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Pops Staples
 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 beautiful.

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 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 console.

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 finish.

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

 Following up...

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.

production notes
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)

song titles
Father Father
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
Downward Road
Simple Man
Glory Glory

of related interest

Pops Staples
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

Copyright © 1995 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.