Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2011-07-29


Staple Singers: 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

Staple Singers: 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-

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