Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Staple Singers

  • The Staple Swingers [Stax, 1971] B
  • Be Altitude: Respect Yourself [Stax, 1972] B-
  • Be What You Are [Stax, 1973] B
  • City in the Sky [Stax, 1974] B+
  • The Best of the Staple Singers [Stax, 1975] A-
  • Let's Do It Again [Curtom, 1975] D
  • Unlock Your Mind [Warner Bros., 1978] B
  • Turning Point [Private I, 1984] B
  • Are You Ready [Private I, 1985] B+
  • Freedom Highway [Columbia/Legacy, 1991] A
  • Stax Profiles [Stax, 2006] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Staple Swingers [Stax, 1971]
Don't be put off by the title. The Staples haven't been a gospel group for years, and now that they're admitting it they can build a credible pop-soul sound on their two extraordinary assets--Mavis's urgent voice and Pop's laggard lick. This has its clumsy moments, but it also has its transcendent one: "Heavy Makes You Happy," a hit single from the same pen that gave us "Sugar Sugar." And Smokey Robinson provides moral suasion. B

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself [Stax, 1972]
Musically, this is a triumph of the Staples' evolving pop style. The arrangements fit, and Roebuck and Mavis have never sounded more at home. But despite "I'll Take You There," a lot of the material is as silly as the contorted title pun. Even "Respect Yourself," you will recall, has that line about stopping pollution by coughing into your hand. B-

Be What You Are [Stax, 1973]
This is a pleasing, consistent album--no gaffes. But no gifts either, unless you count Bettye Crutcher's apparently literal "Drown Yourself," which provides relief from a charity that's all too unremitting. In truth, the music sometimes seems a little unremitting too--bet I'd like both hit songs just as much if they didn't clock in at 5:01 and 4:27 on LP. B

City in the Sky [Stax, 1974]
For no discernible reason--when last seen (on Broadway), they appeared ready to settle for Winnemucca if Vegas didn't call--this is their toughest and best Stax LP. Once again the prime virtue is consistency, but this time they add a few lumens to the average brightness of each performance. And though their social vision may be vague, at least they were political before it was commercial, which gives them an edge. Best cut: "My Main Man," about Jesus. Worst cut: "There Is a God," an attempted a posteriori proof based on the fact that it's not raining. B+

The Best of the Staple Singers [Stax, 1975]
For most of this decade, Roebuck Staples--born December 12, 1915, about two weeks after Frank Sinatra--has been the oldest performer with direct access to the hit parade by some twenty-five years, so here's your chance to mind your elders. It's Mavis's lowdown, occasionally undefined growl that dominates, of course; you should hear how secular she gets with an O.V. Wright blues that got buried on The Staple Swingers. But Pops's unassuming moralism sets the tone and his guitar assures the flow. A-

Let's Do It Again [Curtom, 1975]
If you want to buy an album just to own Mavis gasping like she does on the radio, it's your money. Be hereby informed, however, that the forty-five version is eighty-four ugly seconds skinnier than the thirty-three. Other statistics: producer Curtis Mayfield included a total of about ten minutes of instrumentals on the classic Super Fly and Claudine soundtracks. This forty-minute (eight-cut) job includes only two real songs plus a lot of doo-doo-doo, and the orchestrations--by Richard Tufo (responsible for the waste cut on Claudine) and Gil Askey rather than Johnny Pate (who did Super Fly) are mush. D

Unlock Your Mind [Warner Bros., 1978]
For producer Jerry Wexler, this was obviously a labor of love. For the Staples likewise. Respects itself, you might say. But whether the problem is the songs or the way Mavis relates to them, only one cut, "Handwriting on the Wall," would stand tall on their Stax best-of. B

Turning Point [Private I, 1984]
This is indeed a spiritual return to their commercial heyday on Stax a decade-plus ago, which for those who don't remember was sometimes clumsily (sometimes even comically) uneven in tone and achievement. "That's What Friends Are For" is a sermon that'll keep you awake, but "Bridges Instead of Walls" would tempt the marginally pious to play pocket pool or peruse the weekly bulletin. And Mavis is more convincing as David Byrne than as Millie Jackson. B

Are You Ready [Private I, 1985]
Mike Piccirillo and Gary Goetzman, who brainstormed not only the Heads cover that brought the Staples back last year but also the bedroom-eyes embarrassment that was supposed to cement their chart status, here discover that the great pop subject of this reformed gospel group is public morality. And lead off with two covers--the first from, are you ready, Pacific Gas & Electric, topped by "Life During Wartime"--so incandescent they lend a glow to the producer-penned protest sentiments that follow. Of course, Mavis's commitment to these sentiments doesn't hurt. B+

Freedom Highway [Columbia/Legacy, 1991]
The genius of this one-of-a-kind family pop-gospel ensemble was guitarist-vocalist-patriarch Pops. Roebuck, as his mama called him, grew up on Dockery's Plantation in the Delta and heard the likes of Charley Patton and Howlin' Wolf many Saturdays in Clarksdale. But though his guitar always had more John Hurt than Rosetta Tharpe in it, blues was not his calling. Married by the time he migrated to Chicago in 1935, he worked hard jobs and moonlighted at music before gathering progeny Pervis, Yvonne, Cleotha, and Mavis Staples into a group in 1948. The Staples' mastery of gospel's old-time virtuosic melodrama is impressively documented on the 1956-61 Best of the Vee-Jay Years. But sensing a more expansive audience and aesthetic in the folk movement, Pops conceived the Milestone sessions on Great Day as the civil rights movement heated up between 1962 and 1964. Then the Staples moved on up to Epic and peaked. Vocals and guitar serving the song more than on Vee-Jay, tempos faster and steadier than on Milestone, they cheered up a mass movement with the certified classics it deserved: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Wade in the Water," "Samson and Delilah," "This Train," and also "For What It's Worth." Mavis's growl provided essential bravura. But Pops's gentle baritone led structurally and defined the mood. A

Stax Profiles [Stax, 2006]
On any Stax-Staples best-of there will be three indisputable masterpieces: "Respect Yourself, "I'll Take You There," and above all "Heavy Makes You Happy," composed by those great old soul men Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom. Sure some of the also-rans are better than others, among them two of the three tracks here that aren't on the more official-looking Best of the Staple Singers: the family-tied "Everyday People" and the Movement-themed "Long Walk to D.C." But even on perfectly enjoyable filler like "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend" and "You've Got to Earn It," you can hear the Stax machine groaning with the effort of squeezing Mavis's intrinsic grit and moral intelligence into a soul stardom she never altogether got the hang of and a contemporaneity by then better pursued with Willie Mitchell just a mile away. A-