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.

THE STAPLES STEP OUT….THE WORLD TAKES LITTLE NOTE (The Rising: 4th Memo)

TheSlowDrag-TheStapleSingers

One nice thing about career-spanning comps is you can often hear history developing in front of your ears.

Maybe not just musical history.

One nice thing about CDs is they allow the journey to be a lot longer and deeper.

I’ve been listening to the Staples forever, but, until recently, I was limited to this…

staplesingers3

from vinyl days, and, wonderful as it is, I was pretty sure there was a lot more where that came from. So lately, lacking the moolah to spring for the new limited edition box set produced by the mighty Joe McEwen, I’ve been listening to this…

staplesingers4

…a two-CD set that goes much deeper without suggesting the catalog is anywhere near exhausted.

I doubt the new 4-disc box set, however great, will suggest any such thing either.

One thing that happens on The Ultimate Staple Singers: A Family Affair, however, which will never be defined more clearly, is the crystallization of the moment the Staples separated themselves from the pack.

The first part of the first disc covers their transition from a fine, but fairly typical, black gospel family singing group to a socially conscious folk-gospel blend of same–roughly the distance from “Swing Low” to “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.” They move along in graceful fashion through the first fourteen cuts (more than my old vinyl LP held altogether) with little suggestion that they will ever be better than good.

Then something happens. And on this set, at least, it happens very suddenly.

Somebody–Pops, Stax, the ghosts of ’68 (haunting us still), anybody at marketing who had noted the sudden stunning success of Aretha Franklin–realizes it will be a good idea to put Mavis out front a little more often.

And, once that happens, they arrive all at once. You hear the Staples not as they have been–a tad earnest to tell the truth–but as they would be ever-after, announcing themselves with a one-two punch:

 

Two things are remarkable from this distance.

First, they leave nothing behind from an already adventurous career.

Second, they sing as though the Civil Rights movement has not already peaked. As though the future is still beckoning amidst the riots and assassinations and wars and rumors of wars.

One other thing was less remarkable in the moment.

Nobody noticed. It would be three long years before “Heavy Makes You Happy” finally broke them on the soul charts, nearly another year before “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” took the same vision to the top of the pop charts.

It was hardly a straight line, but they must have known what they had. Because, from “The Ghetto” on, the essential part of the formula was clear to all concerned.

Make Art first.

Commerce will eventually follow.

In other words, start wherever you want, just make sure Mavis gets up front somewhere along the way.