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.
…I’m not always right about this End of Days stuff.
I’ve been telling the only friend I have with whom I tend to discuss politics (she keeps her “political” twitter account under an assumed name, separated from her personal/business oriented twitter stuff, to avoid the usual constant threats of violence and barrage of abuse) that statues honoring Jefferson and Washington will soon follow those honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into various states of defacement and dismemberment, and that Lincoln and Grant will be in the cross-hairs five minutes after that.
Oh, by the way, the organizer of the Charlottesville Unite-the-Right March, is now reported to be an Obama-supporting Wall Street Occupier who had a magical conversion to White Supremacist power player within days of Donald Trump’s election. It hardly matters if it’s true. The important thing is that conflicting accounts are now readily available from all the usual sources and you may choose among them as you wish.
I pity those whose brains remain unprotected from these waves of industrial feces by insufficient familiarity with the New Testament or the holy texts of Rock and Roll America and advise them to repair to a quiet space at once and redress their ignorance in council with their own spirit practicing the Priesthood of the Believer.
I don’t know any songs dedicated to the smell of sheep dip, so this will have to do for today’s inspirational tune from the Book of Clarence. (Chapter Seven, Verse 4, I believe, but don’t quote me. I ain’t here to start any trouble.)
Those who prefer The Good News version to the King James, may like this one better…
As defined by that cover at the right (from Time Life’s invaluable Ultimate Seventies series and a rare failure from their usually inspired graphics department), 1975 was every crap-u-lous thing the punks said it was. It makes me want to take the shop-worn Survived-The-Seventies secret decoder badge out of my wallet and slip it into a wood stove with pine knots blazing.
Then again, there’s the music.
The mid-seventies were a troublesome time, a time when we had to either deal with the sixties or head down the path that brought us to this cozy little paradise we now enjoy. By 1975, what I’ve taken to calling The Rising–the attempt rock and rollers of various hues made to sustain the revolution that had begun in the fifties and perhaps even broaden it into a world where we would never be forced to admit we aren’t going to get along because we really don’t like each other very much–was cresting into what turned out to be its last wave. Within a year or two (or five), punk/alternative and rap/hip-hop would arrive full force, and, with some help from an intelligentsia programmed to believe its own self-contempt was the New Covenant, carry us back to our various tribes.
What a happy journey that’s been!
I mean, forty years later, radio is such an awesome void nobody even pretends to fathom it. The only thing blanker, less alive, is journalism.
Or maybe politics.
I wonder: Was 1975 so bad it really had to be this way?
I mean, forget politics. Culture dies (or simply withers away) first. The rest is detritus.
I wonder, was 1975 alive, or–as some would have it–dead?
Hmmmmm….How best to ponder?
I know. Let’s think of it as a concept.
And let’s think of Time Life’s edition of Ultimate Seventies: 1975 as a concept album.
The 1975 journey begins. In 1963 actually. White boy (Clint Ballard, Jr.) writes song with who knows who in mind. White producers (Leiber and Stoller) cut it on a black woman (Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister). It goes nowhere. Black producer (Calvin Carter), picks it up with an idea of cutting it on a black man (Dee “Raindrops” Clark), then decides the lyrical message will be too harsh coming from a guy, so he gives it to another black woman (Betty Everett) who gets a top five R&B hit out of it, with modest pop crossover. Six months later, the Swinging Blue Jeans take their cover to #3 in England.
All very typical.
Everett’s record had just enough cachet to make it into some of the standard live sets of the decade hence, including, circa the early seventies, Linda Ronstadt’s. Ronstadt, still chasing the real thing after a decade of not-quite-stardom, gave her first major performance of the song on a December, 1973 episode of The Midnight Special...where she was introduced as the country singer she still considered herself to be.
All still pretty typical.
Months later, after a tortuous process of layered guitars, studio tinkering and bitching about tempos amongst Ronstadt, her new producer, Peter Asher (a Brit keen on the Swinging Blue Jeans’ version), and the crack band she had assembled after granting the Eagles permission to strike out on their own, the song was recorded with a pop sheen that only enhanced what she had done on The Midnight Special, which was make the song’s deep mix of dread and liberation seem inherent and blow every previous version to smithereens.
It was released November, 1974 and reached #1 in Billboard, February, 1975.
Southern funk band goes full-blown “Disco,” forever blurring the distinction and making the newer concept a bigger deal than it had been previously. After them, it was inevitable somebody would make up stories about disco. And just as inevitable that the fakers would split the cut.
[Of note: KC was the first white lead vocalist to officially top Billboard‘s R&B chart since, weirdly, Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack” in 1963. (Also of Note: Along with a handful of record by black artists, Joel Whitburn lists the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” as an R&B #1 in 1964, when Billboard had temporarily suspended its R&B chart. The British Invasion of that year, perhaps helped by other things, soon necessitated the restoration of the pre-rock-n-roll order, which disco was threatening by 1975, thus requiring us to be “saved” yet again by our betters. First time around, we got Beatlemania. This time around, we settled for the Sex Pistols. To which I’ll only add that, between Herbert Wayne Casey and John Lydon, I know who the visionary radical was. Listen again.)]
From Wikipedia: “The title, if correct English had been used, would be “Must Have Gotten Lost”. When a contraction is used, “Must Have” becomes “Must’ve”, which sounds like “Must of”, which is not correct English and makes no sense.”
And I was just going to complain that they don’t make blue-eyed-soul-garage-rock records like this anymore. Silly me, forever underestimating the present’s ability to stick a pencil in my eye.
Talk about a leg up to ’75. “I hear you’re workin’ for the C-I-A/They wouldn’t have you in the Maf-i-a.” That’s everything rap ever wanted to be in a couplet and that’s not even getting into how they could sing and play.
Wait, the song about Philadelphia Freedom was sung by the bald, bi, English dude who could cut in on Soul Train? And programmed right after the song (cut with George Martin no less) by America, the band that so cheekily named itself after the country the bald guy was celebrating….assuming he wasn’t really putting all that pop genius into just giving a shout out to Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis team?
Of course it was.
But not to worry. That was “America” then. Nothing like that would happen now. Not even close.
A bit of life stirs. Not my favorite Skynyrd, actually, but it’s the real life Huck Finn singing about the real life road so it always pulls me in in the long run. And that’s even before the guitars start playing…and playing…and burning.
Okay, now I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I’ve slept a bit and I’m up and ready to engage the past, the present, the future. And god knows I’ve got time, listening to Joe, who always could make two minutes sound like ten.
Or maybe a funk masterwork by a bunch of Scotsmen?
The more I think about it, the more I’m aware that there was no way this sort of thing was going to be allowed to stand. All that peace, harmony and funk breaking out everywhere? The Overlords must have really been asleep at the switch. No wonder they hit back with such a vengeance.
A natural answer record to “Lady Marmalade,” in which the chump goes home, falls for a Jamaican hooker being pimped by “the racket boss” and, given a chance to tell his side of the tale, turns out to be even more of a chump than the lady thought….because nobody (the girl, the chump, the “black boy” in her island world) can save her and he’s the one who can’t stop asking himself why.
Just in case that’s not enough confusion, the Jamaican girl’s background ghost-voice was provided by Kiki Dee.
A straight rip and scary in its efficiency. White boys who helped define corn-fed midwestern stadium rock take on the Soul Brothers Six and their straight-from-the-soul-shadows mind-bender and do it note-for-note, lick-for-lick. And get an earned hit. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. Ever. Not even in ’75.
Which brings us all the way around to the song that was sitting at #1 when the year ended.
By 1975, one of the mixed blessings of the decade’s first half–the blaxploitation flick–had started to come a box-office cropper, and so the curtain was about to be drawn on one of the period’s unmixed blessings, the blaxploitation soundtrack.
Even the best of those movies never lived up to the best of their music, and, though I’ve never seen the Sidney Poitier/Bill Cosby vehicle that provided the excuse for the Staples’ to formally close down the southern soul era (and Stax records), I have no reason to suspect it was among the best of anything.
Even if it was great, though, I’ll feel safe betting it wasn’t this great, because, whatever else it was, it wasn’t a reach for the heavens, let alone a reach which was about to have its fingers stomped by Brits in boots, pretending to preach freedom.
Speak to me ’75!
And, if you’re gonna go down, go down swingin’. Hey, If sitting through “Jackie Blue” and “Dance With Me” is the price of the ticket, I’ll pay it every time.
Let not the recent Deluge of Death overwhelm me so far it keeps me from saying a word about Bonny “Mack” Rice, who passed with little fanfare this week.
Rice was most famous for writing this…
That’s more than enough to warrant a shout-out for any man. But he made good records himself (his version of “Mustang Sally” was an R&B hit). And, while he wasn’t among the few who could match Wilson Pickett or Mavis Staples, his bone-dry, slightly off-key vocals were surely in the DNA of mighty strivers like Charles Wright and Arlester Christian. They went on to lead the great bands (Wright’s Watt’s 103rd Street Rhythm Band and Christian’s Dyke and the Blazers) who formed the part of the bridge between James Brown and modern funk that wasn’t built by Sly Stone–you might say the harder, more skeletal part. You can hear that voice put to its best use on his Christmas classic, “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’,” which he also wrote and inhabited like no other:
Credit “Sir Mack,” then, with being a small, but vital, link in a mighty chain. If we broke it, it wasn’t his fault.
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.
First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.
With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.
So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):
The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.
That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.
Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)
If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.
As for a favorite?
Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.
You just have to think of a little test.
Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?
You, Carl. Only you.
I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.
[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]
“We would certainly not have come so far without your support. In a real sense you have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between black and white. School integration is much easier now that they share a common music, a common language and enjoy the same dances. You introduced youth to that music, created the language of ‘soul’ and promoted the dance which now sweeps across race, class and nation.”
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (August, 1967–Address to National Association of TV and Radio Announcers, Atlanta, Georgia)
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…