By Eleni P. Austin

As a kid, I was a fan of the Staple Singers long before I knew their name. Back in the halcyon days of AM radio, a block of songs could include “Song Sung Blue,” “Dance To The Music,” “Rainy Days & Mondays” “Stairway To Heaven” and “Respect Yourself,” one after the next. It didn’t really matter that you were absorbing distinctly different genres of music. It only mattered that it was all good music. That’s where I was first exposed to the majesty of The Staple Singers.

The Staple Singers worked long and hard to earn their rightful spot on the AM radio dial. They got their start on the Gospel Circuit in the late 40s, and began reaching a wider audience by the early ‘60s. A true family affair, the act featured Mavis Staples up front, along with her sister Cleotha and brother, Pervis on backing vocals. Their dad, Robuck “Pops” Staples played guitar. At first, their music was steeped in traditional Gospel and Folk. But through the years, their sound evolved as they began incorporating more secular influence.

The Chicago act added a sanctified patina to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” The Band’s “The Weight” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” They imbued each song with a spiritual heft that mirrored the struggle and sacrifice of the Civil Rights Movement. Pretty soon they were popping up on TV series like The Johnny Cash Show and sharing stages with Rock icons like Janis Joplin, The Doors and the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota himself, Bob Dylan.


By 1968, Pervis had left the group and his sister Yvonne stepped in. The Staple Singers signed with Stax/Volt Records. While the Memphis label wasn’t as well-known as R&B mainstays like Atlantic Records or Motown, they still boasted an impressive roster of artists that included Booker T. & The MGs, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, Johnny Taylor, Sam & Dave, plus Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla.

The Staples’ most indelible music came during the Stax era. Eight songs made it into the Top 40, including “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “If You’re Ready, (Come Go With Me).” At this point, their sound was a sharp distillation of Gospel, Folk, Funk, Rock and Soul. Infectious melodies framed lyrics that offered themes of spiritual fulfillment and self-empowerment.

Although their commercial fortunes dipped during the Disco era, The Staple Singers persevered. Even when Mavis embarked on a solo career, she remained in the band. She released her solo stuff in fits and starts. By 1989, mega-fan Prince was able to sign her to his boutique imprint, Paisley Park and she recorded two efforts under his aegis. At the tail end of the 20th century, she returned to her Gospel roots with Spirituals And Gospels: Dedicated To Mahalia Jackson. The Staples were inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999. Sadly, a year later, Pops from complications he sustained from a concussion.

For the last 25 years, Mavis has released a series of richly rewarding solo efforts, most via Anti-, an independent imprint that began life as an offshoot of the venerable Punk label, Epitaph. Collaborating with younger musician/producers like Ry Cooder and Wilco front-man Jeff Tweedy, they created instant classics like “We’ll Never Back Down,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Livin’ On A High Note” and “If All I Was Was Black.”

Not only has she won myriad awards and re-invigorated her career, she has also introduced her music to a younger generation by playing festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella. She remains committed to social causes and has been out front for the Black Lives Movement. Sadly, all her siblings are gone, Cleotha in 2013, Yvonne in 2018 and most recently Pervis in 2023. She is truly a solo act now.

Rather fortuitously, Omnivore Recordings recently unearthed a Staple Singers live set recorded in Africa back in 1980. At the time, Africa 80 was released through a couple of small labels in the states and Europe, but distribution was shoddy and it never got the recognition it deserved.

After a brief and exuberant introduction, the set kicks into gear with a Funky instrumental vamp before folding into a spirited version of “Ease On Down The Road,” from the the Broadway musical The Wiz. Popping bass lines connect with percolating electric piano, gilded electric guitar riffs and a syncopated beat. Mavis tackles the infectious, shout-it-out chorus and Pops’ joins her on reassuring verses like “…There maybe times when you think you’ve lost mind, and the steps you’re takin’ leave you three-four steps behind, but the road you’re walking might be long sometimes, you just keep on truckin’ and you’ll be just fine.”

As the last notes of “Ease” wash away, the fluid sway of “Let’s Do It Again” locks into a languid groove. The song was written for The Staples’ by Curtis Mayfield, as the theme for the Blaxploitation comedy of the same name. The instrumentation is a potent combo-platter of sinewy guitars, tumescent bass, gossamer keys and a thwocking beat. Surprisingly licentious lyrics lean on the double-entendre: “Like a hammer on the clock, love began to rock, give the sister pride, feel good and satisfied/I’m not a girl that could linger, but I feel like a Butterfinger, I wanna do it again, do it, do it again.” This is baby-making music at it’s best.

Three tracks find the Staples revisiting their Stax days, beginning with their biggest crossover hit, 1971’s “Respect Yourself.” Thrumming keys and a throbbing bass lines announce the song’s signature arrangement, propelled by a stutter-step beat and rippling guitar riffs. Mavis and Pops’ wrap their sweet and salty vocal blend around sagacious, put up-or-shut-up lyrics that feel as relevant today as they were half a century ago: “If you’re running ‘round here thinkin’ that the world owes you something cause you’re here, you goin’ out in the world backwards like you did when you first came here, yeah, keep talkin’ ‘bout the President won’t stop air pollution, put your hand on your mouth, when you cough, that’ll help the solution, oh you cuss around women and you don’t even know their names, no, then you’re dumb enough to think that’ll make you a big ol’ man, Respect yourself!” Pops uncoils a bit of Soulful, chicken-scratch guitar on the break, that feels like icing on the cake of this thick slab of sanctified Funk.

Jumping ahead two years, 1973’s “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” is powered by a thumping bass line, infectious hand-claps, effervescent guitars, kaleidoscopic keys and a rollicking beat. The stinging rebuke of “Respect Yourself” has given way to lyrics that speak of a irenic utopia that felt more possible in the ‘70s: “No hatred will be tolerated, peace and love, all between the races.” As Mavis exalts on the verse, Yvonne and Cleotha sweeten the deal just behind her, adding “come go with me,” because “love is the only transportation, to where there’s total communication.” The arrangement downshifts on the break, as a popping bass line sidles around the primitive cool of Pops’ guitar licks. One more lap around, and the song reaches it’s heavenly destination.

A Bluesy piano intro, bookended by barbed and bendy guitars, vroom-y bass and a sturdy beat, announce “Why Am I Treated So Bad.” Pops’ late ‘60s protest song, which was written in response to the era’s civil unrest, is slow-cooked and unhurried. Pops’ takes the crowd back to his childhood, preaching about the amen corner. Throughout his testimony, his daughters bear witness, cloaking his words in their celestial harmonies.

The action slows on “A House Is Not A Home,” as wah-wah’d keys are matched by serpentine guitar, laid-back bass lines, cascading piano and a tick-tock beat. Mavis takes ownership the Burt Bacharach/Hal David ballad, that was a modest hit for Dionne Warwick in 1964. Teasing out every phrase and syllable, she investing her heart and soul in lyrics like “A room is still a room, even when there’s nothing but gloom, but a room is not a house and a house is not a home, when the two of us are far apart and one of us has a broken heart/I’m not meant to live alone, turn this house into a home, when I climb the stairs and turn the key, oh please be there, saying that you’re still in love with me.”

The final three songs return the four-piece to their Gospel roots. Tight harmonies, stinging guitar, plangent piano and a joyful handclap beat wrap around the down-home grace of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” That segues into “He’s Alright,” which benefits from Pops’ kinetic arrangement. Equal parts Rockabilly Rave-Up and tent revival, it’s powered by a double-time beat, crawling Kingsnake guitar, gritty bass lines and stately keys. Call and response vocals weave in and out as the song builds to a crescendo. To close, they circle back to their 1974 hit, “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend,” the rubbery R&B arrangement recedes, once Mavis utters her first “Y’all,” it’s clear that they’re taking us to church. A simple message of brotherly love, gets a heavy duty workout. Rather quickly, everything shifts, and the spirit takes hold. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, it’s earthy and ecclesiastic. Mavis seems absolutely spent as the band reprises “Touch A Hand…” and the then exits the stage, all the while urging us to “reach out and make a friend.” Nearly five decades later, that’s still potent advice.

While they were past their hit-making years, Africa 80 showcases The Staple Singers at the height of their powers. Listening now, the music makes you shake your ass and soothe your soul. In these divisive times, that’s enough.