Published Nov 26, 2015The 80 tracks compiled here exhibit the astonishing breadth and influence of the Staple Singers, a weirdly unsung family of musical innovators who drew gospel and soul music into uncharted territory. Led by their kindly yet resolute patriarch, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, siblings Mavis, Pervis and Cleotha went on a classic American artistic odyssey, beginning humbly as a local phenomenon in Chicago and eventually finding chart success (thanks to enduring hits like "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself") after expanding upon their core sound with flavours of the day.
But the fundamental force of the Staples is still what makes them so compelling today. Pops' tremolo-rich Fender Jazzmasters and Mustangs, coupled with Mavis' unusual range as a contralto and his own high tenor not only helped the group stick out, it made traditionalists treat them like they were freaks. Beyond secular, there was something unholy about the sound of the Staples' idiosyncratic gospel-folk-soul-pop blend.
The chronological sequence here is wise, as it tracks socio-political change and an earnest, thoughtful band reflecting the world around them in some kind of real time. They were the first to embrace the "protest" music of Bob Dylan, covering his "Blowin' In the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Masters of War," among others, in compelling country-infused black church sing-along style. They sing of equality and empowerment with as much spirit and assertiveness as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, or Aretha Franklin, rising superstars whom they occasionally emulate.
As they received more attention as a gospel quartet, the Staple Singers ensured their relevance by attempting full band records backed by Booker T. and the M.G.'s and travelling to storied studios like Muscle Shoals. These forays to achieve mass appeal are informative, curious and occasionally revelatory, but it's really their minimalist electric guitar and vocals songs that make them sound like they're from another planet.
The Staple Singers haunt all of American song with a rich, emotive template — ripe with darkness and uplift when the occasion calls for either — that will likely never be seen again. This gorgeous and lovingly packaged collection is a magnificent testament to their towering power. (Stax)