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Sweeter Than the Sweet

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Pops, Cleo, Yvonne and Mavis Staples perform in a church.

Pops, Cleo, Yvonne and Mavis Staples perform in a church.

I’ll Take You There
Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway.
By Greg Kot.
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Respect Yourself
Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.
By Robert Gordon.
Buy this book

The Staple Singers traveled to Ghana in March 1971 as part of a revue featuring American jazz, rock, and rhythm-and-blues artists who wanted to befriend musicians on the other side of the Atlantic. A film documenting the tour, Soul to Soul, is mostly a celebration of shared musical affinities, but one sequence casts the trip in a different light. Right after a scene in which Mavis Staples describes a visit to a former slave dungeon, the group performs “When Will We Be Paid?” The song, written by Randall Stewart, is one of the Staple Singers’ most compelling. Mavis’s deep contralto moan leads a call and response with her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha, while their father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, supplies a piercing affirmation with his terse guitar licks. The lyrics move from declaring pride in the building of the United States, including wartime service, to decrying the horrors of the Middle Passage and ultimately demanding their redress.

“When Will We Be Paid?” is something of an anomaly in the group’s career, not least because it was omitted from the 1986 compilation The Best of the Staple Singers. They tended to sing about spiritual uplift (“I’ll Take You There”) and self-reliance (the anthemic “Respect Yourself”). But in other ways, “When Will We Be Paid?”—a call for inclusion and an expression of cultural pride as much as an account of historical atrocities—defines not only the essence of the Staple Singers repertoire but also the mission of Stax, the Memphis-based record label that became the group’s home. Stax released several of the era’s most potent R&B records and sought a place at the industry’s table as one of the few popular record companies with an African-American owner, a former DJ named Al Bell. The making of “When Will We Be Paid?” also speaks to Stax’s integrationist ethos: its producer and key instrumentalist was the white guitarist Steve Cropper.

Outwardly defiant musical statements would have been almost unimaginable to Pops Staples when he was a child in Mississippi. Born in 1914 to sharecroppers, he liked to sing his parents’ hymns but found more than spiritual relief in the music of the Delta, often dropping in on the blues musician Charley Patton, who lived nearby. Staples earned pocket money playing guitar at dances, but he sensed that better opportunities lay elsewhere; in 1936, he moved to Chicago and sent for his growing family when he secured employment in the city’s notorious stockyards. In I’ll Take You There, a history of the Staple Singers, author Greg Kot has a knack for distilling the stuff of interviews, research and nuggets gleaned from Pops Staples’s unpublished memoir into pithy descriptions of the Staple Singers’ lean years: “During the school year, Pops and [his wife] Oceola would send one or two of their children to live with Grandma Ware in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, because they couldn’t afford winter shoes for all the kids.”

Pops Staples had little to lose when he organized his children into a gospel group. The young lead singers were a natural draw, but what also stirred up attention on the church circuit was Pops’s tremolo on the electric guitar. Kot describes the effect as “a hypnotic swirl of reverberation, repetition, and riff.” (Staples’s gentle touch made an impression on a teenage musical acquaintance, Curtis Mayfield.) From 1940 to 1960, when the size of Chicago’s black population almost tripled, the Staple Singers’ harmonies recalled one of the few aspects of Southern culture that the city’s African-American urban migrants may have missed about the states they’d left behind.

In 1955, the Staple Singers signed with Chicago’s Vee-Jay label, one of the first widely known African-American-owned record companies, and the group was marketed alongside Vee-Jay’s premier catalog of blues, gospel and R&B. This brought them some success, but a recording of a Staple Singers set at the 1962 University of Chicago Folk Festival suggests that they hadn’t abandoned an older style of religious performance favored by purists. While some critics argued that the group’s mid-’60s transition to rock reeked of commercialism, the Staple Singers had higher concerns. Pops wrote “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” as a tribute to the black students’ attempts to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The plaintive song became a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Staples family would later rally crowds on his behalf, especially for Operation Breadbasket. But international popularity was not theirs to enjoy until Al Bell signed them to Stax in 1968.

* * *

The Staple Singers had known Bell since he was a 17-year-old DJ in Little Rock, Arkansas, and they would also have been aware of his admiration for King’s politics. “I realized during that period that I desired, like Dr. King, to have peace among us as ethnic groups,” Bell told Robert Gordon, the author of Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. “But I thought we needed to be in pursuit of economic empowerment and building an economic base for us as a people.”

Gordon places Stax’s story in the context of the civil rights movement in Memphis. Jim Stewart, a white banker and amateur country fiddler, established the company in the late 1950s with his sister, Estelle Axton. They set up shop in a black neighborhood and allowed anyone to audition and sometimes record a song. This was about three years before the city’s students undertook to integrate its lunch counters.

Many of the musicians who walked through Stax’s doors were around the same age as those students. Multi-instrumentalist Booker T. Jones would go on to form the company’s stellar house band, Booker T. & the MG’s, with guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Al Jackson Jr. Duck Dunn would soon replace bassist Lewie Steinberg. They were veterans of the area’s bars and juke joints, and their music conveyed a raw essence that was sharpened and refined when Jones studied music formally at Indiana University. Singer Carla Thomas was introduced to the company through her father, Rufus Thomas. The result was a fascinating mix of personalities—from the quietly studious, like Jones, to the older, extroverted entertainers, like Rufus Thomas. Gordon’s resourceful use of lengthy interviews with this cast of players, as well as his sharp wit and vivid imagery, lend Respect Yourself a novelistic texture.

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