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.
The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)
I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).
But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.
First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.
Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?
Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?
I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.
But, my God, what a missed opportunity.
Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”
One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.
That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.” That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)
Well, none of that happened.
Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)
Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.”Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).
And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”
Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.
One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.
Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.
Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.
Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.
Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.
Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.
And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.
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…
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…
…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.
“…Ronnie Van Zant’s voice mesmerized me. When he’d go ‘Yeaaaaow,’ it just wiped me out. I couldn’t wait to work with him because I’d never worked with an artist that distinctive. He had that fingerprint sound man, and nobody sounded like him, nobody!”
Jimmy Johnson, original Muscle Shoals “Swamper.” (Source: Liner notes to Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album, 1998)
Bear in mind that Johnson, as ace session guitarist and some-time producer and engineer, worked with practically everybody: Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Etta James, the Rolling Stones, Mavis Staples, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Cliff and so on and so forth–and had worked with most of them by the time he first heard Ronnie’s voice. I mention this only because I don’t think a lot of people put Ronnie Van Zant in that same class of vocalist and, frankly, they should.
Of course Van Zant, likely the last truly epic blues singer, white or black, who will ever find a mass audience, eventually repaid Johnson’s faith in him (and gave a rousing shout back) in the Swampers’ chapter of a little epic called “Sweet Home Alabama.” The Swampers’ chapter, for those who don’t recall, came right after the chapter where the shout-out to George Wallace went, “Boo, boo, boo!”
Which–since it emanated from a working class southern white boy whose habit of performing in front of a Confederate flag was not likely to be forgiven just because he confounded so many other stereotypes, up to and including making a record called “Sweet Home Alabama,” which was taken into the stratosphere as much by a chorus of black female background singers as by its famous stone cold riff or Van Zant’s own powerhouse lead vocal–was/is automatically stereo-typed by many as being pro-Wallace.
I generally write an obit when–and only when–the passing of some prominent person affects me on a deep level and I also think I might have something worth saying that hasn’t been said in the usual outlets.
It’s been a hectic year (and it took me a while to get used to remembering to look up recent deaths on-line, as I’m not exactly a ravenous consumer of any “regular” news). That’s the best explanation I have for missing RIP’s of figures as deserving on all levels as Donald “Duck” Dunn and Robin Gibb.
Dunn was, of course, the bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, who happened to be the “house” band at Stax records, in addition to being a hugely successful instrumental act on their own (one of only two such bands, along with the Ventures, to be inducted as performers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).
Writing about the possibilities for racial harmony that were endemic to what I like to call the rock and roll revolution–and how we’ve largely short-changed those possibilities–is one of the main reasons for this blog’s existence. No one embodied that ethos more perfectly or profoundly than Dunn, a southern white man who, along with a southern black man named Al Jackson, Jr., made up what was likely rock and roll’s very greatest rhythm section (granted there is competition, but not much).
That rhythm section was planted in the very heart of what I believe is the greatest inter-racial experiment in the history of America’s cultural life…or perhaps just the history of any country’s life, period–the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soul scene of the sixties and early seventies.
That scene was where white label and studio owners and a mix of white and black songwriters and session men backing an extraordinary group of African-American vocalists, merged to provide the truest and deepest soundtrack for the nation’s moment of hope for a better day coming–and, eventually, the lament for its limitations.
It was a small scene, frankly, and perhaps a couple of dozen people at most were truly indispensable to its contemporary success and its enduring legend. Not one of those people–not Otis Redding or Percy Sledge or Sam Moore or Mavis Staples, not Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes or David Porter or Steve Cropper or Andrew Love, not Jim Stewart or Rick Hall or Quin Ivy….no, not even Al Jackson, Jr.–was more important than the man who tied the rhythms to the melodies at “Soulsville U.S.A.”
At least musically, the best chance for reviving “The Death of the Dream” (as Peter Guralnick’s final, epic chapter of his finest book, Sweet Soul Music, termed it), came in the dread “disco” era of the mid and late seventies.
That’s the era I grew up in and the era the Bee Gees dominated to an extent that had only been managed by Elvis and the Beatles before and has only been matched by Thriller-era Michael Jackson since.
I can’t say I was all that taken by the Bee Gees at their apex (though I love most of that music now). But they had already got through to me in their earlier incarnations, which I happened to be discovering at the same time “Staying Alive” and “Night Fever” were playing something like forty or fifty times a day…apiece.
Gibb’s brother Barry was the lead voice on most the group’s signature hits, but Robin’s distinctive quaver–always on the verge of breaking, always holding on somehow–was put to great use on more than a few, with “Massachusetts” and “Run to Me” (a co-lead) being two of the three songs (Barry’s “To Love Somebody” was the other), that convinced me there might be something to these folks even as my high school buddies were assuring me that the disco stuff wasn’t half bad if you were good and drunk by the time your girl-friend got control of the radio or dragged you onto a dance floor.
Like I say, eventually I loved the disco stuff, too. And I’m glad I got to live through one of the last moments when the dream still sparked a few embers in the ashes. Robin Gibb was as important to that moment as Duck Dunn was when the flame burned brightest.
I don’t know how they’ll fare in the next world. But they were among the precious few who earned a state of grace in this one.
(On a related note: While I was searching for the above, I found this very beautiful duet from Lulu and Maurice Gibb–Robin’s twin brother who passed away in 2003 just months after this was recorded. It’s appropriate to this moment, I think, and it’s one of her very finest vocals…which is saying something. Their marriage, incidentally, was from 1969 to 1973. Better then.)
My default driving around music for the last couple of weeks has been the twenty volumes of Didn’t It Blow Your Mind, a seventies’ soul series Rhino put out in the mid-nineties which I finally managed to assemble complete about a month ago. (I’m nothing if not persistent!)
Listening to it all at once has been both uplifting and depressing, especially if I switch from cd to radio at any given moment.
On the one hand, the boundless glory of what was…on the other, the reality of what is, unlimited only in its tedium..
It’s not really nostalgia for me because I didn’t hear most of this music when it came out.
I was alive–even old enough–just not cognizant.
Granted modern music suffers from an industry-wide compulsion to suppress the human voice (aided and abetted by the same industry’s self-pitying assurance that they are being made obsolete, i.e., their profit margin is being eroded, by technology–this following a stretch of many decades when virtually every technological advance actually helped increase sales and not one decreased them).
But it also suffers from juvenilization, something which has pretty much destroyed country, pop and hip-hop and put a serious dent in the sort of R&B music represented on the Rhino series.
I got to this specific state of enlightenment/depression via the last two sides on Volume 11, which feature Mavis Staples’ rasp-of-uplift on “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” giving way to Ann Peebles’ rasp-of-despair on “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” two songs that were big hits in their day and which I’ve never heard on “oldies” radio (which tends to juvenilization itself), though I have heard them–and their like–on retro R&B stations, where they–and their like–tend to blow down whatever neo-soul items happen to surround them at any given moment.
The very specific question that came into my mind, then–a corollary my standard “Where did the great voices go?”–was this:
“Where did the grown-ups go?”
Oh yeah, and “What’s the cost of their disappearance?”
That came just a little later.
I know golden ages never last, in art or anything else.
But the specifics of why, exactly, we threw this one away so quickly and with even less reason than societies usually have for throwing away golden ages, continue to confound me.
And, hey, today, there’s a new Spinners’ box cued into the cd player…All their early albums, complete…