In 1955, the Staple Singers’ worth was recognized by Vee-Jay records (who later recognized the Beatles’ talent, distributing their records in America when Capitol initially refused). After a couple of false starts, they released the haunting “Uncloudy Day.” It became the Staple Singers’ first hit (at least by gospel standards) and allowed them to begin touring nationally.
Part of the Staples’ appeal lay in a down-home sound and attitude that reminded Northern urban churchgoers of their rural Southern roots. The Staples’ stripped-down performances—just Pops’ guitar and their voices—stood in stark contrast to the more flamboyant gospel acts of the day.
Pops’ playing is the foundation of the tracks the Staple Singers cut for Vee-Jay between 1955 and 1961. As Greg Kot describes it in his Staples book: “His style created an atmosphere that was immediately distinctive, a hypnotic swirl of reverb, repetition, and riff. Chords were implied as much as articulated, notes were blurred, tones and overtones were carefully layered like the bricks Pops used to cement into place at his construction jobs.”
While the Staple Singers’ repertoire wasn’t strictly gospel, identifying themselves with that genre gave them an advantage over R&B groups: They could play hundreds of small churches across the country, sometimes doing two or three services a day at a single church. Like many R&B artists, though, Staples carried a gun in his briefcase to ensure payment by crooked promoters and to protect the money afterwards.
In the 1960s, the Staple Singers moved to Orrin Keepnews’ jazz and folk label, Riverside Records. Keepnews added more prominent bass and drums to their recordings, helping them extend their audience beyond the church while remaining true to their homespun roots.
The group managed to fit into the “folk” music revolution of the ’60s, often crossing paths with Bob Dylan on TV shows and at festivals. The fledgling legend was a huge fan—to the point of asking Mavis to marry him. The group recorded “Blowing in the Wind” for Riverside before Dylan’s own version hit the streets.
Pops often found folk music’s message to be in tune with his family’s ideology. Dylan’s music, and a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired him to record songs reflecting the civil rights and anti-war movements for their record This Land.
Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis Staples (left to right) are the female vocalists of the Staples Singers. The first song their father, Pops Staples, taught them to sing harmony on was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
In 1965, the Staples signed with Epic and recorded with producer Billy Sherrill. Sherrill was known for creating the “countrypolitan” sound of artists like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, but had started in music playing the blues.
That year also brought the famous Selma to Montgomery civil rights march. Pops Staples, upset by the images of clubs, dogs, and tear gas, was moved to write his iconic song “Freedom Highway.” The group performed it for the first time at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church, where Sherrill recorded the entire performance for the live Freedom Highway record. Al Duncan on drums and Phil Upchurch on bass add admirable support, but Pops’ guitar anchors the recording, from the country blues licks of “When I’m Gone,” to the rockabilly rhythm/lead combo of “He’s All Right.” By the concert’s end, the Staple Singers had defined the meeting place of the African-American church and the American civil rights movement.
The Staples were devastated by the death of their friend and hero Martin Luther King in April 1968, but by July they’d recovered enough to sign with Stax Records, where Al Bell and Steve Cropper helped them continue on their path toward gospel-infused pop music.
Bell also wanted to produce solo records for Pops and Mavis. He and drummer Al Jackson, Jr., had the idea of making a record featuring three Stax guitarists: Pops, Cropper, and Albert King. Though Pops’ tremolo guitar is overdubbed on a number of Jammed Together’s tunes, its full low-tuned mystery is reserved for the one Pops feature, “Tupelo.”