The Staple Singers
“Listen – The Staple Singers – For What It’s Worth – MP3″
I hope that everyone had a restful and enjoyable weekend. It’s been cold and windy here in NJ, but February is finally here, so a chill – albeit not a terribly severe one – is to be expected.
My oldest son turned five in January, and as long as he’s been old enough to go out and play in the snow (I’d say three years) there has NEVER – not ever – been enough snow for him to play in. Sure, there’ve been a couple of false alarms, when it snowed after dark, but then turned to rain and mush by sunup, but nothing else.
This past week he woke up to a few inches of snow, but it had turned to freezing rain, and I had to go out and shovel about a ton of slush so he didn’t have to swim to the school bus.
That said, we do still have to slip on the heavy coats to do out business, so hows about we get the new week off to a good start with something warm and toasty (at least in the musical sense)? The vinyl equivalent of a nice, spicy bowl of gumbo.
I have probably known of the Staple Singers for almost my entire (musically) sentient life. They had their first chart hit in 1967 (albeit in the far reaches of the Top 100), but by the early 70s they were on top of a string of serious hits, with the ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘I’ll Take You There’, and a little later with ‘Let’s Do It Again’.
I wasn’t buying the records, but I was certainly digging the sounds coming out of my transistor.
Many years later (late 80s) there was a truly wonderful and different music show on NBC called ‘Sunday Night’. Though my chronology may be off, it was hosted first by saxophonist David Sanborn, and later by ex-Squeeze pianist Jools Holland. ‘Sunday Night’ featured a wide (I mean WIDE) variety of musical talent, from the worlds of jazz, blues, pop, avant garde, folk, rock etc, individually, and almost always mixed together to great effect.
To really get a good idea of what ‘Sunday Night’ was like, head over to the Wikipedia page and check out the list of talent.
One show in particular came as quite a surprise. One of the main guest was Roebuck ‘Pop’ Staples*, playing solo. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and when he started to perform I was blown away. I was expecting gospel or soul, but what I heard was much closer to a gritty, swampy slice of Delta blues. I’m not 100% positive, but I think the song I saw him perform was Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ (which at the time I had no idea was an old blues song, nor – until I heard Staples play it – was yet another example of a tune that had been appropriated by the thieving magpies in Led Zeppelin). The vibrato on his guitar was thick as molasses, and his voice was a deep and soulful growl.
I was like “wha?”, and then I was like “wha?” again, and then I was like “where can I find this music???” (the above being a recurring motif with me).
What I didn’t know at the time, was that although the Staple Singers had worked out of Chicago, Pop had come up in Mississippi and had played with a who’s who of Delta blues legends, like Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House. That he carried those roots up the Mississippi with him, and hung onto them through his years as a gospel, and later soul star, is evident in the tune I bring you today.
Interestingly enough, the Staple Singers record that the crate diggers are always looking for is a cover, not of some Delta blues legend, but the Buffalo Springfield. I’d been on the lookout for years for a 45 of the Staple Singers performing ‘For What It’s Worth’.
The recording hails from the middle period of their career (after Vee Jay and Riverside but before Stax and Curtom), and while not terribly expensive, is kind of hard to locate (especially a clean copy). I only got mine last year.
Good thing too, because it is oh so good**.
Remember that guitar sound I was drooling over? It’s the first sound you hear when the needle hits the wax, followed directly with the drums, bass, handclaps, and then by the sanctified, powerful harmonies of the Staples. Though they use something of the general framework of the Buffalo Springfield original, they manage to take off from that starting point and go in a whole new direction. It’s especially interesting to hear the lyrics about protest (about a curfew on the Sunset Strip) pulled into a context where the image you get in your minds eye is all about civil rights marches. This in and of itself is interesting considering what a bit of musical cliché has been made from the (I believe) wonderful Buffalo Springfield song as a signifier of the “turbulent 60s”, and how much more fitting the Staple Singers version would be in its place.
It’s a seriously solid, and very groovy record, and I hope you dig it.
I’ll see you all on Wednesday with a cover of a Staple Singers song.
*Despite the fact that they were billed as the Staple Singers (no “s” at the end) the family name was in fact Staples.
**And is produced by the legendary Larry Williams, then in a duo with Johnny Guitar Watson