THE STAPLE SINGERS The Ultimate Staple Singers A Family Affair 1955-1984 (Kent)

Over two crammed-to-the-circumference discs, “The Ultimate Staples Singers A Family Affair 1955-1984” surveys the career of America’s first family of gospel soul, abetted by a lengthy, insightful booklet essay slightly uncomfortably rendered in the tiny font often encountered on Ace Records releases.

This compilation charts their progression – and frequently invention – of styles, moving through the decades from gospel to soul-folk to what they term message music. If the thought of gospel music chills your blood slightly, rest assured that there’s nothing to fear from the genre as practiced here, just the simple, convincing restatement of belief, for example when Pops asserts, during Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, “I got a bible in my home”, or the live, Chicago church testifying of “Too Close”.

By 1963 they were covering Dylan, being taught the songs by the man himself, no less, recording a call-and-response “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” that, despite some rather overenthusiastic contemporary stereo effects, mangles a glorious mess of genres to create electric protest gospel, or something like it. A 1967 interpretation of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” finds them burrowing towards rock, years before rock would find itself heading in the opposite direction via The Flying Burrito Brothers’ country-soul cover of “Dark End Of The Street”. The Burritos are anticipated again by the narrative “Be Careful Of Stones That You Throw”, which surely influenced their “Hippie Boy”..

It’s the Stax material that forms the backbone of this compilation, documenting their gradual mutation from purveyors of soul-folk to message music. You can hear it from the organ intro to the first Stax track included here, “The Ghetto”, at once tougher and more assured. It could be entirely illusory, of course, but maybe it also reflected material consciously constructed to appeal outside their core constituency. The simmering resentment of “When Will We Be Paid For The Work We Did” proved too much of a hot potato for radio programmers – on stage the band would enact the song’s lyrics as if they were slaves, and decades later Prince, a victim of rather more metaphorical enslavement, would regularly perform it in concert. This era peaks with the slam-dunk of “Respect Yourself”, surely, and perhaps deservedly, the collection’s most immediately familiar moment, and “I’ll Take You There”. The latter is a slithery, “Liquidator”-esque reggae soul jam, an idea that might sound preposterous on paper but which in execution topped the US charts. Its reggae influence stemmed at least in part from the fact that some of the Muscle Shoals musicians had just been touring with Traffic, who played The Wailers’ “Catch A Fire” every night over the PA before their performance. “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” repeated the formula, even recycling some of the lyrics, to diminished effect, a here’s-one-I-made-earlier neatness replacing the original’s spontaneous charm.

Following their tenure at Stax, the mid-to-late 70s finds the Singers relaxing, or perhaps relapsing, into stereotypical contemporary soul. Operating under Curtis Mayfield’s guidance, they enjoyed another American number one (“Let’s Do It Again”, from the soundtrack of the Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby film), but Mayfield’s vision seems stronger than theirs, and they ended the decade covering an old Olivia Newton-John hit, “I Honestly Love You”. The modish awkwardness of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” doesn’t really suit them either, intriguing as the idea might sound. The closing “H-A-T-E (Don’t Live Here Anymore)” is nearer the mark, although the hiss and tick of the synthesized backing track is no substitute for Booker T And The MGs or the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.  Nevertheless, there’s a vast quantity of very fine music encased in this compilation, which must rate as the ideal one-stop, or maybe even first, Staples Singers purchase.