History comes vibrantly alive on this comprehensive four-CD set of the influential family group who merged gospel, soul, and blues into a uniquely influential, perpetually uplifting sound.
Pop music history is problematic in a number of ways. The foremost problem, of course, is the number of significant figures left out of the popular narrative, those voiceless, faceless innovators who were, for any number of reasons, denied access to technology or the commercial market that their followers utilized for fame and credit. But, even where credit is given and due, there's often an oversimplification effect that is the inevitable result of the varied and deep narrative that is American pop music.
The Staple Singers are a case in point. It's a rare, and deeply flawed, history of American popular music in the latter half of the 20th century that does not acknowledge the importance of Roeback "Pops" Staples and his four children, Cleotha, Purvis, Mavis, and Yvonne. But, it's too easy to play a clip of "I'll Take You There", identify their connection to the folk revival and the civil rights movement, and then move on, as if that’s all that is worth mentioning of their more than 30-year career. This important, timeless band becomes, in such a characterization, simply a multiple choice answer on the midterm, a piece of memorized information, bordering on trivia. Greg Kot's excellent 2014 biography of the band, I'll Take You There did an excellent job of clarifying the depth of the musical family's influence, not just upon an important political moment in time, but upon the whole of the narrative of American popular music, extending into the present time. Now, with Stax's comprehensive anthology Faith & Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976 all the beauty and depth of the family's contribution is available to a new listening audience.
New York Times music critic Jon Pareles called Pops Staples, “with his high, pensive, admonitory voice and his pointed guitar picking... a link between the Delta blues and the thoughtful soul songs of Curtis Mayfield". Pops had worked as a child on the Dockery plantation and heard, firsthand, such performers as Charlie Patton and Chester Burnett, the Howlin’ Wolf, there. His swampy, feedback-driven guitar playing influenced later guitarists and performers like Ry Cooder and John Fogerty. Crafting a musical vision for his young family of performers, Pops anxiously allowed the blues, “the devil’s music”, to mix with his better proclivities for gospel; through his spiritual vision, these elements merged into a sound and message both sacred and secular, a holy music for the masses. Duke Ellington, Kot tells us, described the sound of the Staples Singers as “gospel in a blues key.” Equally important to their defining sound was the sublime voice of Mavis Staples, a singer with all the power of Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight, both admirers and friends of the family. Much of the power and beauty of the classic soul sound of Stax and Motown’s classic artists can be heard in the framework of the late 1950s and early 1960s cuts collected here.
The set is the first to collect material from the three record labels for which the group made their most definitive records, Vee-Jay, Riverside, and Stax. Band and age-defining cuts from all three labels are collected here in chronological order, with additional unreleased tracks and a generous collection of live performances, 60 in all spanning three CDs. Plus, the limited edition set includes a seven-inch vinyl single collecting the first two songs recorded by the family band, “Faith & Grace” and “These Are They”, bringing the total to 62. The set focuses upon the family band in its classic era, leaving off solo work and ignoring their last decade. Still, this is as definitive a collection of this important group as has been made available in one place, and the music here is absolutely revelatory.
The set comes housed in a handsome folio package, with the four disc holders sewn into the binding. The book itself contains new liner notes from Mavis Staples along with essays by the compilation’s producer Joe McEwan, James Miller, and Opal Louis Nations, and many previously unpublished family photos.