SISTER HARMONY (Yvonne Staples, R.I.P.)

Pops, Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis Staples, circa early 70s

When Yvonne Staples replaced her brother Pervis in the Staple Singers in 1971, the family had been singing gospel for more than twenty years and trying to break into the mainstream (via folk at first, then soul) for nearly a decade.

Their signature strengths were long in place by then: Pops’ inimitable guitar licks, now stinging, new mellifluous; family harmony; Mavis’ astounding leads, an unmatched combination of honey and gravel.

They had even made epic records. Check out 1965’s Freedom Highway just for starters.

What they had not done was have hit records.

Coincidentally or not (they changed producers at the same time), exchanging Pervis’ harmony voice for Yvonne’s marked the exact moment the Staples headed for the sky and made the half-decade’s worth of soul and funk classics that made their legend. To my ear, a small but definite shift in energy and cohesion did occur. And, harmony, being what it is, I wouldn’t risk a do-over.

Not if it meant losing even a little bit of what the Staple Singers did in the years when they and Al Green were almost alone in keeping hard Southern soul near the center of America life, the moment we flew closest to the sun.

Not the first bit…

or the last….

…or anything in between.

Yvonne Staples passed away April 10.

I know where she is now. Where there’s no smiling faces, lying to the races.

See you when I get there.

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