Father, Father, Pointblank CD 39638
Gospel-driven soul by a seventy-year-old veteran
After numerous great gospel and soul recordings for VeeJay, Riverside, Epic,
and Stax from the early 1950's on as the father and leader of the Staple
Singers, Pops Staples has started a solo career. (Yes, the group name was
"Staple" but the singers' names are "Staples.") This is his
second CD from
Pointblank. Most of the tunes are by Pops and some of these were recorded
previously by the Singers. A couple are new, at least to me. There is a
traditional gospel tune and songs by Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan, and Mack Rice.
Quite a mixture, most of it very very fine.
How to describe Pops' voice? Rough and sweet, a little wispy and slurred, full
of soul. In the Singers' recordings, Pops had a light tenorish voice, smoother
than here, but also less involving. I much prefer today's Pops, who sounds like
your closest friend giving you loving and sometimes stern advice.
Most of the cuts were recorded in Memphis, usually with backup vocalists and a
combo of guitar, bass, drums, organ, piano - pretty much the Stax-era lineup. The
strongest cut recorded there, and the best song on the album, is the wonderful
"Why Am I Treated So Bad." Pops transforms the Singers' 1967 hit as a tribute
to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the slow and wide tremolo of his guitar
locking into the (surprisingly) upbeat groove. Pops talks at length about
meeting Dr. King and performing this song for him two weeks before his
assassination. I thought this intro would become tiresome, but Pops' dancing
and weaving around the beat makes it more musical than most singer's
full-throated efforts. He then slides into the tune by the back door, full of
blue and bent notes, barely touching the real melody. Transcendent and sad and
Right after, the biggest letdown. "Getting Too Big For Your Britches" was on
the Singers' 1974 Stax album, City in the Sky. That version had an appealing
bounce that played up the simple tune and played against the didactic lyrics.
This remake sounds like a bid for airplay that thumps instead of bounces. It
fades out, but too late.
And another good/bad pair from Memphis. "Waiting For My Child" is a beautiful
country waltz with just piano and organ, acoustic guitar and Pops' tremolo
guitar. Full of gospel cadences, and bittersweet lyrics: "If you can't come
now, won't you please send me a letter, a letter would mean so much to me."
Full of longing and very beautiful. But then comes "Simple Man," a
mean-spirited song from the point of view of a simple man with an "eye for an
eye" view of vigilante justice. On my optimistic days, it reminds me of one of
Randy Newman's satiric little vignettes of American life, but I don't think
Pops is kidding.
The other Memphis cuts include a couple of fine covers. A slow click-click on
the drums sets up Curtis Mayfield's familiar train ride on "People Get Ready,"
with plenty of ooo-ooo-ing from the backup. Pops' singing is the standout, as
he clearly loves this tune. He also has great fun with the Dylan song, "Gotta
Serve Somebody." Lester Snell's Hammond organ chatters insistently over a
one-chord vamp that steams into the message: "You've got to serve somebody...it
may be the devil, it may be the Lord." Pops' guitar tremolo sets up a subtle 3
against 2 rhythm. Very tasty, but with an annoying fadeout.
Two cuts recorded in Chicago have a similar lineup to the Memphis tracks but
mostly sound better, partly because of the inestimable assistance of Pops'
daughters on backup vocals. "Father, Father" (the capital F is meant) gets the
album off to a good start, with a thucka-thucka guitar over a backbeat snap on
the drums, setting up a slow-cooking but lively groove. "Hope in a Hopeless
World" has some fine singing by Mavis in an uptempo pop/soul song.
Finally, two marvelous cuts feature Pops with just Ry Cooder on slide guitar,
Jim Keltner on drums, and the Paramount Singers gospel group. Both of these
were beautifully recorded by Kavi Alexander, who did the wonderful (and
Grammy-winning, as if that means anything) A Meeting By The River with Ry. The
sound here is of real people in a genuine, spacious environment (a church
somewhere?) instead of isolated performers mixed, however skillfully, at the
And, the music is great. The traditional gospel tune "Jesus Is Going to Make up
(My Dying Bed)" starts with Ry's slide buzzing an open question, to which Pops
softly answers "yeah." Then, it's straight to the church with Pops standing
just in front of the Paramount Singers. "Downward Road" (from the Staples
Singers early VeeJay days) spins right off the end of "Jesus...," taking the
gospel full on and slowing it down a bit. A whole album like this would be a
very special treat. The only tiny flaw is that someone (masterer Chris Blair?)
had too quick a hand on the volume control, shutting off Kavi's reverberant
So, a couple of the songs could well have been left off. The sound varies from
track to track, recorded as it was with three different groups, in three
different locations, by three different teams, over sixteen months. Still....
Earlier this year, my mother died. For a while, I just didn't listen to music.
Then, this was the only CD I played for a week. This is music with the power to
heal, and that's pretty damn special. -- Glenn Brooks
After the review was written, this gospel/soul album was nominated for
the 1995 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Go figure.
On December 19, 2000, at the age of 85, Pops died. Rest in peace, Pops.
Roebuck (Pops) Staples, vocals, guitar; Mavis, Cleotha, and Yvonne Staples,
background vocals; Ry Cooder, guitar; many others.
Produced by Pops alone or with John Wooler or with R B and Bubbles; two cuts
produced by Ry Cooder. Recorded by William Brown; Rick Brown, Harry Brotman,
and Glenn Rupp; and Kavi Alexander. Mastered by Chris Blair. 1994 release,
probably recorded in 1993 and 1994. (45:11)
of related interest
People Get Ready
Why Am I Treated So Bad
Hope in a Hopeless World
Getting too Big for Your Britches
Gotta Serve Somebody
Jesus Is Going to Make Up (My Dying Bed)
Waiting for My Child
Peace to the Neighborhood, 1992, Pointblank CD 86286
The Staple Singers
Pray On, classic '50's Vee-Jay recordings, Hob Records CD 3513
Ry Cooder and V. M. Bhatt
A Meeting By The River, 1993, Water Lily Acoustics CD 29