For too long now, the Staple Singers haven’t received the level of respect they deserve. The family’s body of recorded work, stretching across a half century and some dozen labels, is in a shambles, most of it simply unavailable in any digital format, not even on YouTube. Thanks to their socially conscious Top 40 hits of the 1970s, they are among the best known vocal groups that gospel music has seen, yet when it comes time to list the greatest-ever practitioners of the genre, the Staples are rarely placed, as they should be, among the very greatest ever—alongside Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy Love Coates, the Soul Stirrers and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and only a small handful of others.
Thanks in large part to the labors of Mavis Staples, this is beginning to change. The 10 tracks here, 9 of which are included in a Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post, are culled from throughout the Staples’ and Mavis’ careers. They are hardly definitive. But they are guaranteed to leave you at once satisfied and hungry for more.
The Staples first “hit” was this version of the gospel standard featuring overcast country harmonies and performed at a muddy crawl—but with its eyes focused heavenward and on the prize. When Mavis, barely 16 at the time, emerges from the blend with what she called her “lady’s bass”—“Well. Well. Well.”—it is unaccountably, undeniably thrilling.
In his new Staples biography, Greg Kot provides a nifty summary of the family’s distinctive sound, made up of “the four part harmonies that Pops sang with his family on their Dockery Farms porch, ” the “blues he heard and played at … Saturday-night house parties, ” the “handclapping and foot stomping that Mavis and Yvonne witnessed at Grandma Ware’s” Mississippi church, and “the doo-woppers and street serenaders that Pervis emulated” on the South Side of Chicago. “Freedom Highway” exemplifies all of that. This title track to the group’s sinfully out of print l965 live album is also among the group’s most innervating and encouraging of its early Message Songs, in which the Staples’ soul-girding gospel tools are set upon repairing the world.
Inspired by Pops’ indignation at seeing the Little Rock Nine denied admission to Little Rock High School in 1957, this is a Message Song master class, a call for any and every one treated cruelly simply because they’re of “a different nationality” to keep on walking “in the master lane … in the master’s name.” “I’m all alone while I sing this song, ” the Staples sing, capturing how those kids surely felt even as the family’s dogged harmonies shout unmistakably that those kids are not alone after all.
The Staples signed with Stax Records in 1968, and this track from a couple of years later is the perfect blend of the label’s famously gritty brand of soul and the family’s unique Mississippi-by-way-of-Chicago sound and ethos.