A Staple Singer
The Gospel according to Mavis.
In a telephone conversation two days before her performance, “Respect Yourself” came up.
“Mack Rice wrote that. Luther Ingram’s name is on there. Luther said, ‘Man, we black people need to start respecting ourselves.’ That was the most Luther did on the song . . . Mack said, ‘I’m gonna write a song,’ but he gave Luther Ingram half of it for that title . . . Mack did some good stuff with Wilson Pickett. He wrote ‘Mustang Sally.’”
The unforgettable line “Take the sheet off your face, it’s a brand new day” from “Respect Yourself” prompted memories of traveling in the South during segregation. Racial showdowns were a way of life. Mavis remembered a white service station owner who accused the Staples family of stealing gasoline, prompting Pops to use his fists. “Oh yeah, we had our time. Actually we went to jail in West Memphis, Arkansas,” recalled Mavis from her Chicago home. “We beat up a white man. Well, (laughs) actually Pops beat him up. [The gas station attendant] ran into his office to get a gun. We knew what he was going to get . . . Well, the guy was just nasty. And when my father went in to get the receipt, I saw him shake his finger in Pops’ face. He said something about me because I was driving. I asked him to wash the windshield, and he wanted his money. I had driven from Jackson, Mississippi, to Memphis. All these bugs were on the windshield. He went on and washed the windshield . . . I asked him for a receipt and he said, ‘If you want a receipt you come over to the office.’
“So Pops told me to pull over and he went in to get the receipt. And [the attendant] said something about me and shook his finger in Pops’s face. Next thing I know, Pops had walloped him. He beat him up real good and got in the car. And Daddy got the receipt, and actually that receipt is what saved us. Because when [the attendant] called the police, he told them that we didn’t pay for our gas and we robbed him. So the police caught up with me, had us standing out on the highway with shotguns on us and dogs barking. Oh, it was spooky. But the best part of it is I’ve never been so glad to see a police station. They took us to jail. The chief asked Pops what happened. The chief told them, ‘Get them handcuffs off them people.’ He said, ‘These young bucks always trying to keep this mess going. We’re trying to clean up down here.’ They found our money in the trunk and he asked Pops, ‘Well, this is what we’re looking for. This is the money you took from the service station.’ And Daddy said, ‘No, we sang for that money tonight.’ And he said, ‘Well, I got to hear what kind of singing you do to make this kind of money.’ And the money did look like [we] had robbed somebody because the people in Jackson, Mississippi, had it in a cigar box (laughs).”
At the Alys Stephens Center, Mavis led the band into “The Weight,” calling out: “Levon Helm . . . Robbie Robertson . . . Danko . . . and dear Garth.” She asked the small audience if they’d seen The Last Waltz. When few responded, she admonished, “I knew y’all hadn’t seen it.” The Staples had been featured in the film, as they had pioneered the introduction of gospel to rock ‘n’ roll audiences. During the interview, she remembered the varied shows they played. “Our sound was so unique that the people would call us to sing. And we were singing strictly gospel. But they called us for folk festivals, bluegrass festivals, blues festivals, and jazz festivals. . . . We toured with people like The Who, The Bee Gees, Jimi Hendrix. They really liked the Staple Singers’ sound. And a lot of those white guys have recorded some of our songs.”
One of those “white guys” who no doubt influenced the Staples more than any other was Bob Dylan. “Bobby would be on most of those folk festivals. So we would run into each other a lot, quite a bit,” said Mavis. She and Dylan shared a Grammy nomination in 2003 for their duet “Gotta Change My Way of Livin.’” Mavis said the two had known each other for a long time. “We met Dylan when he and I were teenagers. And when we met him—someone introduced us to him—and he said ‘Well, I know the Staple Singers, I’ve heard the Staple Singers since I was 12 years old.’ And Pops said, ‘Well, where you hear us at?’ He said he heard us on that station that comes out of Nashville, WLAC, I think it was. And he even quoted some lyrics from one of our songs, ‘Sit Down Servant.’ And he described Pops’ voice, he’d say, ‘Pops, you have a really smooth, silky voice, and Mavis has a gravelly, heavy voice.’ And then we heard Dylan sing that day. We were on the same concert, a folk festival. And Pops asked us, ‘Listen do you hear what that kid is saying? We can sing that, that’s a message song. That’s a positive song.’ And it was ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ And we recorded it.”
Mavis can still scream like a barely constrained Wilson Pickett as she remembered Pickett’s unpredictable manner: “Oh, Lord, yeah! Wilson Pickett was just as crazy as he could be. He was crazy, but he was beautiful. All the guys would respect us, they wouldn’t curse around us. Nothin’ like that. Oh yeah, Pickett had a temper. Pickett would shoot at different ones. He shot his brother in the limousine. Pickett kept saying, ‘I’m gonna shoot you, man.’ And his brother kept saying, ‘Aw man, put the gun down, put the gun down.’ And all of a sudden Pickett shot him right through the shoulder. Pickett was in the backseat and his brother was in the front seat with the limo driver . . . We were sitting in the Howard Theater watching the show, and all of a sudden you saw Eddie Levert with the O’Jays run across the stage. And the emcee was up there talking, and all of a sudden here comes Pickett behind him with a gun. People were laughing. Somebody caught Pickett and took the gun away from him. Yeah, he was crazy.” &
The Listening Booth
The Staple Singers went from post-World War II straight gospel to soulful folk music in the 1960s to “message” music in the 1970s. Blessed with a distinctive, irresistible rhythm that secular music once claimed as its own, the Staples’ unique gospel style, stamped with patriarch Pop Staples’ wicked, tremolo-marinated blues guitar, offered up black spirituals to a white audience primed for temptation.
Stax Records signed the Staples to their roster in 1968, and “message” music was born. Message music was essentially a spiritual message told in secular language. Songs such as “Long Walk to D.C.” and a cover of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” were recorded in Memphis with Booker T. and the MGs’ guitarist Steve Cropper producing. The family ventured south to record with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section on the hits “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” at the insistence of Stax musical director Al Bell. Lead vocalist Mavis Staples praised the Muscle Shoals musicians in the liner notes of The Staple Singers: Stax Profiles: “The Muscle Shoals guys were a rhythm section that a singer would just die for . . . They were bad back then! [At Stax] Booker T. and the MGs would mostly put the tracks down before we’d be in the there. [At Muscle Shoals] we would all be in the studio together. We were feeding off of each other. That made a difference.”
The band’s pre-stax Gospel era (1953-1967), which still managed to feature plenty of electric guitar and hip-shaking rhythms, is best represented on Columbia’s Freedom Highway collection. Like artists such as John Lee Hooker, multiple recordings of many of the Staples’ most famous songs exist, some far better than others. Freedom Highway is the source for definitive versions of many classics such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wade in the Water”—in addition to lesser-known gems as “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” and a cover of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth.”