Guitarless in Muscle Shoals It wasn’t until Bell produced the Staple Singers in Muscle Shoals that the group had their first crossover hit, “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom).” But it was their next one, “Respect Yourself,” that solidified the Staple Singers as crossover stars, hitting the pop charts at number 12.
For the follow-up, “I’ll Take You There,” Bell played a Jamaican record, “The Liquidator,” by the Harry J Allstars, for the Muscle Shoals crew. They lifted the intro practically intact and put their own spin on Aston and Carlton Barrett’s reggae rhythm. Though Mavis breathes, “Play, Daddy” before the guitar solo, Muscle Shoals guitarist Eddie Hinton performs it.
In Muscle Shoals Pops was not permitted to play guitar. Though the “Swampers” had utmost respect for his sound, his style was too idiosyncratic to fit into their well-oiled music machine, though the spirit of Pops’ sound remains in Barry Beckett’s spooky electric piano and the soulful guitars of Jimmie Johnson and Eddie Hinton. Pops wasn’t happy about not playing on the sessions, but his feathers were smoothed when “I’ll Take You There” became a number one pop and R&B single.
These secular successes brought some expected backlash from the gospel community, who took the Staples’ political and pop songs as a sign they were turning their backs on the church. Pops felt the group was still doing the Lord’s work by bringing messages of hope, pride, and unity to the black community. The group played a prominent role in Stax’s celebration of black pride, the 1972 Wattstax concert, and was featured on the best-selling recorded documentary that followed.
Staples’ guitar was absent on the next round of Muscle Shoals sessions as well. Despite being a retread of “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” gave them another top 10 hit in 1973. “Touch a Hand (Make a Friend)” followed it up the charts later that year. The album, Be What You Are, also contained a track called “Heaven,” featuring acoustic and electric guitar (and a solo) from another Staples fan: Jimmy Page.
The Weight Part II The Staples left a failing Stax Records in 1975, but were quickly signed by Warner Brothers, who paired the group with Curtis Mayfield as producer. Mayfield was working on a soundtrack for Let’s Do It Again, a movie featuring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, and wanted the Staples to sing the title song. Initially put off by its sexual innuendo, Pops was brought around by his respect for Mayfield and his daughters’ enthusiasm, leading to yet another huge hit.
In 1976 Martin Scorsese convened a special shooting session of the Staple Singers and the Band singing “The Weight.” The Staples had covered the song back in 1968, weeks after the Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink, was released. The group had been unable to play the concert filmed for the Last Waltz, but the Band considered the Staples’ vocal sound a huge influence on their own vocals and harmonies, and wanted them in the movie.
The late ’70s saw many bands struggling with the rise of disco, and the Staple Singers—now simply known as the Staples—were likewise caught in the conundrum. Chasing trends with tunes like “Let’s Go to the Disco” was no answer. They returned to Muscle Shoals in 1978 in hopes of recapturing some of their original magic, but cutting a bunch of dance tracks, even with the Swampers, was no help.
Working in Allen Toussaint’s studio with Meters bassist George Porter and arranger Wardell Quezergue also failed to reignite the Staples’ success. In 1984, on yet another label, the Staples had a new flirtation with the R&B charts thanks to a recording of the Talking Heads tune “Slippery People.” This led to Pops acting in Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s movie True Stories. Other acting jobs followed: Barry Levinson’s film Wag the Dog and the Chicago production of Bob Telson’s gospel-based musical, The Gospel at Colonus. Finally, Mavis left the group for a solo career, and Pops began his own solo flight.
The Staple Singers with Stax label mates Booker T. & the MG’s in a late 1960s rehearsal.
Solo Staples Virgin Records subsidiary Point Blank was signing a spate of blues artists in the late ’80s, including Albert Collins and John Lee Hooker. At the behest of Hooker’s booking agent, they signed Pops.
Peace to the Neighborhood let Staples bring his guitar to the fore once more on tunes like “I Shall Not be Moved,” “Miss Cocaine,” “Down in Mississippi,” and “World in Motion.” With guest artists Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and Ry Cooder helping out, the record earned a Grammy nomination in 1992. Pops’ tremoloed guitar appears on about half the Point Blank follow-up, Father Father, which, despite a lack of blues tunes, won the 1994 Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy.
Pops’ career slowed, but the awards continued. In 1998 Staples was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1999 the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year, on December 19, 2000, Pops Staples died after suffering a concussion in a fall near his home in Dalton, Illinois, just nine days before his 86th birthday.
Despite failing health, in 1998 Pops had begun sessions for another solo record. Shortly before he died, the ailing musician asked Mavis to play him the unfinished tracks. When they were done, he pleaded to his daughter, “Don’t lose this.” That became the album’s title when it was finally released in 2015. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who has produced acclaimed records for Mavis, reworked the music, stripping away most of the original session tracks, leaving Pops’ signature guitar, vocals from Pops, Cleotha, and Mavis, and a few tasteful overdubs.
Don’t Lose This serves as a fitting finale for Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the man who brought the sound of electrified country blues guitar to the church, the city, and the world.