Pops Staples’ Final Recordings Released After a 15-Year Wait

April 22nd, 2015

Chwast_Pops_V2

This is an excerpt from the all-new MAY/JUNE 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on the Bacon Brothers, Iconic Axes from the Grateful Dead and Others, Conquering Iceland in a new Land Rover Discovery Sport, Fox News Senior National Correspondent John Roberts, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

POPS STAR: With the release of a new expanded version of Freedom Highway and the completion of his final recordings, the life and legacy of Pops Staples is remembered by Steve Cropper, Marty Stuart, Jeff Tweedy, and his daughter Mavis.

By Mac Randall | Illustration by Seymour Chwast

The Mississippi Blues Trail winds from the state’s Gulf Coast through its pine woods, up into the Delta, and along the northern hills. Along the way, a series of 171 plaques mark out places that were crucial in the evolution of the blues. There’s one at the birthplace of B.B. King in Berclair, and another at the gravesite of Robert Johnson in Greenwood. You’ll find one outside Muddy Waters’ cabin in Clarksdale and near the entrance to the infamous Parchman Farm (a.k.a. the Mississippi State Penitentiary) immortalized in song by Bukka White.

And then there’s the plaque outside the courthouse in the small city of Winona, near the junction of Highways 51 and 182. It commemorates the singer and guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who was born nearby. Staples would go on to lead the Staple Singers, one of America’s most beloved and successful family gospel groups, whose string of hits stretched from “Uncloudy Day” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in the Fifties to “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” in the Seventies.

Why include a gospel musician on a blues trail? Because Pops was at heart a bluesman, and that was readily apparent every time he picked up a guitar—usually an electric one, plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb and adorned with the spooky, swampy tremolo that was his trademark. “What he plays comes from the roots of Mississippi,” says lauded country picker and friend Marty Stuart, “and it’s bathed in the light of the blues. It’s like listening to the Old Testament.”

“The sound of that guitar goes down in the bottom, way back up in the bayou,” says daughter Mavis Staples, who performed alongside her father in the Staple Singers for more than four decades, starting at age 10. “It takes you to a different place. My sisters and I didn’t know for many, many years that while we were singing gospel, he was playing the blues on his guitar. Then I figured out why all the blues guys liked him so much. No one sounds like Pops.”

Pops Staples would have been 100 this year, and perhaps not coincidentally, two recent releases are honoring his legacy. Sony has put out a 50th-anniversary expanded reissue of the Staple Singers’ Freedom Highway, the complete documentation of an electrifying April 1965 Chicago church service that critic Greg Kot has called “one of the great concert recordings ever.” Also, the final, deeply moving tracks that Pops recorded with his family just prior to his death in 2000 were remixed by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and issued under the title Don’t Lose This.

“What Pops does, both as a singer and as a guitarist, is very simple and yet very hard to imitate,” Tweedy remarks. “He’s so committed to being himself, and that’s something you don’t hear in a lot of guitar players now. Listening to him is like stepping into a time machine. You can hear the Delta blues meeting the modern industrial age.”

That distinctive blend of sounds mirrors the events of Pops’ life. When he was about eight years old, the Staples family moved to the Dockery plantation near Drew, Mississippi, often labeled “the birthplace of the blues.” There he met several leading blues figures, including Charlie Patton and Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, who inspired him to take up the guitar. Eventually, like so many southern black Americans of that era, he moved north to find work, settling in Chicago and raising a family of five (all of whom, except daughter Cynthia, would become members of the Staple Singers).

In Chicago, Pops continued to sing gospel with amateur groups, but for nearly 10 years he stopped playing guitar. “He got a guitar from a pawn shop,” Mavis remembers, “but it was in the closet for a while because he was singing with an all-male group, the Trumpet Jubilees. Well, these guys—there were six of them—they wouldn’t come to rehearsal. Pops would go to rehearsal, and there might be three there. Then he’d go again, maybe there’d be two. He came home one night disgusted, went in the closet, got that little guitar, and told us children to come sit on the floor in the living room. So we sat in a circle, and he began giving us the notes to songs he and his sisters and brothers would sing when they were in Mississippi. That’s what got the Staple Singers started.”

From the early Fifties through the mid Sixties, the Staples recorded for four different labels and established a lofty reputation on the gospel circuit. At the same time, the impassioned message of freedom in many of their songs became inextricably connected to the growing civil rights movement in the South. Marty Stuart can still recall when he first heard the group: “It was the summer of 1964 in my home town, Philadelphia, Mississippi, the place where those three civil rights workers—(Michael) Schwerner, (James) Chaney, and (Andrew) Goodman—were murdered. Everything in my hometown went upside down [after that]; the world drew down on Philadelphia. But the first rays of light that even suggested healing and moving forward were the Staple Singers’ versions of ‘Uncloudy Day’ and ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ They were played on the radio repeatedly, and you could hear them coming out of people’s houses. They sounded like ghosts singing in a cotton field. I was captivated.”

Less than a year later, the Staples performed for a service at Chicago’s New Nazareth Baptist Church that was recorded by Epic Records and released as Freedom Highway. It had only been a few weeks since the momentous voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and Pops (a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders) had just written a song, “Freedom Highway,” celebrating the event. As he puts it in his introduction to the song’s live debut, “From that march, word was revealed and a song was composed.” The sense of jubilation in the crowd as the family sings its key line—“Made up my mind and I won’t turn around”—is still nearly palpable five decades later.

This is an excerpt from the all-new MAY/JUNE 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on the Bacon Brothers, Iconic Axes from the Grateful Dead and Others, Conquering Iceland in a new Land Rover Discovery Sport, Fox News Senior National Correspondent John Roberts, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

GA_May-June-15

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!

Comments

  1. Posted by gerry moss on April 23rd, 2015, 14:50 [Reply]

    Pops and the Staple Singers have been part of my musical lexicon since the 60’s. A ‘staple’ ,if you will and Mavis still makes my hair stand up. It’s some forever music !

Reply

Comment guidelines, edit this message in your Wordpress admin panel