebranding of the label, to represent what Williams terms "the entirety of the black experience."

As Bell set about remaking Stax, so too did he work to recast the Staples as a modern R&B act with the spirit of social activism. Their first Stax album, Soul Folk in Action (1968), began the process, with the Stax rhythm section providing a more contemporary underpinning for the Staples than they'd previously enjoyed. There are covers of Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" and The Band's "The Weight" alongside timely message songs like "Long Walk to D.C." and "Got to Be Some Changes Made". But despite solid production by Stax legend Steve Cropper, Soul Folk in Action -- especially with cover art of the Staples in flowing church robes -- seems out of step with a black audience seeking a way forward after the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier that year.

Their next album, We'll Get Over (1969), updated the look (headshots of them in afros, wearing suits and sparkling dresses instead of church robes) more than the sound. The title song is a folksy tribute to perseverance, smartly fusing Pops' trademark guitar and the timeless Stax sound. They try some more pop covers, including Pops himself in fine voice on Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People." But the end result duplicated the previous album, both aesthetically and commercially.

We'll Get Over was part of Bell's major plan to put his new vision of Stax on the map: the simultaneous release of 27 albums in May 1969, including a solo Mavis album of love ballads and a jam album with Pops and fellow guitarists Cropper and Albert King. In fact, Mavis made two solo albums at Stax, neither of which bore any resemblance to the music she made with her family.

"She never felt comfortable working outside the Staple Singers," says Williams. "I don't believe that Mavis herself was pushing for that, but was willing to do what was asked of her." (The only album of those 27 releases to make any dent at all, by the way, made a huge one: Hot Buttered Soul made a star out of Stax A-list songwriter Isaac Hayes.)

The lackluster results of their first two Stax albums prompted Bell to find a new approach for the Staples. He teamed them up with one of the hottest studio bands of the day, an unlikely pairing that became the blueprint for the Staples' greatest success.

Hits at Last: The Staple Swingers (1971) and Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (1972)

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka the Swampers, had been part of numerous historic soul records in the late '60s, by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. When Bell first brought the Staples to the Swampers' Alabama studio in 1970, the family was surprised to discover that the band behind those songs was white.

But the Staples and the Swampers clicked, with Bell taking a more hands-on role in producing the music than he had with the Stax studio players (to the point of not allowing Pops to play guitar on those sessions, because no one could quite figure out how to blend his enigmatic phrasing with the Swampers' polished stomp). Harmonica, horns, strings and additional vocals would be overdubbed elsewhere, but the essential core of four outstanding albums happened in that Muscle Shoals studio, with Bell prompting and encouraging everyone towards a more up-to-date feel.

"Creating some creative synthesis," notes Wilkins, who co-wrote the box set's liner notes, "goes a long way."

Their first joint effort, The Staple Swingers (1970), is the loosest album the Staples had yet done. That's reflected in the cover art: the ladies -- Yvonne has replaced Pervis in the band -- clad in pantsuits and balanced on a swing in a park, with Pops playfully pushing them. The message songs were still in effect, with Pops' self-pride anthem "I Like the Things About You" and the blue-funky "What's Your Thing" (the answer: "love, freedom and peace"). But the Swampers' sound breathed new life behind the Staples' messages, and helped them get their first Stax hit, the party starter "Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)".

Also on the album is "You've Got to Earn It", a cover of a mid-'60s Temptations B-side written by Smokey Robinson that became a minor hit. But not only is the beat radically transformed from the original, so is the song's essential message: the "if you want my love" of Smokey's chorus becomes "if you wanna be loved" here. That was no accident, in Williams' view. "The Staples brand was a wholesome brand," he explained, and Pops was protective of his image as "a church-going, upstanding black man."

"This is who the Staple Singers were," says Williams, "and he was not putting that in jeopardy."

Wilkins concurs, adding, "These types of negotiations and careful choices became part of [Pops'] makeup."

A similarly upstanding message characterizes "Respect Yourself", a standout single from the next album, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (1971). Having established a comfort level with the Swampers, the Staples hit the sweet spot of gospel's uplift and funk's propulsion from start to finish (and the Swampers venture into new territory themselves, not quite sounding like much of what they did behind other artists). Their approach to message songs is smartly updated for a shifting national tenor, with "We the People", "Are You Sure", and a sinewy nod to the then-popular musical, "Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Super Star)". And oh by the way, the album included "I'll Take You There".

The success of "'I'll Take You There" and Be Altitude finally made the Staple Singers a top-tier pop act and worldwide concert headliner. Their new status placed them in the kickoff slot at Wattstax, the ambitious music festival conceived by Bell to showcase black pride, economic self-determination - and his label's roster. An all-day concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in August 1972 (released as a concert film and soundtrack in 1973, with the music reissued in 2007 as a three-CD set), Wattstax began with a triumphant fanfare, an introduction by Rev. Jesse Jackson (himself a Stax recording artist at the time), and a rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing".

Then, the Staples took the stage for a set of five songs from their Swampers albums. Mavis, by the height of set-closing "I'll Take You There", is in full church-wrecker mode, especially evident since Yvonne missed the show due to illness. (The Wattstax set is included in Come Go With Me as part of a bonus album of non-album singles and rarities.)

That October, the Staples went back down to Alabama to begin work with the Swampers on a planned double album. Little did anyone know at the time, but this would be the last time the Staple Singers recorded tracks for Stax.

Photo Courtesy of Stax Archives. (L-R): Yvonne, Mavis, and Cleotha Staples. [Concord Records]

Be What You Are (1973), City in the Sky (1974), and An Abrupt End

That double album became two separate releases, Be What You Are and City in the Sky. The two albums yielded another massive hit with the "I'll Take You There" knockoff "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)"; more songs passing on some life advice ("Be What You Are", "Getting Too Big for Your Britches"); pop-tinged uplift ("Touch a Hand, Make a Friend" and "Heaven", a glorious Mavis showcase); several fine message songs ("City in the Sky", "Washington We're Watching You"); and a soulful cover of Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands" for good measure.

By this point, the Staples, with Bell's guidance and the Swampers' rock-solid backing, had perfected a blend that maintained their gospel roots and social justice reputation while appealing to the masses. Many of their uplift songs started sounding a bit like finger-wagging sermons, but the Staples/Swampers/Bell combination was still potent enough to yield top-10 R&B singles.

Those two albums would be the end of the Staples' Stax era. As those records made their way in the marketplace, Pops sensed the band was getting the short end of the stick from the label. Bell was dealing with all manner of complicated corporate and legal entanglements, financial inconsistencies and setbacks, shady conduct by other Stax employees, and the increasing profile and demands of Hayes, the label's biggest star, all while still putting out hit records for other artists.

At the end of his rope, Pops sent a telegram to Bell in October 1974 requesting a cancellation of the Staples' contract with Stax. Bell took it personally and fired off a blistering response. In April 1975, with Stax about to make a final (and ultimately unsuccessful) stab at both financial solvency and musical relevance, Pops got his wish when the Staple Singers were formally released from their contract.

The family's subsequent time in the limelight would be short-lived. They had a #1 pop hit in late 1975 with the Curtis Mayfield-penned title track to the movie Let's Do It Again (a languid, sultry mood piece completely out of keeping with their uplifted, church-friendly brand), and revisted "The Weight", this time with the Band, for Martin Scorsese's 2002 concert film The Last Waltz. But they would enjoy only minor, sporadic success in the late '70s and '80s. Still, the long arc of their groundbreaking career was recognized with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.

By that time, Pops and Mavis had established new profiles, furthering their artistic legacies as solo artists. Pops recorded two acclaimed solo albums before he died in 2000, having been recognized as a key influence by a new generation of musicians across the roots music/Americana spectrum. Mavis fully embarked upon a solo career beginning in the late '80s, with two Prince-produced albums and various guest appearances. Since the '00s, she's made her mark with an ongoing series of albums in the family's classic soul/folky, spiritual/social justice vein, produced by longtime Pops admirers including Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy.

But she's never strayed all that far from their family's hit-making past. On her 2008 live album recorded at The Hideout in Chicago, she's coaxed into performing "I'll Take You There" as a finalé. Once she gets rolling, she's in church-wrecker mode all over again.

"Protest Music Set to a Soulful Background"

The early '70s were ripe with black musicians addressing social issues: a short list includes Mayfield; Stevie Wonder; Gil Scott-Heron; and Norman Whitfield's work with the Temptations. Williams and Wilkins believe Come Go with Me makes the case for including the Staple Singers in that number.

When the Staples came to Stax, Williams says, they were aleady known for "protest music set to a more soulful background" than singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. They successfully built on those bonafides during the Stax years to reach the black pop audience Bell always believed they could attain.

It's possible that the Staples' Stax run actually ended, despite the circumstances, at the perfect time. By the mid-'70s, notes Wilkins, "the sound of social protest music had radically shifted," with many of the emerging acts less steeped in gospel's roots and sense of propriety. While the last two Stax albums contain several great songs and fine work from the Swampers, the musical times were a-changin', and it's not surprising that those albums are less widely remembered in favor of more vital fare from artists nipping at the Staples' heels.

"Things had gotten a lot funkier," adds Williams, marking the Staples' work as "proto-funk, leading into the funk explosion of the late '70s." In that respect, it can be argued Bell's influence took not just the Staples but also the Swampers into new, fruitful territory. For example, their work makes the moody "Tellin' Lies" from Be What You Are sound to cratedigging ears like a lost funk classic, but still steeped in the soul tradition.

Wilkins characterizes the Staples' Stax work as "an important step" in the musical and social trajectory of black pop music during the '70s. He emphasizes "what this family meant in the black community, and to the African-American experience in the United States. They were able to build on what came before, and they're connected to what came later."

All of this makes Come Go With Me an opportunity for a deep dive into one of American music's most influential acts. Wilkins became interested in the Staples as a youth through "Let's Do It Again", but hadn't gone through their entire Stax catalog prior to this project. Once he started in on it, he said, "I was able to realize [its] beauty and importance."

The biggest revelation, even for those familiar with the hits, will likely be the numerous album tracks that speak as urgently today as they did 50 years ago. The spirited "When Will We Be Paid", which closes We'll Get Over, could easily serve as an anthem for the modern push to grant reparations to the descendants of slaves. Williams cites "Love Comes in All Colors" from Be What You Are, a plea for tolerance ("be a part of the rainbow," Mavis implores) which features not just great playing and production but also "those familial harmonies, how well they sound together as a unit."

The key word in that quote is "familial": a tribute to a family of singularly close voices and deeply held beliefs, living their values throughout two decades as a group act and beyond, ready to take us there every step of the way.

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