In a career that spanned four decades, Pops, Mavis, Pervis (later replaced by Yvonne) and Cleotha Staples made a lot of remarkable recordings. Happily the majority of these have remained in print, in one form or another, virtually since they were first issued. However, the group recorded for several labels in that time, and thus it's been the case to date that anyone wanting to build a definitive "Best Of The Staple Singers" collection would have to buy at least five CDs, maybe more, in an attempt to piece together such a thing.
Not any more, thankfully. After having done a similar job for the Fatback Band a couple of months back, Ace is now delighted to present the first-ever Staple Singers retrospective that covers virtually their entire recording career as a group, from 1953 to 1984. In the course of 155-plus minutes playing time, A FAMILY AFFAIR takes in repertoire from United, Vee-Jay, Riverside, Vanguard, Epic, Stax, Curtom, Warner Brothers and Private I. Unfortunately, the Staples' recordings for 20th Century and D-Town were not available for licence for this particular compilation. Even without anything from those labels, this is still about as definitive as definitive gets.
The Staple Singers made their first recordings as a group in the early 1950s, and their final ones together in the mid 1980s. The set presents the best of them in a way that allows the listener a chance to experience the growth and diversification of the Staples as both a group, and as individual vocalists. Not that they ever had much growing to do as singers - when you hear the 15 year old Mavis bursting to cut loose on Won't You Sit Down you will hear that her style is already almost fully formed. However, as well as hearing some great singing it's interesting to study the development of a diverse repertoire that, along the way, incorporates the influences of Blind Willie Johnson, Stephen Stills, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, reggae, Curtis Mayfield and Talking Heads and that still comes out sounding like the Staple Singers, and only the Staple Singers.
As the set's compiler I have tried to present as rounded a portrait of this exceptional family band as can possibly be presented in the course of two CDs. In doing so, I have omitted the odd hit in favour of a hitherto hidden gem of an album track, but I feel I've left out nothing that can truly be called 'essential' in that respect . I've also featured a couple of solo tracks apiece by Pops and Mavis Staples - some of which are previously unissued - that illustrate just some of the outside projects that the various members took in their stride in between releasing the group's albums. Between them, Pops and Mavis do take the majority of the lead vocals here, of course, but also included are a couple of tracks that feature a rare lead vocal from Pervis Staples, who left the group in 1970 to concentrate on running a successful management and publishing company.
Those who bemoan the lack of previously unissued group cuts here should be aware that, apart from some unreleasable - and unfixable, due to the fact that Mavis' mic-to-mixer feed is off on all of them - live cuts, there really is nothing left in the Stax can on the Staples (most of what there was, was featured on the 1980s album "This Time Around"). However, we're delighted to present an all-new 2004 mix of the 1972 chart hit Oh La De Da, now minus the irritating 'fake audience' applause that was added to the single by Stax, in an attempt to pass the track off as a live recording from "Wattstax". We also premiere an unissued 1971 cut apiece from Mavis and Pops, both of which, it's fair to say, ought to have been issued at the time and both of which earn their place here on merit.
Everyone knows, of course, that Mavis Staples still has one of the greatest female voices in the world today, and her position as the Staples' lead singer was unchallenged all the way through the group's career. However, one should never undervalue the vocal contributions of Pops - whose performances here are often the highlights of the songs that feature him - or his Mississippi-style, vibrato-laden guitar that, in the early days, at least, had as much prominence in the group as the vocals. Exactly how sublime a guitarist Pops was is demonstrated admirably by his near-rockabilly style solo on It's Been A Change, and the understated passion of his version of the late Donny Hathaway's Tryin' Times shows just what a shame it was that he recorded so infrequently as a lead singer.
As for Mavis, she's heard to spectacular advantage throughout. If you don't yet realise that this woman is perennially up there with the greats, check her here on God Bless The Children, the previously unissued Phillip Mitchell song The Only Time You Ever Say You Love Me, the modern soul 'unfinished masterpiece' that is Trippin' On Your Love and - above all - what must be the definitive rendition of (Sittin' On) The Dock Of the Bay, a song that our heroine was just born to sing. How do you spell Soul? M-A-V-I-S, and no m-i-s-t-a-k-e.
As well as first-tier repertoire from beginning to end, "A Family Affair" boasts a dazzling array of rare label shots, photographs, posters and sheet music, a lot of which will be unfamiliar at best to even the biggest Staples aficionado. The notes are by acknowledged Stax expert Rob Bowman, who interviewed Mavis earlier this year, especially for this project. Rob has also drawn on the library of interviews he conducted in the course of writing his book "Soulsville U.S.A", and he has been able to thus include commentary from Pops Staples, Al Bell and others who played a vital part in establishing the long career of this amazing group. "A Family Affair" has been a couple of years in the making, and the end product more than justifies the long wait.
By Tony Rounce