Easter Sunday Gospel Hour: The Staple Singers

by James Burkinshaw

The Staple Singers
(image source: soundonsound.com)
"There's hardly a dimension in black life in its richest sense that cannot be found in the music of the Staples. Not only the political and overt social message that some of the songs have, but the religiousness of the spirit. It is the embodiment of the struggle of black people in America." Harry Belafonte

  The Staple Singers ("Pops" Staples and his three daughters, Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne) were not only central to American gospel and its secular twin, soul music, for over half a century, but at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement during the triumphs and tragedies of the 1960s. 
Roebuck "Pops" Staple was born in Mississippi and brought from the Delta a blues-inflected guitar style that helped revolutionise gospel in the 1950s, creating a raw, ecstatic sound described by one critic as a kind of "holy blues". Among the Staples' earliest fans was fellow-Mississippian, Elvis Presley, who told Mavis "You know, I like the way your father plays that guitar. He plays it nervous", referring to the way in which the shivering tremolo of Staples' guitar played off the blistering intensity of Mavis' lead contralto and the sinuous harmonies of Cleotha and Yvonne. Here is the group performing the gospel classic "More Than A Hammer And Nails" on The Johnny Cash Show:

While performing on the gospel circuit in Montgomery, Alabama, the Staples heard Martin Luther King preaching at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and, as Mavis later recalled, "from that we joined the movement, made the transition from strictly gospel to protest songs . . . Gospel  music is good news music to strengthen people when they are burdened down. The movement was the same thing, helping us to come together as one." They became close to King and their song "Freedom Highway", which fuses impassioned lyrics about social justice and political freedom with insistent, often hypnotic, gospel rhythms, became one of the emblematic songs of the Civil Rights Movement, still retaining its haunting, intoxicating power fifty years after it was recorded:

  During the late 1960s, like many other gospel singers such as Sam Cooke, the Staple Singers shifted towards a smoother, more secularised soul sound that nonetheless retained the millenarian Christian optimism of their early gospel music. "Respect Yourself", recorded at the iconic Stax Records, was a huge soul hit, with a message of self-empowerment that appealed to African-American audiences demoralised by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and frustrated by a sense that the promise of the Civil Rights era had not been fulfilled.

It was followed by their first mainstream number one record, "I'll Take You There", criticised by many traditionalists for representing an abandonment of the Staples' gospel roots. Mavis later recalled, " "I'll Take You There" was described as the devil's music, but we were talking about the same thing, about taking you to heaven". However, what critics perhaps objected to was less the spiritual content of the lyrics than the worldly suggestiveness of the music, with its resonant bass line, rich horn arrangement and the sensuous intensity of Mavis Staples' vocals.

The Staples continued to experiment and develop musically, resulting in another number one, the funk-suffused  "Let's Do It Again", in 1975, produced by Curtis Mayfield; this was to prove their last major hit. 
Mavis Staples, early 1960s
(source: the casual optimist)
However, a year later they teamed up with American roots rockers The Band to produce a transcendent performance of "The Weight", memorably filmed by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz (see below).

The Staples continued to be in demand, working with artists as diverse as Bob Dylan (who had unsuccessfully proposed marriage to Mavis in the 1960s), Elton John, Jeff Tweedy and Prince. Mavis Staples has continued to record and perform worldwide. As she received her first Grammy Award in 2011 for her solo album You Are Not Alone, at the age of 71, she mused,"This has been a long time coming."

Interview with Mavis Staples taken from NPR's "American Routes"

See also Easter Sunday Gospel Hour 2012: Sister Rosetta Tharpe