The Staple Singers: Doin' It Again With Mister Mayfield
By David Nathan
April 1976, in person interview in New York City
One of the most welcome sights of recent months has been the re-appearance in the pop and R&B charts of that much-loved and extra-soulful family known as The Staple Singers. After a temporary silence as a result of the demise of Stax Records, the group signed a new deal with Warner Bros. last August and almost immediately found themselves in the studios in Chicago cutting the soundtrack for the very successful movie, "Let's Do It Again" with none other than Curtis Mayfield handling production and writing chores. Needless to say, the result was a No. 1 gold record for the team which also happened to be the fastest selling single in the history of Warner Brothers Records.
Mavis, Cleo and Yvonne (with Pops in the vicinity taking care of business) were more than happy to talk about recent activities. "Naturally, we're more than pleased to be with Warners because we'd been conversing with various companies before we actually signed and they offered us the best all round deal. But, in all honesty, we stayed with Stax until the last possible moment without hurting ourselves and when we realized that things wouldn't be resolved, we knew we had to move on. But we were happy whilst we were Stax and we might still have been with them if the situation had been different. We felt that they did the best they could under the circumstances and we didn't leave with any bad feeling. In fact, the company had probably about an album-and-a-half’s worth of product in the can on us when we left — material from the sessions we cut at about the time we did the "City In The Sky" album."
The group has nothing but praise for the way their first Warners' sessions worked out. "Working with Curtis was just like being with family — after all, we're all from Chicago and we've been knowing Curtis for years. So there was just a really beautiful atmosphere throughout the whole time. We all felt that the material was the most commercial we'd ever cut and although it wasn't typical Staples' material, it proved that we were capable of doing whatever we're called on to do — a signal of our versatility. But the vibes throughout were so great that we just knew that the album would take off — though in all honesty, we didn't expect it to be quite the runaway success it was!"
For the Staples, it came as something of a reward because during the last days with Stax, their material hadn't been strong enough to give them any crossover hits of significance. "Although our work with Stax was very good, we'd become stagnant to a certain degree — plus we hadn't actually recorded anything for two years prior to the sessions with Curtis, so we were more than ready — there was just a good feeling about what we were doing."
Alongside the group's move into the best sellers came a change of management back to a gentleman who had handled the Staples' affairs once before — Dick Broder, also manager of Tony Orlando & Dawn: "He's a young guy with a lot of confidence and, having worked with us before, he knew our style and didn't try to change it. But we found ourselves working a lot of new and different venues — like the Sahara Tahoe, where we headlined. Yes, we changed our material somewhat — including some songs from [the musical] "The Wiz" — and changed our stage act to coincide. It was interesting for us to make the changes because we realise that nowadays, people want more and if you don't know that, you can become stale."
In recent times, the team did their first dates in South Africa, a somewhat controversial subject with many black entertainers these days: "Well, to be honest, none of us wanted to go but our father did and before we knew it, the dates had been booked. It's like going backwards when you go there — it really took us back to times we'd rather leave as memories. Yes, it turned us around and we're in no hurry to go back there, believe me.'
Following "Let's Do It Again" and its phenomenal success, it was a natural move for the group to team up with Curtis to do just that — do it again. "By the time your readers read this, we'll be well into our next sessions with Curtis and naturally, we're all anxious to see the results. As of now, we don't know what he has planned for us and whatever it is, we're totally confident that it will be hit product.”
Certainly the combination is so strong that there's no question that Curtis and The Staples will come through with some more gold for their respective walls! Meanwhile, the group are heavily booked for dates in the coming few months with jazz festivals, college dates, concerts and television all figuring prominently in their busy schedule.
They stress that, when time permits, you will be sure to find them "back in church — we make the time to go back there because that's where we belong. When we're back in Chicago, you'll find us at the Fellowship Baptist Church, that's our church! Whatever we do we'll never leave that behind — it's a part of us."
As anyone who's followed the Staples' career will attest, their roots are firmly in gospel although they were one of the first gospel groups to venture out and use secular material: "Back in the late fifties and sixties, we'd intersperse songs like "Blowin' In The Wind" and "For What It's Worth" when we were singing in church and people accepted it from us because we were speaking the truth. We were about the only ones doing a mixture of jazz and folk in with gospel, although the Clara Ward Singers were also doing it, but not in quite the same way.”
Needless to say, the general public eventually caught up with The Staples after they'd been with Stax for a short while and smash hits like "Respect Yourself", "I'll Take You There" and "If You're Ready" established the team as hit-makers. Now, with a golden path already forged, the future looks brighter than ever. And, in the process, The Staple Singers have lost none of their charm, their warmth and their soulful feeling.