IF I had to select the most satisfying thing to me personally of 1972 (within the realms of our music!), I would be more than tempted to settle on the fact that it was the year of recognition for the Staple Singers, a quartet of truly beautiful people who, until last year, had struggled to find the correct formula for recording success.
Their obvious and natural leaning was towards their first love, Gospel music, and the question was how to involve both Gospel and pop factions into their music. The significant change seem to come at the time that Al Bell took over the production reins from Steve Cropper — not that I consider Cropper's productions to be any inferior to Bell's but perhaps they were a little less aimed at the masses. Success was immediate — it resulted in the family's first real 'pop' hit, "Heavy Makes You Happy", a performance that was sadly overlooked in this country by the ignorant radio station know-alls. It's a straight pop song with a good message but, above all, it has that elusive hit quality about it and could still become a British hit if someone took the time to listen to it.
One record came in between that hit and their recent paramount of success, "Respect Yourself", which is, to me, the most lasting record of the whole year. Despite hearing it literally hundreds of times, I find I haven't tired of it one little bit — if anything, I think I like it more now that when I first heard it and I really am enjoying watching it climb high into our R&B chart — where it stands at No. 6 right now — even if the mass public chooses to still ignore it.
The Staple Singers are truly a family. Originally composed of Roebuck 'Pop' Staples — "our name is Staples but we dropped the final-s because it was a little bit of a mouthful" — and his son, Pervis, and daughters, Cleotha and Mavis, their only change has been to draft in another sister, Yvonne, when Pervis left to form his own management company in Chicago, where he controls the career of Volt's currently successful girl trio, the Emotions.
Pop Staples was born in Winona, Mississippi, on December 28 and is now an amazingly active — mentally and physically — 57 year old. As a boy, Roebuck was always singing. In those days, he would know each and every Blues song of the time and Roebuck, along with his battered guitar, would perform them all at local dance parties. He was always solo and it was this way when he became intensely interested — but not fanatical — in the Baptist church. Pop would always be the solo singer in his local church and his natural ambition was to fuse his musical interest with his love for his God.
This he succeeded in doing in 1931 when he joined the local spiritual group, the Golden Trumpet. Two years later, Roebuck married his wife, Oceola, and two years later, they moved north to Chicago in what was known as the depression. On arriving in the windy city, Pop combined his job — "any job I could get in those hard days" — with his musical and religious loves and he sang for two years with the Trumpet Jubilees. Whilst still living in Drew, Mississippi, the Staples had two children, Cleotha and Pervis. "Those first years in Chicago Were hard," relates Pop. "We had the two children and it was hard to make a living. I'd work as much as I could but I never gave up my beliefs and I always prayed and sang and played my guitar." Yvonne was born in 1939 with Mavis one year after and it was then that the Staple Singers were really born. They'd sing around the house with Pop Supplying musical backing via his guitar.
In his mind, he knew what he wanted and he kept it firmly in his head whilst he worked — whether it be in the stockyard or the car wash, the construction pit or the steelyard, some of the many jobs that Pop turned his hand to. It was in 1951 that the idea really began to come to life. The family sang at their local Baptist church and the response was so encouraging that they received a standing ovation and this set Pop to thinking about doing this type of thing more often. Of course, the two younger children were still at school and so it could not have been done immediately. However, many a Sunday was spent in a local church with the Staples entertaining the patrons as well as carrying forth the message of love that was so important to them.
In 1955, the family first recorded. It was for the local Chicago company, United Records and the record in question was "Sit Down Servant". However, they moved almost immediately across the city to the more active Vee Jay label, where they first achieved chart recognition, with "Cloudy Day". They stayed with Vee Jay for four years, moving to Riverside in 1960 and then on to Epic in '61. Their stay with Epic was the most significant to date since it brought them into a completely different bracket as entertainers. No longer were they singing to small community within their country, they were now singing their message to everybody. The lyric line of Roebuck's songs started to wander slightly from the conventional path of gospel music and, although the message was one of good will to all men at all times, he became aware of the broadening of his own horizons. It was in this era that he penned "Why Am I Treated So Bad", later a hit for Cannonball Adderley and the Sweet Inspirations. It was also during this period that the Staple Singers began to record other writers material — notably their first real taste of success, which came via Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth", which was produced by Larry Williams. Furthermore, it was also the time that Mavis began to come into prominence as lead voice with Pop concentrating more on the musical side of things and his first love, songwriting. After seven very happy years, the Staples signed with Stax Records some three years ago and it was this move which lead up to their well-earned position of great respect of today.
In all honesty, the first two years at Stax were years of anti-climax. Despite making some great recordings with Steve Cropper — notably the classic "Long Walk to D.C." — success on record didn't come. Two albums were made and released and whilst sales were healthy, they didn't do all that they knew they were capable of.
Just over a year ago, Pervis left the touring group to stay home and comcentrate on his own management company and Yvonne came into the quartet on a regular basis. At the same time, Al Bell decided to take over production and it is since then that things have really started to liven up, culminating in the recent Gold Disc award for "Respect Yourself". "That really is the greatest thing in my life," Pop claims bashfully. "When "Heavy Makes You Happy" went as high as it did, I thought that would be my greatest day and then comes this one. I'm very grateful for everything that's happnened." The song was written by Mack Rice, who is Sir Mack Rice of "Mustang Sally" fame, and Rice has already told Pop about a song that he has just completed that he believes will even outshine "Respect Yourself". In the meantime, Stax are readying a new single — probably "I'll Take You There", a song that Al Bell wrote especially for the group himself.
One of the Staples' high spots in '71 was their visit to Africa for the "Soul To Soul" all-night concert, held in Ghana to celebrate their fourteenth year of independence. "It was promoted really by Atlantic Records and was something of a "Woodstock". It was my first time in Africa and I was really happy to be going there. From the minute I landed there I felt at home, at ease. It's so good to be able to meet your own people and they made us all feel so welcome. At home, I've always woken up in the morning at 4 a.m. and got up and spent the early hours doing nothing at all but during the stay there I stayed asleep till 10 a.m. I think that the lack of violence was the thing that hit me most. The people there didn't really know our music beforehand although Wilson Pickett, who headlined the show, was as well known and had had a lot of successful records." That was how Pop related his impressions of "Soul To Soul".
During their stay with Stax, the Staples have recorded as separate entities as well as together. Pop, for example, recorded an album of guitar and vocals with Steve Cropper and Albert King as well as cutting some solo sides, one of which was released under the name of Roebuck 'Pop' Staples — "Black Boy" and Donny Hathaway's "Tryin' Times", with Pop producing himself. Mavis has been extremely successful as a solo artist with two albums having made the R&B albums chart in the States and accepted as Soul classics. Steve Cropper produced the first album with Don Davis producing the second, "Only For The Lonely", at Muscle Shoals. Her success was further substantiated within the singles market via "I Have Learned To Do Without You", "Since I Fell For You" and "A House Is Not A Home". However, Mavis' solo days are at a temporary standstill, according to Pop: "Mavis has decided to stay within the group and I'm naturally very, very happy. She enjoyed making those solo recordings and I'm glad that she was successful — and, if she had wanted to stay a solo act, I wouldn't have wanted to stand in her way. We wouldn't want to hold her back but we're all so pleased that she's staying."
With all this talent abounding in one family, it really is amazing that the most junior member of the Staples family, 19-year-old Cynthia, isn't really that interested in singing. "She does play piano," Pop semi-apologises, "but she just isn't musically inclined and that's that I guess."
The Staples only visit to Europe was during December and, unfortunately, they did not make their proposed appearance in London: "It really is one thing we want to do and I sincerely hope I can bring my family to Britain this year; we have all heard so much about the British that we're really looking forward to coming." The feeling is much more than mutual.