Roebuck "Pops" Staples - guitar, vocals; Mavis Staples - vocals; Cleotha Staples - vocals; Pervis Staples - vocals; unknown drummer on "Help Me Jesus"
Shortly before the annual Newport Festivals in 1968, festival director George Wein helped stage another landmark event billed as "The Roots of Jazz," as part of the first year's programming at the Hampton Jazz Festival at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Brilliantly conceived on both a musical and an educational level, this remarkable program featured the ominous Delta blues of Skip James, the church influenced gospel leanings of the Staple Singers, the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, the electrified city blues of the Muddy Waters Blues Band, stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, and was capped off with an appearance by the seminal jazz legend, Earl "Fatha" Hines. Recently discovered in the vast Newport Festival Network archive, the master recordings from that memorable evening not only capture these performances in remarkable quality, but also convey a musical evolution in a most enjoyable way. Presented here is the second performance on the bill that evening, the Staple Singers.
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, 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 their way into the Staples Singers repertoire.
At the time of these 1968 Hampton Institute Jazz Festival recordings, the Staples 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. This recording captures the group during 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, primarily backed only by the bluesy vibrato of Pops Staples' guitar. All of which makes these powerful performances all the more impressive.
The entire family was gifted ensemble vocalists, with daughter Mavis 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 numbers that established the group's early reputation are here, like "Stand By Me" and an ecstatic "Help Me Jesus," which closes the performance and sets the stage for the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band to follow. But equally compelling are the group's intriguing arrangements of more contemporary material, like Curtis Mayfield's "Keep on Pushing," which opens the set and the Buffalo Springfield anthem "For What It's Worth." Here the Staple Singers prove themselves 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 focuses on issues of equality and self-empowerment. Those issues have always resonated strongly with their audience and are clearly evident here. The message and incredible vocal delivery remained consistent for decades to come, and in 1972, the Staples would finally gain international recognition, achieving a number one hit with "I'll Take You There." The equally captivating "Respect Yourself," another Top 40 hit, followed this. However, during this 1968 Hampton Institute performance, the basic elements and message were firmly in place, giving this music the same universal appeal.