The Staple Singers came to prominence during the 1940s when patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples – originally a Delta blues singer and guitarist, and a contemporary of Charley Patton – turned towards the church and formed a gospel quartet with himself, his daughters Mavis and Cleotha, and son Pervis, naming them the Staple Singers. Throughout the 1940s and '50s, the Staple Singers performed and recorded in the gospel tradition, the children's angelic vocal harmonies matched by Pops Staples' raw, bluesy fretwork.
During the 1960s, the Staple Singers turned towards a bluesier amalgam of gospel and folk music, recording protest songs by artists like Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills, imbuing them with the quartet's undeniably gospel-tinged vocals. As the decade wore on and the youngest members grew into their 20s and 30s, the Staple Singers evolved into a soul outfit, pursuing socially-conscious songs that they called "message music." Signing with Stax Records in Memphis in the late-1960s, the Staples entered their most critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful period, the band's musical legacy ensured by the release of 1972's landmark Be Altitude: Respect Yourself album.
The Staple Singers' Be Altitude: Respect Yourself
The Staple Singer's Be Altitude: Respect Yourself yielded three R&B chart hits, including the title track "Respect Yourself" and the phenomenal "I'll Take You There," both of which were also Top 20 pop chart hits. For AM radio listeners during the 1970s, the sassy, in-your-face R&B sentiments of "Respect Yourself" and the lilting rhythms of "I'll Take You There" were nearly ubiquitous, both songs providing a welcome respite from the pop song treacle that typified the airwaves at the time.
"Respect Yourself" is a near-perfect slab of Southern soul with a slinky rhythm courtesy of the Muscle Shoals players, and brassy vocals that left no uncertainty where the Staple family stood on the issue of African-American pride. With Eddie Hinton's guitar raging in the background, and an infectious rhythm supported by Jimmy Johnson's guitar and David Hood's constant bass line, "Respect Yourself" sounds as good today as it did in 1972. Ditto for "I'll Take You There," another instantly-familiar classic tune whose reggae-influenced rhythms provided an exotic soundtrack beneath the Staples' gospel-tinged, soulful vocal performance.
There's much more to Be Altitude: Respect Yourself than the two pop chart hits, however, beginning with "This World," a lesser-known song that nonetheless climbed the R&B chart for a good reason. Opening the album, "This World" offers up beautiful vocal harmonies, a slinky guitar-driven rhythm, and a reverent lyrical message based on the Staple's gospel roots. It's a transcendent, joyful song and performance that sets the stage for the rest of the album. "We The People" is a great example of what the Staple's called "message music," the song mixing gospel-styled vocal harmonies with a soulful soundtrack fueled by subtle hornplay and muted instrumentation.
The Staples' immense vocal chemistry is on display with "Are You Sure," as the voices of Mavis, Cleotha, and Yvonne are intertwined alongside subdued instrumentation that serves to enhance, rather than detract, from the downplayed vocal performance. The Stax Remasters 2011 reissue of Be Altitude: Respect Yourself includes two previously-unreleased bonus tracks, the first being "Walking In Water Over Our Head," an up-tempo R&B rave with a positive message and soaring vocals. The other bonus is an alternate version of "Heavy Makes You Happy," the Staples' Top 30 pop hit from the previous year, this take a little more restrained than the original single, the band's joyful delivery shining through nonetheless.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
While the Staple Singers enjoyed a great run with Stax Records between 1968 and until the label folded mid-decade, racking up a dozen chart hits, it's safe to say that the runaway mainstream success of Be Altitude: Respect Yourself created the blueprint that the band would follow throughout much of the rest of their career.
The album's soaring vocal performances, great songs, and inspired instrumentation would create a landmark in 1970s soul, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself seamlessly melding the soul, blues, and gospel traditions into a single timeless recording that is as spiritually uplifting as it is entertaining. (Stax Records, released May 10, 2011)
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