Sound of civil rights rings out in resurrected Staple Singers records
Occasionally, for reasons of fate or coincidence, sounds from the past converge in the present at key moments.
Consider the Staple Singers, whose gospel recordings starting in the early 1960s carried them through the next four decades and included secular pop hits including “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
Lauded by musical aesthetes but less known among the public, the family quartet and its founder-patriarch, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, have recently seen new light shined on them that serves as a reminder that history sometimes needs a few decades — and a few unexpected nudges — to catch up with innovators.
There was Bob Dylan’s mention last month of the Staple Singers during his MusiCares Person of the Year speech, in which he praised the quartet — then composed of Pops and children Mavis, Yvonne and Pervis — for recording some of his early songs. Calling them “one of my favorite groups of all time,” Dylan credited the Staples, and specifically Pervis, for carrying his work to their fans. “They were the type of artists that I wanted recording my songs,” he said.
A few months prior, during the final episode of “The Colbert Report,” host Stephen Colbert signed off with a seeming non sequitur when acknowledging the thousands of guests who appeared on his show: “I’ve just got too many to thank. So you know what? I’ll just thank Mavis Staples. Mavis, if you could just call everybody tomorrow, that would be great.”
It was as though some force were propelling the Staple Singers into the public consciousness again, timed to coincide with the arrival of a pair of resurrected recordings. A remastered, extended reissue of their momentous live album “Freedom Highway: Live at the New Nazareth Missionary Baptist Church — 1965” documents a Chicago performance cum civil rights rally in the weeks after the Selma march, and the posthumous release of “Don’t Lose This,” the final record from Pops Staples, finished with the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer 15 years after Pops’ death.
“Pops was something else, I tell you,” says Mavis, now 75. Before he died, she promised her father to guard the recording. She did that and more. “The record sounds good, and I’ve been getting good feedback, and I’m just so grateful. I can relax now. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. I’ve done what he asked me to do: ‘Don’t lose this.’”
If “Freedom Highway” projects a glorious future filled with the promise of racial equality, “Don’t Lose This” meditates on a life near its end — yet somehow remains filled with faith that better a day will come. It’s this fervor that’s at the heart of the Staple Singers’ enduring legacy.
“I think it’s monumental,” says Tweedy of the group’s work. “A lot of music that we take for granted I don’t think would be there without them. I don’t think Dylan would be the same without them.”
The evidence is all over “Freedom Highway.” A recording rife with epiphanies, the album failed to make a commercial impression when it was first released through Epic and quickly vanished. Even Mavis didn’t own a copy.
Were it not for another twist of fate it would have remained an obscurity. While browsing online, Sony Legacy producer Steve Berkowitz chanced upon an image of the original Epic release on EBay. From his long affiliation with the company, Berkowitz thought he knew everything Epic put out.
Then, skimming through “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era” at an Oxford, Miss., bookstore, Berkowitz noted author Greg Kot’s description of “Freedom Highway” as “one of the best live albums ever made.” That sealed the deal. After tracking down the record and masters in the vaults, Berkowitz and co-producer and gospel music historian-choir director Nedra Olds-Neal collaborated to issue the full, unedited recording, including a midset call for offering by the church pastor.
Berkowitz describes the recording as “tremendously important. Society owes them a great debt.” As well, though, he calls it “an incredible document of the family, in their home church with the people in their neighborhood and community.”
“In that house of worship and in so many across the country, black church leaders were the political leaders, certainly led by the Rev. Martin Luther King,” he adds. “This is the witness of it.”
Taken as a whole, the album reconfirms the vital role that churches served in organizing citizens to embark on acts of civil disobedience.
The long-overdue reissue of the April 9 performance at New Nazareth makes repeated references to the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. A jubilant program featuring Staples originals and gospel standards including “We Shall Overcome,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the Staples and a congregation of hand-clapping, foot-stomping worshippers inject righteous fury into songs until they nearly burst.
A friend to Martin Luther King Jr., Pops and his family worked churches throughout the South during the movement. With a Chicago home base, the Staple Singers toured to spread gospel and gospel-inspired protest songs, filling sanctuaries with Pops’ influential guitar work, rich with an electrified tremolo tone, and the family’s pitch-perfect harmonies.
“From that march, words were revealed, and a song was composed,” Pops says on the album of the song “Freedom Highway,” phrasing the truth as though it were delivered via stone tablets. He dedicates the call-to-action song “to all of the freedom marchers.”
An uptempo number explosively sung by a young Mavis at peak power, the lyrics are an exercise in clarity: “March for freedom’s highway, march each and every day,” she sings in harmony with her family and choir as drums bang, a bass drives and Pops delivers a looping electric guitar melody with echoes of the Delta blues of his Mississippi youth. “Made up my mind and I won’t turn around,” they sing before getting to the issue at hand: “There is just one thing/ I can’t understand my friend/ Why some folk think freedom/ Was not designed for all men.”
When the song finishes Pops takes to the microphone and asks for and receives an amen. “Keep on marching. Everybody’s talking about him that’s not doing that,” he says with a chiding sternness.
Mavis was 25 when they played the New Nazareth. “I never looked at it as political,” she says. “I knew it was good that we were doing that because I had seen why we were doing it. As a kid, I had been in the South with my grandmother, and then after Pops started singing and we started singing these protest songs, I knew that we were doing a good thing.”
The direction forward seemed obvious, she says. “I just looked at it like, we’re in the civil rights movement with Dr. King, and they need freedom songs. They need protest songs, and we are the ones to do it.”
The Staple Singers eventually moved from Epic to Stax Records, where, with the backing of both Booker T. & the MGs and the lauded Muscle Shoals, Ala., studio session men, the group transitioned to secular music. In doing so, they became affiliated with that singular blues-soul sound, connected alongside acts such as Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and Albert King.
They earned one of their biggest hits, “Let’s Do It Again,” on the soundtrack to a film of the same name released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom imprint in 1975. In the years to follow, both Pops and Mavis continued to record as did the family group. Pops won a Grammy in 1994 for his album “Father, Father,” and in 1999 the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Pops died a year later at age 85. In 2011, Mavis’ “You Are Not Alone,” produced by Tweedy, won a Grammy for Americana album. Mavis continues to perform, most recently as part of the 2014 Kennedy Center Honors concert in Washington, D.C.
For reasons both fortunate and unfortunate, the reissue of the Staple Singers’ landmark concert achievement couldn’t be more timely. The deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., New York and elsewhere has injected new life into the protest movement and serves as a reminder of a promise unfulfilled. “Freedom Highway,” bursting with music delivered from the eye of the civil rights hurricane, will resonate with anyone moved by John Legend and Common’s performance of their Oscar-winning “Glory” at last week’s Academy Award ceremony.
So too will Pops’ poignant, seemingly death-defying last sessions.
‘Don’t Lose This’
“Don’t Lose This” was recorded in the late ‘90s with daughters Mavis, Yvonne and Cleotha (the latter replaced Pervis when he left the group in 1970). “Don’t lose this,” Pops had told Mavis after listening to the recordings in his bedroom. “I said, ‘OK, Daddy, I won’t lose this.’”
Not only did she keep them safe, but with the help of Tweedy, who has collaborated with Mavis on her two most recent albums, and his drummer-son, Spencer, they were built into a glorious Pops platform adding restrained, respectfully dot-connecting bass, guitar and drums.
As originally recorded, Tweedy says, the album had a dated ‘90s sheen designed to attract gospel and R&B fans of the time. But when he isolated the tracks to hear Pops’ vocals and guitar, “it automatically sounded like a new man, a different person singing. It was the same vocal take, but it was so much more vibrant. He almost sounded like a prisoner or something in the rough mixes that we had from previous recording sessions.” Tweedy understood what was possible.
The opportunity only came about because of Pops’ determination to finish his parts for the record even though his health was failing. “Sometimes he’d say, ‘I just don’t feel like it, Mavis. Y’all go ahead,’” Mavis remembers. “Then in about a couple days he sparked up: ‘OK, Mavis, get that studio, we’re going in!’”
As a result, spots existed on the late-’90s masters where Pops would sing but didn’t feel up to playing his guitar, at others where he played guitar but didn’t feel like singing. So she asked Tweedy to fill in the holes to finish it.
“Spencer and I just got in the studio and played along with Pops as if he was in the room with us on all of the tracks that we could,” Tweedy recalls.
Their guiding philosophy: Stay out of the way. “Don’t ever lose sight of the fact that the most unique part of any recording that they’ve ever done, and Mavis has ever done — all of their best recordings are great because they’re there singing,” Tweedy says. “I don’t think any of them were ever made greater by a string arrangement or the playing around it. To me, it’s always been the uniqueness of the way they presented music.”
When the Tweedys finished, all gathered at Wilco’s studio to present the work to Mavis and Yvonne. Mavis describes that day with a quiver in her voice. “It was a tear festival,” she says. “At points tears were flowing from everyone in the room.”
“It was one of the most moving, most beautiful days I’ve ever had in a recording studio,” says Tweedy, citing reasons that eclipse mere aesthetic success. His wife, Susie — Spencer’s mother — had just been diagnosed with cancer. “Susie and Mavis are very close,” Tweedy says, “and she [Susie] was there with us, and everybody just cried and cried and listened.”
“I call her my daughter,” Mavis says. “She laid her head and I held her, and we just cried. It was such a good feeling. I felt so light. I felt so relieved. Light as a feather, like so much was lifted off of me. I looked at Tweedy — I just had to hug Tweedy and Spencer. You know, it was like a family reunion.”
Mavis also felt as though she were reuniting with her father, especially during a bit of intimately expressed banter between them captured during the recording process. “That always gets me, boy. I can just see him. I can see that twinkle in his eye, you know, when he’d get tickled,” she says. “It’s so … his voice. It sounds so fresh. It sounds like we’re right there together.”
Both releases suggest that the freshness the Singers deliver was genetic and will remain embedded in the music for decades to come.
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