The Staple Singers ‘For What It’s Worth: The Complete Epic Recordings 1964-1968’ 3CD (SoulMusic) 5/5

These sides have long been cherished by blues and soul fans alike and indeed straddle both related genres, serving as a useful bridge to the early/mid seventies recordings with Stax that firmly cemented the Staple’s reputation. Until recently, only the live recording, ‘The Staple Singers Live’, was easily available on CD (with two others sporadically available via the States), but now all six of the Epic albums are readily and neatly available in a single box set, and that is truly a blessing and a fitting tribute to one of gospel and soul music’s greatest exponents. Accompanying the wonderful music is a beautifully illustrated booklet that comprises no less than fourteen pages of new accompanying sleeve notes expertly dissected by Bob Fisher plus hard to find US press releases (from sources such as Billboard and Cashbox) and reviews of the era and, serving as a pictorial accompaniment, some of those glorious US Epic 45s. The covers of the original LPs (two per CD) are illustrated on either side of the CD inner sleeves.

While their very first album was for Riverside, the six albums for Epic set the benchmark and stand the test of time remarkably well. In fact, in the case of Mavis Staples, her more recent post-2000 albums have successfully trawled material from the Epic back catalogue and the sound replicated with a pared down rhythm section devoid of horns. The first album, ‘Amen’ (1965) set the template with some glorious folk-blues and often it is the symbolic nature of the lyrics that comes across most potently in retrospect. Thus, ‘Be careful of the stones that you throw’, has acquired added meaning in retrospect and indeed the country-folk instrumentation provides added poignancy to the lyrics. It is the overriding message of the civil rights movement that comes across on a truly rousing rendition of the spiritual, ‘When the saints go marching in’, while the slow build up of a Roebuck Staples original, ‘This train’, similarly impresses and progresses into a shuffling beat. The gospel message that underlies The Staple Singers very raison d’être is exemplified further on the follow-up recording, ‘Pray on’ from 1966, which is more overtly gospel with a suitable cover to emphasize that connection. Interestingly, with ‘Pray on’, the group’s attachment and espousal of the civil rights movement is made crystal clear on as song such as, ‘We shall overcome’, and more explicitly still on, ‘Why are we treated so bad?’.

One of the undoubted highlights of the box set is the live recording from 1965 at Chicago’s New Nazareth church of, ‘Freedom highway’, the title track of which has been reprised by Mavis Staples more recently. The album captures the intimacy of the rousing gospel church service, as well as the close rapport that Roebuck Staples enjoyed with the congregation. The whole live album cooks from start to finish and the only pity is that there is not more live recordings of The Staple Singers in their prime, That civil rights message is reinforced further on the 1966 album, ‘Why’, with a strong plea for racial justice on, ‘Why am I treated so bad?’, the message of which is emphasized further on, ‘I’ve been scorned’, while the folk-loving side of the band is emphasised on the traditional, ‘Will the circle be unbroken’, taken at a relaxed medium-tempo.

Soulful covers of contemporary rock tunes are a highlight of the 1967 recording, ‘For what it’s worth’, the title track a reprise of a Stephen Stills composition and, while Mavis Staples reprised this as a solo artist, this is the original Staple’s cover which has a then contemporary soul feel closer to Stax in feel. By contrast, the gospel standard, ‘Wade in the water’, that Ramsey Lewis made an instrumental pop hit out of is treated here as a folk-blues number with accompanying hand claps, but a relaxed intro. A direct riposte to the intensifying of the civil rights struggle, especially with inner city riots such as Detroit, and plea for a peaceful outcome to matters can be found in their 1968 album, ‘What the world needs now is love’, and what was originally a Burt Bacharach love song, has new added meaning attached to it in the context of urban conflict in several US cities at the time, with a more overtly political stance. Here, aiding the Staples overwhelmingly peaceful message of love and greater understanding is the use of gospel-flavoured piano. That universal message is reinforced by the slow-paced soul-blues, ‘Let’s get together’, while Bob Dylan is ripe for covering on, ‘A hard rain’s gonna fall’, and Dylan’s lyrics never sounded more propitious than when delivered in a gospel vernacular and there was in fact a close relationship between Dylan and the Staples. Rounding off matters is a reprisal of a Curtis Mayfield number, ‘People get ready’, which, here, is taken at a sprightly mid-tempo. This is a major and eagerly anticipated re-issue with three albums never being previously re-issued in CD format, and as such is long overdue. Overall, an exemplary re-issue that will fit neatly into the greatest recordings ever made by The Staple Singers.

Tim Stenhouse