October 2011

Mavis Staples at Wattstax (with Pops behind her): always on the verge of orgiastic release, so completely absorbed, physically and spiritually, was she in the moment. (Photo: Wattstax Concert Photos)

The Other Soldiers

In 1972, The Staples Singers envisioned a more tolerant, just world on Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. What do we do now?

By David McGee

The Staple Singers
Stax Records

If ever there was a perfect storm of an album, The Staple Singers’ magnificent Be Altitude: Respect Yourself is it. When the Staples signed with Stax in 1968 after being dropped by Epic, the band--Pops Staples and daughters Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne (the latter was a newcomer to the lineup, replacing her brother Purvis, who left to form his own management company)--brought with it an imposing history, beginning in the 1950s with their formidable gospel work for the Vee Jay label during gospel’s post-war golden age, and continuing as the pioneers of “soul-folk” during the 1960s folk revival. The move to Stax was an opportunity for the Staples to remake themselves yet again, with an eye on grabbing the brass ring of commercial success that had eluded them thus far. Updating their sound at Stax with a funky undertow and advancing songs with overt, specific messages promoting racial tolerance, self-respect and self-accountability as the foundations of a fruitful society in which citizens strive for positive goals as one--“we the people got to make the world go ‘round,” they sang in “We The People,” co-written by Booker T. Jones--the Staples found a number of elements, or stars in the sky, in perfect alignment for them to move on up. In the confines of their own quartet, they harbored two powerful arsenals: Pops Staples’ sinewy electric blues guitar constructs, as subversively understated as they were hypnotic, in support of his smooth, measured singing, which served the music as a voice of reason and reflection; and Mavis Staples reaching her prime, a force of nature, the fire to her dad’s ice, who sang with fierce, breathless urgency, unswerving conviction, and a primal sensuality arising, paradoxically, from her profound spirituality--like Mahalia Jackson, Mavis understood that gospel singing and sexual congress were not all that far apart as earthly pursuits; unlike the majestic Mahalia, Mavis seemed always on the verge of orgiastic release, so completely absorbed, physically and spiritually, was she in the moment.

The Staples Singers, ‘We The People,’ from the album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself

At Stax the Staples found a label ready to take some chances on their behalf after their first two albums--the Steve Cropper-produced Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over--failed to generate much heat in the marketplace or in the culture at large. Enter big, flamboyant Al Bell, who had joined Stax in 1965 as a national sales director and its only black executive; as Peter Guralnick observed in Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and The Southern Dream of Freedom, “To most of the blacks in the company, Al Bell was a kind of secret hero, the ‘Jesse Jackson’ of in-house politics.” In fact, the “Jesse Jackson of in-house politics” at Stax was persuaded by the real Jesse Jackson to produce the Staples himself. You could practically hear the tumblers falling into place once Bell took over and cracked the safe holding the secrets of crossover success.

Bell’s first decision was to record not at Stax with its stellar house musicians, but farther south, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with another group of stellar house musicians, the fabled Muscle Shoals rhythm section of David Hood on bass, Eddie Hinton on lead guitar, Barry Beckett on keyboard and Roger Hawkins on drums. (As an aside, though there is no evidence at all that this figured into Bell’s decision, in backing the Staples with the Muscle Shoals crew Bell lost nothing of the multiracial component he would have had at Stax and which, given the messages of inclusiveness the Staples were promulgating, gives their “we the people” exhortations the added heft of walking it like they talk it.) Bell and his engineer Terry Manning were looking to break the Staples out of the black market into the larger pop culture and were willing to experiment within limits to get there. By the same token, the Muscle Shoals players were coming off a tour with Traffic that had not only elevated their playing but had also exposed them for the first time to reggae music in the form of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ first album, Catch a Fire, after the Wailers had been signed to the same label as traffic and Catch a Fire became the de rigueur pre- and post-show music over the house P.A. Bell was already hip to reggae, and Messrs. Hood, Beckett, Johnson, Hinton and Hawkins soon came to be fervent fans as well.

And then there was the world out there, circa 1971-72. Vietnam was still raging and so were student protests--even after the May 4, 1970 massacre of students at Kent State University; the Civil Rights Movement had expanded to include Chicanos and Native Americans, and black militancy continued to rise; the feminist movement continued to press for economic, political, professional and political equality and to push issues relating to reproductive freedom and sexuality into the mainstream of public discourse; the President of the United States had authorized a third-rate burglary that was revealing itself to be part of a larger, ideological design to subvert the Constitution of the United States; and in 1971 the public learned of a long standing FBI domestic surveillance-“dirty tricks” program, COINTELPRO, steered by the director of the FBI when he wasn’t out buying lingerie for himself.

The Staples Singers, ‘Respect Yourself,’ from Be Altitude: Respect Yourself

Thus the backdrop for the Staples’ reissued Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, an album even more timely today than it was upon its release in 1972 owing to the incivility of public discourse and a general dumbing down of popular culture that has resulted in a corroded national spirit. In Mack Rice’s “Respect Yourself,” Pops and Mavis counsel religious and racial tolerance (“Take the sheet off your face, boy/it’s a brand new day,” Pops advises in an especially triumphant moment), warn against paralyzing self-absorption, and Mavis delivers an absolutely delicious put-down of obscenity-spewing males that the hip-hop nation would do well to dwell on. The track itself is insinuating and sly behind Beckett’s rich, rippling organ, Hawkins’s varying hi-hat and snare textures, the horns alternately surging and pumping, and Eddie Hinton fashioning a very cool fuzzed-out electric guitar line snaking quietly up through the mix before elevating to a quiet roar as the song winds down.

As Rob Bowman’s liner notes to this reissued title indicate, the Hinton guitar solo is by design a different kind of flavor than would normally be found on a soul record. It had a purpose both musical and practical. According to Al Bell, he and Manning “spent a lot of time discussing subliminal seduction at that time as it related to the utilization of music. If you were into fuzz, you could feel it and perhaps even hear it without it being loud. But if we had it there subtly on the front end, then it didn’t overshadow the tune. If you (then) build it as it goes along, then the tune is building in intensity and the possibility is you might have a song that might have some rock appeal. That was the idea for putting it on there.”

It worked--“Respect Yourself” was a #2 R&B hit but also rode up the pop charts to peak at #12. Bigger things were to come, though, with the album’s second single, “I’ll Take You There,” a reggae-infused workout (built on a groove copped from a 1969 Jamaican recording, “The Liquidator,” by the Harry J Allstars), pulsating and grinding all at once, with a gospel chorus chanting the title sentiment behind Mavis’s moaning and pleading lead about deliverance to a more just world, with a lyric referencing the Undisputed Truth’s smoldering 1971 anti-racist advisory, “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” The message got through: “I’ll Take You There” topped both the pop and R&B charts in 1972.

The Staples Singer, the reggae-infused ‘I’ll Take You There,’ #1 pop and R&B, 1972

With Hawkins’s drumming sounding like an anxious heartbeat, Eddie Hinton crafting pointed, stinging solos, Beckett sending up an ominous wash of chords, a gospel chorus chanting “praying…praying…praying,” and strings droning with foreboding tension after opening the song with a sweet soul flourish of misdirection, given what’s to come, “Name the Missing Word” unfolds as slowly, with example upon example of people behaving as people do absent God, the missing word, in their lives. Hypocrisy and racism come in for a righteously soulful scalding in the percolating grooves of “This Old Town (People In This Town),” which also features another fuzzed-out Hinton guitar solo buried deep in the mix and some ferocious Hawkins drumming driving the song relentlessly forward to its fever pitch ending with Mavis wrecking the house while her sisters keep up an intense gospel chant, all advancing the song’s hopeful message (Don Covay and Wilson Pickett co-wrote it) of racial unity emerging from tolerance and self-reflection: “everybody’s going around shaking hands, loving everybody/ain’t got no room for aggravation/what they love is communication…you don’t have to go around searchin’ for this town/right in your heart, that’s where it’s found…just got love between the races…”

Love as a mighty weapon is the topic of conversation in the spiritual-styled “I’m Just Another Soldier”; “Who,” a full-on gospel workout with strings, exults God’s omniscience and benevolence (and puts an entirely new spin on the phrase “Good God almighty!”); “Walking In Water Over Our Head,” a previously unissued bonus track, an ebullient soul strut, hard charging and jubilant, entreats listeners to surmount the tumult of the day through fellowship. This is the world the Staples Singers addressed in 1972. Be Altitude: Respect Yourself may be a reissue, but the fortuitous confluence of events that coalesced in the Muscle Shoals Studio where the basic tracks were recorded produced a statement with unsettling resonance in 2011. Back in the day, Pops, Mavis, Yvonne and Cleotha would have you believe in a bright tomorrow. What to do now but soldier on? You have a better idea?

The Staple Singers’ Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (original recording remastered) is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024