By the mid-1960s, the Staple Singers weren’t quite superstars — at least not in the way they’d become in the following decade with #1 pop hits “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.” But in their nearly two decades of performing as a family, they’d risen to the top of the gospel circuit and become a fixture and emblem of the civil rights movement. They performed at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and at speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Their lean, hard-grooving sound, led by father Roebuck “Pops” Staples’ bluesy tremolo guitar and daughter Mavis’s steamy, earthy contralto, had potential appeal beyond the gospel faithful, and records like their 1957 reading of the standard “Uncloudy Day” reached listeners outside the gospel enclave.
The first turning point happened in 1965, when the Staples signed to Epic, a division of Columbia Records, after their gospel label folded. The switch to a major label meant the potential to reach a greater number of listeners than they ever could have on a genre imprint, a possibility the Staples embraced to its fullest.
As if to assuage any concerns among their gospel fans, the Staples recorded their first album for Epic, Freedom Highway, live at the New Nazareth Church in their hometown of Chicago. The two studio albums that followed, 1965’s Amen! and 1966’s Why, find the Staples reaffirming their commitment to religious music while subtly welcoming non-gospel fans into the fold.
Following Sony Legacy Recordings’ reissue of Freedom Highway last year, Real Gone Music has given Amen! and Why their CD debuts on a single disc. Together, the two albums, produced by future Nashville mainstay Billy Sherrill, demonstrate the Staple Singers’ genius at being accessible without compromising their beliefs, preaching a Sunday morning message with a Saturday night beat. Backed only by a skeletal rhythm section, the focus is firmly on Pops’ smoky, twangy guitar, the family’s full-bodied vocal harmonies, and, above all, the Holy Word.
Amen! kicks off on a joyful note with “More Than a Hammer and Nail,” one of two tracks on the album penned by Pops Staples. The celebratory spirit continues over the course of the LP, even on renditions of traditionally downbeat songs like “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Mary Don’t You Weep.” One of the few exceptions is the somber “Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw,” a recitation featuring a rare lead turn by son/brother Pervis Staples.
Even so, the Staples ground the potential for melodrama with a minimal arrangement and achingly powerful harmonies, making it thoughtful and sincere instead of hectoring. The Staples’ commitment to civil rights shines through on album highlights “This Train” and “Samson and Delilah”; their train “bound for glory” isn’t just going to heaven, and, the cry of “If I had my way, I’d tear this building down” can refer to less literal barriers, too.
While Amen! features a dozen tracks of uplifting, empowering music, Why feels like an expression of spiritual angst, a reaction to the suffering endured along the Freedom Highway. The mood is more downcast, and the already minimal arrangements from Amen! are even further muted, sometimes consisting of little more than Pops’ blues runs and a snare drum. While Amen! was dominated by Mavis’s sensual, rock-solid voice, Pops takes the lead on the bulk of Why, his wizened country croak giving him the aura of an old-time prophet.
In contrast to its predecessor, which mostly featured traditional spirituals, half of Why’s 10 tracks are Staples originals. This allows them to make the struggle for freedom and equality an even more prominent theme, whether it’s referencing God (through Moses) commanding Pharaoh to “let my peoples go” (“King of Kings”), or Pops recalling the abuse and trouble he’s endured (“I’ve Been Scorned”).
Most explicit, however, is the album’s namesake, “Why (Am I Treated So Bad),” a sympathetic lament inspired by the cruelty and suffering inflicted on the nine black students tasked with desegregating Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
“Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” not only joined previous Staple Singers songs like “Freedom Highway” in becoming a civil rights anthem, it also became a genuine pop hit, climbing to #95 on the Billboard Hot 100. With their next album for Epic, 1967’s For What It’s Worth, the Staples waded deeper into secular waters, covering Buffalo Springfield on the title track and scoring a #66 pop hit.
Once the Staple Singers left Epic for Stax in 1968, however, they would become one of the biggest soul acts of the era. The production on hits like “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” and “Respect Yourself” may have been funkier and more fleshed out than their earlier gospel recordings, but the essence remains mostly the same.
As Amen! and Why proved, the Staple Singers’ blending of the lines between religious and secular didn’t compromise each other, but reinforced how inseparable the two spheres were in everyday life.
Amen!/Why is available now at the Real Gone Music online shop.