Where Do I Start With the Staple Singers?
For too long now, the Staple Singers haven’t received the level of respect they deserve. The family’s body of recorded work, stretching across a half century and some dozen labels, is in a shambles, most of it simply unavailable in any digital format, not even on YouTube. Thanks to their socially conscious Top 40 hits of the 1970s, they are among the best known vocal groups that gospel music has seen, yet when it comes time to list the greatest-ever practitioners of the genre, the Staples are rarely placed, as they should be, among the very greatest ever—alongside Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy Love Coates, the Soul Stirrers and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and only a small handful of others.
Thanks in large part to the labors of Mavis Staples, this is beginning to change. The 10 tracks here, 9 of which are included in a Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post, are culled from throughout the Staples’ and Mavis’ careers. They are hardly definitive. But they are guaranteed to leave you at once satisfied and hungry for more.
1. “Uncloudy Day” (1956)
The Staples first “hit” was this version of the gospel standard featuring overcast country harmonies and performed at a muddy crawl—but with its eyes focused heavenward and on the prize. When Mavis, barely 16 at the time, emerges from the blend with what she called her “lady’s bass”—“Well. Well. Well.”—it is unaccountably, undeniably thrilling.
2. “Freedom Highway” (1965)
In his new Staples biography, Greg Kot provides a nifty summary of the family’s distinctive sound, made up of “the four part harmonies that Pops sang with his family on their Dockery Farms porch,” the “blues he heard and played at … Saturday-night house parties,” the “handclapping and foot stomping that Mavis and Yvonne witnessed at Grandma Ware’s” Mississippi church, and “the doo-woppers and street serenaders that Pervis emulated” on the South Side of Chicago. “Freedom Highway” exemplifies all of that. This title track to the group’s sinfully out of print l965 live album is also among the group’s most innervating and encouraging of its early Message Songs, in which the Staples’ soul-girding gospel tools are set upon repairing the world.
3. “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” (1966)
Inspired by Pops’ indignation at seeing the Little Rock Nine denied admission to Little Rock High School in 1957, this is a Message Song master class, a call for any and every one treated cruelly simply because they’re of “a different nationality” to keep on walking “in the master lane … in the master’s name.” “I’m all alone while I sing this song,” the Staples sing, capturing how those kids surely felt even as the family’s dogged harmonies shout unmistakably that those kids are not alone after all.
4. “We’ll Get Over” (1970)
The Staples signed with Stax Records in 1968, and this track from a couple of years later is the perfect blend of the label’s famously gritty brand of soul and the family’s unique Mississippi-by-way-of-Chicago sound and ethos.
5. “Are You Sure” (1971)
From Soul to Soul, a concert documentary recorded in Ghana in 1971, this brief, amazing clip captures Mavis at her most powerful. In the first half, she dips and glides in and around the melody, and her phrasing becomes its own rhythm section. In the second half, caught up in the spirit, she steps out of the song and testifies.
6. “I’ll Take You There” (1972)
Cut in Muscle Shoals, Ala., riding an irresistible funk-reggae groove lifted in part from the Harry J All Stars’ “Liquidator,” the Staples take the Gospel Impulse to the pop charts. Mavis knows a place, she tells us, where there are no tears or worries. A place where, she assures us, there are no smiling-but-lying faces of the sort warned about in “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” soul group the Undisputed Truth’s hit from the previous summer. She can take us to this place, but only if we join her and offer assistance as needed. “Help me,” she pleads. “Come on, somebody help me now.”
7. “Touch a Hand (Make a Friend)” (1974)
Tinkling electric keys, violins that ride the wind, and flutes that purr—this Top 3 R&B hit was like the Staples’ take on lush Philly soul. Add in that smooth, smooth groove and it’s like their gospel impulse version of Yacht Rock, too, calming the waters and “makin’ the world a better place.”
8. “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” (2003)
This duet between Mavis and one-time boyfriend Bob Dylan (or “Bobby,” as she calls him here), begins with a homey skit, an homage to Depression-era event 78s like “Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family.” But then it erupts into some of the fiercest rock ‘n’ roll you’ve ever heard. (This song is not on YouTube, but it is included in the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post.)
9. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (2004)
“I’ll Take You There” is Mavis’ and her family’s signature number, but in important ways, their real theme song has always been the country gospel standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It was the first song Pops taught his children in 1948, the first song they ever performed in public, and among the numbers they performed most often. They recorded it at least three times through the years, including a wonderful 1979 version with country legend George Jones, and Mavis has released two more solo renditions of the number in just the last decade. This one, the closing track to Have a Little Faith, her first solo album after the official end of the Staple Singers (due to Pops’ death in 2000), is funky and bluesy in equal measures, both scared to death and indisputably confident that the song’s title question—shall we see again the loved ones we’ve buried?—will at last be answered in the affirmative.
10. “Hard Times Come Again No More” (2004)
Mavis Staples has released five critically lauded albums in the last decade, and has collaborated with everyone from Marty Stuart and Willie Nelson to Aaron Neville, Dr. John, and Los Lobos on dozens more. For me, though, her greatest moment of this century came on her version of this Stephen Foster song. The accompanying piano is concert-hall stately, and Mavis begins her way through this gorgeous melody somewhat formally and subdued herself. By the time she reaches through the final iterations of the chorus, though, she is leaning heavily, determinedly, into each line, facing each trial head on—“hard times, haa-aard times”—using every rough texture of her lady’s bass, lower than ever now, and more achingly textured than ever, too. She transforms this minstrel-era number into a universal and modern prayer for better days ahead.
Nine of the songs listed above can be heard on the Spotify playlist embedded below.