In the 1930s, a Mississippi share-cropper named Roebuck “Pops” Staples moved to Chicago for work, taking his wife, daughter, and son—Oceola, Cleotha, and Pervis—with him, along with his blues-influenced guitar and easygoing, twangy voice. He and Oceola had two more daughters there, Yvonne and Mavis. After an unsatisfying stint with a local gospel group, he pressed his children into the service of the Lord, and the family began singing around Chicago and northern Indiana. They made their first recording at home and then cut several sides for United Records and Vee-Jay, including their breakthrough, “Uncloudy Day,” in 1956. They signed to Riverside in 1962 and then went to Epic a few years later, where they began including folk and pop songs (“If I Had a Hammer,” “What the World Needs Now,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”) in their repertory.
They received criticism for stepping off the gospel path. Rev. Willie Morganfield said, “If you’re gonna change—sing the blues today and gospel tomorrow—then you’re saying you really don’t know what way you want to go.” But Pops put it this way: “Listen, church, you have to look out for yourself. Don’t nobody want to go to heaven more than I do, children, but we got to live down here, too.” Eventually the Staple Singers joined forces with Stax Records, and Craft Recordings’ new 7-LP compilation, Come Go with Me: The Stax Collection, gathers together the six full-length albums the group recorded for Stax plus a bonus disc that collects some non-album singles and the group’s set from the 1972 Wattstax Festival in Los Angeles. Jeff Powell at Take Out Vinyl used the original analog masters as the source for the box set, and the 180-gram LPs were pressed at Memphis Record Pressing. The sleeves are thick, high-quality cardboard, and the set comes with a deluxe book with plenty of pictures. The vinyl sounds airy and spacious, and I prefer the LPs to Craft’s own hi-res downloads because the vinyl sounds warmer and more natural.
The Staples’ first album after signing with Stax in 1968, Soul Folk in Action, lives up to its multi-faceted title. “Soul” connects the type of music the group performed with with the goal of salvation, and “in action” issues notice that they wouldn’t be sitting on the sidelines. Fine covers of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and “The Weight” are the highlights, but message songs like “Long Walk to D.C.,” “The Ghetto,” and “I See It” capture the Staples family’s patriotic and social ideals. We’ll Get Over takes the same ideas even further, including covers of Gladys Knight and Sly Stone songs, and (strangest yet) the Japanese folk song “Solon Bushi.” The strings-heavy pop take on “Give a Damn” and the guitar-and-horn led “When Will We Be Paid” are the best message songs here.
The two albums failed to chart, and Jesse Jackson urged Al Bell, the executive vice president of Stax, to produce the Staple Singers himself. Bell took the group to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record The Staple Swingers with the Swampers, who brought more funk but also hewed closer to Pops’ own blues, gospel, and folk roots. In fact, Pops’ rootsy guitar played such an important role in the overall sound that he came across as a full-fledged member of the Swampers. “Heavy Makes You Happy” might be the chart-topper on the album, but “This is a Perfect World” is the most interesting song, proclaiming that the world is already fine and pleading with people not to err from that perfection.
“I’ll Take You There,” the outstanding number one single from Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, reflects that same optimism in the face of humanity’s problems and conflicts, as does the reggae-tinged “Are You Sure,” while other songs reassured audiences that the Staples hadn’t lost touch with their gospel roots. Be What You Are and City in the Sky, recorded in the same sessions in 1973, feel more like retreads. The songs often simply repeat the hook over and over in the second half, leading to formlessness, and the lyrics are frequently boilerplate. In fact, the albums often come across like after-school specials with tedious, if well-intentioned, exhortations and moralizing. The shocking exception is “Drown Yourself,” an amusingly nihilistic cure offered to folks who just won’t help out. “Back Road into Town” does what the other songs don’t, making its point with a story and a relatable character.