There are few artists in the American canon of popular music who have attained what Mavis Staples has. She is not simply a pop singer that had some charming soul hits in the '60s and '70s. Staples and her family band, The Staple Singers, used their position as a gospel group, led by Roebuck "Pops" Staples and his guitar, to place the fight of Black Americans on the frontlines of pop music.
Perhaps the only drawback to Staples' "career," a word that fails to encompass her principal involvement in the history of our country, is that writing about her will inevitably become a fluff piece. What can you possibly say about a woman who has been one of the founders of the soundtrack to the American Experience? A woman whose voice echoed through a jail cell in the South just as it had in sanctuaries and meeting halls throughout the United States? Her voice, her tool for preparing or focusing those gathered to hear Civil Rights leaders and radical thinkers bent on what our government promises to us all and rarely delivers: freedom. The Staples family took the basic tenets of the Bible, particularly the liberation philosophies of the New Testament, and wrapped them in a digestible, dig-able swaddle of harmony.
The band's primary message was, without debate, one of love and acceptance, healing and forgiveness. I'm not an institutionally religious person: in a country where the predominant religion is often synonymous with rich white people telling me how to live, it is easy to have a negative reaction to a loving dogma that so rarely is put to use. But the idea of a healer, messiah, a savior who would take the weight of the world's transgressions and bear them, no grievance being too great, is palpable in Staples' recitations, from the desperately downtrodden to the rapturously jubilant. Her voice, from its sepulchral depths to its steeple-tall heights, bears the pain and passion of a people, a time, wherein history was being stretched, pulled and prodded by all kinds of interests — a time not unlike today.
Perhaps the most brilliant musical idea any mind has ever thought up was to put a backbeat to The Staple Singers' gospel songs. Not only did it plant one of the funkiest grooves behind some of the sweetest sounds, but it allowed for the hallmark principles of equality and respect to have a place in the often vapid realm of popular song.
Signing to Memphis-based Stax Records in 1968, The Staple Singers showed the world that the sounds of the Black American church, placed alongside the "sinful" rhythms of the "devil's music," could yield some of the most rewarding results. From the self-empowering sermons of "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There," The Staple Singers have cemented their position as one of the most timeless testaments to the ability of song to change and empower. They are, to this critic, one of maybe a handful of artists whose music does not age. From the production to the harmonies, content and instrumentation, their contributions to pop music could have been composed at any time in the last 50 years, the songs are that good. Whether they would receive airplay is another story.
The marriage of gospel music, formed in one of the safest spaces for African Americans in their tumultuous history within the U.S., a space wherein they could be themselves — the church — with soul music, stemming from the steamy swamps of the South, the blues of the Delta, the hustling, bustling rhythms of the northern cities — Detroit, New York, The Staples' Chicago — post-Great Migration, was an American experiment that further enforced the Staples' convictions toward equality and inclusion. Particularly as the Stax house band was made up of white and black players — Booker T and his MGs. A similar tale to the story of the Swampers, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and FAME session players, and the Wrecking Crew out in LA, both ethnically diverse ensembles. Proving the point that we can, actually, make the most beautiful of music together when our surface differences are disregarded.
Staples' solo efforts, spanning from her 1969 self-titled debut to 2013's remarkable One True Vine and last month's Livin' On A High Note, document the grandiosity of her talent as well as the conviction of her spirit. A world class musician, beginning her career at 11 years of age and continuing well into her 70s, and with a prodigious potency that few can claim, she has compiled a collection of hymns that document the journey of her people, our people, from the depths of Hell on Earth to that far celestial shore, shaping the national consciousness along the way. Singing not just soulful songs, but our history.
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