By the time the Staple Singers released their TURNING POINT opus in 1984, they already had three decades under their belts as one of Gospel’s, blues’, soul’s and funk’s most versatile family units. They brought the best tradition of the church to their music, testifying on hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” though many in the Gospel world never forgave them for giving in to the temptations of secular music. The church’s loss was popular music’s gain, but even singing Delta blues through Southern soul, and even funk with a reggae lilt, they could never shake off the convictions of their faith.
The Staple Singers story actually dates back to 1915, when Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples was born in Mississippi. As a teenager, he played the blues, but with his strict Christian upbringing he was drawn to the church and Gospel, and by the time he moved to Chicago in the late‘40s he was married with three children: Cleotha, Pervis, and Mavis, whose rich earthy vocals would become the lead of the Staple Singers family collective.
After several well received local hits for smaller independent labels, they pact with Vee-Jay in 1955, and enlisted another family member in youngest daughter Yvonne, hitting straight out-the-trap with “Uncloudy Day.” After albums for Riverside (mainly Gospel and folk based), and then Epic, they signed with Memphis’ Stax Records in 1968, with their music reflecting the changing times in America.
Like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield, they too embraced the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam protests, and struggling socio-economic climate in their music. The musical landscape in America was changing just as quickly as the political and economical map, at the time, and the spiritual messages in their songs hit home at radio, in particular, becoming a powerfully uplifting force on black radio in the South.
Following Stax’s bankruptcy in 1975, they finally enjoyed the fruits of their labour with the Curtis Mayfield composition and production “Let’s Do It Again” (via Curtom and the movie soundtrack of the same name), giving the group their second pop crossover number one--“I’ll Take You There,” their first. But the union was short-lived, and with the rise of disco, so the group’s success started to wane, and albums for Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox failed to reap their investment.
After a self-imposed hiatus, the Staple Singers signed with Private I Records in 1984. The CBS distributed label was already revitalizing the careers of the Chi-Lites, the Dells, and Bonnie Pointer--owned by well-connected industry heavyweight Joe ‘Hitman’ Isgroe, who had earlier made a name for himself at Roulette, Decca, and Motown. Isgroe’s chequered path and underworld mob connections would later catch up with him, and spelled the end of the short-lived, yet relatively successful label. Its legacy includes two albums by the family collective, with the expanded version of TURNING POINT, the focus of an excellent SoulMusic.com reissue series. “
This Is Our Night” was a midtempo joint (or hot tempo, as it was widely referred to at the time), perfectly fitting into the sound that the likes of Jam & Lewis, Leon Sylvers, Kashif, and Paul Laurence were helping define on the R&B landscape in 1980s America. It would also hit the top 50 of the Billboard R&B chart in the process.
But it was the album’s lead single, “Slippery People,” (a cover of the Talking Heads transatlantic smash a year earlier) that would give the group a brief return to spotlight, and prove the catalyst for the album’s success. The synth and electro drum-driven production made it a highly infectious club hit, while Mavis’ warmer vocal delivery was altogether more appealing than that of David Byrne a year earlier (ironically Byrne played guitar on the Staples’ version). The lyrically thought provoking “H-A-T-E (Don’t Live Here Anymore),” sung by Pops, would became the album’s third R&B top 50 single.
The balance of the album truly shone on Mavis’ amazing vocal dexterity--her terrific account for peace and unity on “Bridges Instead Of Walls,” and “On My Own Again,” neatly dovetailed into Patti LaBelle’s “On My Own,” showing soulful unity despite breakups. With the addition of the extended and instrumental versions of “Slippery People,” and the single versions of several of the album’s issued 45s, this expanded edition is a worthy addition to the quartet’s discography, and goes some way to seeing them inducted into Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
6/10 (Lewis Dene)
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.