In 1949, singer/guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples had had it with his band. Had it with their lack of commitment, spotty appearances at rehearsals and lackadaisicalness. So the Chicagoan recruited his four children – Pervis, Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis – and taught them songs. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” being the first.
Starting out as a family gospel group with touches of country and blues, the Staple Singers would also record as a folk, then R&B act. The latter led to their best-known secular songs, “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” recorded for Stax — long after Pervis had left the group and Yvonne was added.
They’ve sung for MLK, JFK, JC (Jimmy Carter — not the other guy so far), Clinton and Obama, won a slew of Grammys, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A new 4CD box set, Faith and Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976 (Stax/Concord), testifies mightily on the Staples' behalf.
Disc 1 features the group’s earliest gospel recordings, mainly traditional spirituals of both white and black tradition. These tracks rely mostly on their vocal blending and simple, spare instrumentation that might be a tinkling of people or Pops’ spidery, shaky guitar runs and what the liner notes call a “ghostly” presence. And while Pops sings in his tenor, it’s Mavis’s deep, soulful voice that powers most of the tracks.
Highlights include “It Rained Children,” “God’s Wonderful Love,” “Come On Up in Glory,” “Pray On” and “Good News.” Also their take on “Uncloudy Day,” which Bob Dylan said in 2015 was “the most mysterious thing I’ve ever heard…it was like a fog rolling in.”
It’s on Disc 2 that the Staples break out a bit – more instrumentation, more fervor and the voice of Mavis Staples taking on a more powerful command in both her exhortations and call-and-response.
Of the gospel material, “Don’t Knock,” “Calling Me,” “New-Born Soul” and “Great Day” stand out, along with “Hammer and Nails” — one of the group’s signature tunes. Toward the end, the listener gets a peek into the band’s move into folk and more secular music with Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (one of the earliest cover versions of the song), the Woody Guthrie standard “This Land is Your Land” and final track “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”
On Disc 3, the Staples move more into folk and protest material, with Pops taking the majority of vocals. However, their attempts at covering Dylan here (“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War”) and Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”) have nothing of the bite required to deliver the lyrics, and come off as tepid. (On a side note, legend goes that Dylan once asked Mavis Staples to marry him. And she said no.)
The gospel numbers are a little more uptempo/jubilee-like, and there are morality/current event tales about gossipers (“Be Careful of the Stones You Throw”), the Freedom Riders (“Freedom Highway”), school busing (“Why [Am I Treated So Bad])” and war as a damaged soldier returns to his mother in the harrowing “John Brown.” Interestingly, Mavis has a wonderful turn on the old Orioles doo-wop tune (later a hit for Elvis) “Crying in the Chapel.” It’s a hint at what a solid straight-ahead soul singer she would soon morph into.
By Disc Four, the Staples have fully embraced a move into contemporary R&B, soul and even the funk of the day – albeit with a social conscience. Tracks like “The Ghetto,” “The Challenge,” “Brand New Day,” “This World” and “Are You Sure?” pull no punches about social, political and racial issues of the day — though with a gentler and less strident tone than other acts.
There are even forays into songs of romance in a couple of songs. This disc also features the Staples' best-known secular tunes, enduring classics like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” as well as minor hits “If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)” and “Let’s Do It Again” from the sound track to the film of the same name.
Also included is their collaboration with the Band, a cover of that group’s “The Weight.” The story goes that after the group filmed the all-star farewell concert The Last Waltz, the Band felt it didn’t pay enough tribute to their country and soul/gospel roots. Hence, they brought in Emmylou Harris and the Staple Singers for two additional filmed segments. Anybody who has seen the film or heard the sound track knows what a wise decision that was.
The Staple Singers would continue playing and recording for almost two decades after the last tune on this box set was recorded. Pops died in 2000 and Cleotha in 2013. But here in one package is one family’s wandering musical journey through a lot of miles — and a lot of styles.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE...
Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.