Roebuck "Pops" Staples - guitar, vocals; Mavis Staples - vocals; Cleotha Staples - vocals; Pervis Staples - vocals
Born in 1915, Pops Staples began his musical career as a solo blues guitarist performing at local dances and picnics in and around his home base of Winona, Mississippi. In the late 1930s, he began singing and playing with a gospel group, the Golden Trumpets, prior to relocating to Chicago, where he continued performing gospel music with Chicago's Trumpet Jubilees. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Pops began including his two young daughters, Mavis and Cleotha, along with his son, Pervis, into his performances, and the Staple Singers were born. Early on, the group's material consisted mainly of plantation spirituals, blues, and gospel numbers, but by the late 1950s they were also embracing Civil Rights-oriented protest songs. By the mid 1960s, contemporary folk, rock, and soul songs all found there way into the Staples Singers repertoire, creating a genre all their own, often referred to as "soul-folk."
At the time of these performances, they had been recently signed to the Memphis-based Stax label. Their initial recordings for Stax featured the group backed by the legendary band, Booker T. & the MGs. The two albums released that year, Soul Folk in Action and We'll Get Over revealed the group to be adept at fusing a diverse range of existing styles into a sound unlike anyone else. This was also a time of rapid social changes in America, which the Staple Singers were deeply aware of.
These 1968 Fillmore Auditorium recordings, where the group performed on a bill that included jazz legend Rhaasan Roland Kirk and psychedelic-rock pioneers Love capture the Staple Singers at this pivotal time, bridging sacred and secular, modern and traditional into music with a message as powerful as its sound. Unlike their Stax releases that year, here the group is stripped down to the basic elements of emotive vocals backed only by the bluesy vibrato of Pops Staples' guitar. This makes these powerful performances all the more impressive.
The entire family was comprised of gifted ensemble vocalists, but, by this point, daughter Mavis was clearly the most outstanding singer in the group. Blessed with a rich and powerful contra-alto, her innate command of vocal phrasing and timbre manipulation exuded both spirituality and sensuality in equal measure.
Older gospel and blues numbers that established the group's early reputation are here, like "Freedom Highway," "Move Along Train," and the ecstatic "Help Me Jesus," which closes the set. But also check out the group's intriguing arrangements of the Buffalo Springfield anthem "For What It's Worth" and Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." This group was quite adept at transforming distinctive contemporary songs such as these and making them uniquely their own.
One need not be religious to appreciate the Staple Singers, as their true message focused on issues of equality and self-empowerment. Those issues resonated strongly with audiences and are clearly evident on these vintage Fillmore performances. The message and incredible vocal delivery remained consistent for decades to come and in 1972 they would finally gain international recognition, achieving a number one hit with "I'll Take You There." This was followed by the equally captivating "Respect Yourself," another Top 40 hit. But even at these Fillmore recordings, four years prior, the basic elements and message were firmly in place, giving this music the same universal appeal.