Mavis Staples got her start as one of the lead singers of the celebrated gospel/soul group The Staple Singers, originally founded and headed by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. After a string of singles and albums for Vee-Jay and Riverside in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Staples, like many gospel artists of the time, found a secular outlet for their music in the burgeoning Southern soul sound. They reached the height of their popularity after a move to the Memphis-based Stax label in 1968, becoming one of the primary musical voices of the American Civil Rights Movement with their positive and inspirational message songs. At Stax, they worked with the likes of Booker T. & the MG’s and producer/songwriter Al Bell, the latter providing the Staples with their first number one single, “I’ll Take You There,” in 1972, considered by Rolling Stone magazine to be one of the top 500 songs of all time.
Mavis herself recorded as a leader for the first time in 1969. She released solo albums sporadically until the early 1990s, including two for Prince’s Paisley Park/NPG label. An almost decade-long hiatus followed — like many of the great soul singers of the 1960s, it took a while for Staples to be “rediscovered” — but since 2004 she has released three recordings in quick succession: Have A Little Faith (Alligator) from that year; 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-), a Ry Cooder production featuring an updated take on songs drawn mostly from the Civil Rights era; and 2008’s Live: Hope At The Hideout (also on Anti-), a rousing performance with her touring band recorded at a Monday night club show in Chicago.
One of the joys of Live: Hope At The Hideout is hearing Staples preach and growl in a bare bones setting, fronting a compact three-piece band augmented by a trio of backing singers. At 70-years old, her voice is naturally rougher around the edges than it was during her Stax heyday (almost channeling Howlin’ Wolf near the end of “On My Way”), but Staples’ brand of music is one that rewards honesty and emotional depth above surface beauty and impeccable technique.
Most of the songs recorded here are either traditional gospel numbers or recent arrangements from We’ll Never Turn Back. After warming up the crowd with a brief version of Stephen Stills’ classic “For What It’s Worth,” Mavis and company dig into “Eyes On the Prize,” one of the songs from her 2007 CD. While it’s impossible for anyone else to replicate the menacing grooves Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner cook up on the studio versions, Staples’ crew more than holds its own, stripping things down to their essentials while retaining the sweaty, funky atmosphereof Cooder’s studio arrangements. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom displays a reverb-soaked, swamp-rock sound, and throughout the disc he accompanies Mavis with sensitivity and restraint, especially on the hushed duo performance of “Waiting For My Child.” The rhythm section of Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums keeps the groove simmering, while backup singers Donny Gerrard, Chavonne Morris, and sister Yvonne Staples take star turns on Pops Staples’ 1965 lament, “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” and on the gospel chestnut “Wade In The Water.”
Following is a rendition of “Eyes On the Prize” from Staple’s website, accompanied by a video montage of Civil Right’s era imagery:
Not everything on the disc works perfectly. “Down In Mississippi” pales in comparison to Pops’ despairing 1992 recording (from Peace To the Neighborhood, also with Cooder and Keltner), Mavis’ faster tempo striking a somewhat more defiant tone than the earlier version. And the encore performance of “I’ll Take You There” is performed here as a one-off with just voice and Holmstrom’s guitar, losing the punchy horns and hip, quasi-reggae groove of the original from Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. But these are minor quibbles, and probably unfair ones at that. It’s impossible for an artist to top herself (or her father!) all the time, and Mavis Staples at 70 offers pleasures that, while distinct from those of her youth, are still eminently worth savoring.
War, social injustice, personal plaints, and calls for action have long fueled musical creation and performance—Liner Notes.
Folkways Records, founded by Moses Asch in 1948, emerged on the heels of the social protests of the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, Asch created something of a haven for left-leaning musicians, both black and white, such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White, who became staples of the famous folk music label. For this compilation, Jeff Place and Mark Gustafson (Smithsonian Folkways’ staff) selected 22 tracks from the Folkways’ vault, as well as from other labels more recently acquired by Smithsonian Folkways, including Monitor and Paragon (the latter was founded in 1970 to document the music of political movements worldwide). An effort was made to represent a broad spectrum of the struggles for economic and social justice, from anti-war protests to civil rights anthems to songs used by union organizers and the labor movement. Place and Gustafson also sought to demonstrate that protest songs did not originate with the folk music revival, thus a number of pre-1950 tracks were included.
African American artists are well represented on this compilation. The disc opens with the “Freedom Now Chant,” sung by participants during a Civil Rights era mass-meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and collected by noted scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon. One of the most famous African American folk singers, Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, is represented by a 1930 recording of “Bourgeois Blues,” inspired by the time (presumably one of many) that he was denied a room in a Washington, D.C. hotel.
Big Bill Broonzy, perhaps equally famous as one of the seminal pre-WWII blues artists, contributes “Black, Brown, and White,” a song so controversial in the U.S. that he ended up recording it in Europe. For those who aren’t familiar with the song, the refrain is “If you was white, you’re alright / if you’re brown, stick around / but if you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”
An even more controversial song, “Strange Fruit,” is provided by Brother John Sellers, a blues and gospel singer who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. His 1961 arrangement with flute, guitar, and drum accompaniment offers an interesting contrast to the classic Billie Holiday version, though I find that the flute distracts from the haunting lyrics.
One of the gems on the set is a previously unreleased 1946 recording by Champion Jack Dupree, “I’m Going To Write the Governor of Georgia,” referencing the racism he continued to confront upon his return to the U.S. after WWII, and implying that he was treated little better than he had been during his two years as a Japanese P.O.W. Obviously the song made little difference, for Dupree fled to Europe in the 1950s and didn’t return until shortly before his death in the early ‘90s.
Classic Protest Songs comes with a well-illustrated, well-annotated 29 p. booklet which includes a bibliography and discography of suggested reading/listening. If you don’t have the original Folkways/Paredon/Monitor recordings, this compilation will make a fine addition to your collection.
Those who tuned in to Boston’s public television station WGBH on April 5, 1968 planning to watch Sir Laurence Olivier in a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya were probably shocked to hear “Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his band” introduced instead. Vanya, Astrov, and Yelena were booted from that evening’s programming in favor of a live broadcast of James Brown’s concert at Boston Garden, which occurred only twenty-four hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The concert had been planned for months, but in the wake of King’s tragic demise, it was repackaged as a “memorial concert” and shown live on WGBH, with rebroadcasts throughout the night. James Brown and this concert are often credited with keeping the peace in Boston that night, as it was one of the few major American cities not torn apart by reactionary violence, riots, and vandalism. Dozens died and hundreds were injured in cities throughout the United States, but according to Tom Atkins, Boston’s only black councilperson in 1968, “The city was quieter than it would have been on an ordinary Friday night.” Whether Brown actually did save Boston is up to the individual to decide, preferably after having watched The Night James Brown Saved Boston and James Brown Live at Boston Garden.
James Brown’s musical and political roles in the aftermath of King’s assassination are chronicled in this three-disc collection from director David Leaf. Disc one, The Night James Brown Saved Boston, documents the events surrounding the concert. Incorporating footage from the concert, news clips from riots at the time, and commentary from Dr. Cornel West, Rev. Al Sharpton, Jr., Dr. Robert Hall, Brown’s manager Charles Bobbit, and several others, this disc provides an overview of what happened in the country and how Boston, with James Brown’s help, prevented itself from going up in flames that night. The second disc in the collection is James Brown Live at the Boston Garden, the actual WGBH broadcast from that night, complete with questionable sound quality, occasionally jumpy camera-handling, and one of the most electrifying James Brown concerts ever caught on tape. Finally, disc three is entitled James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68, and it is a compilation of various Brown performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in March of 1968. While the three-disc collection is entitled I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s, nearly all the footage is from 1968.
The Night James Brown Saved Boston chronicles the trials and tribulations leading up to and including the April 5, 1968 concert. Originally, Mayor Kevin White wanted to cancel the concert because to bring “as many as fifteen or twenty thousand black people … particularly young people” into the city “would be a problem,” but White eventually came around when Councilperson Atkins warned him that to cancel the concert in the wake of King’s assassination would cause “all hell to break loose.” The show went on as planned, with the added tag of “memorial concert” for Dr. King. Tensions were palpable: most commentators in the documentary mention various elements of fear, anger, and revenge, and Leaf blends those interviews into the narrative along with news reports of ravaged cities, pleas from President Lyndon Johnson to “reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by non-violence,” and an interview given by White the afternoon of the concert, in which he said, “I’m hoping it [the concert] is one valve that will let off some steam.” The rage came to a head toward the end of the actual concert, when several people jumped onstage and Brown dismissed the police in order to handle the situation himself. He told the interlopers, “You’re not being fair to yourselves and me either, or your race. Now I asked the police to step back because I thought I could get some respect from my own people. Don’t make sense. Now we together or we ain’t.” Apparently they were together, because the fans left the stage peacefully, and Brown finished the concert without further disruption. This is the most powerful moment of the entire concert, but it is rendered less so in The Night James Brown Saved Boston because it is constantly interrupted by commentary from the various informants. (Seen in its entirety in James Brown Live at Boston Garden, however, it is a positively nail-biting few minutes.) Brown may or may not have saved Boston that night, but the way in which he disarmed a potential riot certainly saved many necks and a lot of pride at Boston Garden.
The Night James Brown Saved Boston also addresses the unfortunate financial ramifications of the concert, its live broadcast, and the refunds offered to ticketholders. White had okayed the broadcast without first asking Brown, and Brown was livid about the money he stood to lose, particularly because not only would the concert be televised, but the Garden was also offering refunds to ticketholders. Bobbit, Brown’s manager, estimates that they lost about sixty thousand dollars, even after the city provided about ten thousand dollars for the expenses. White’s response is smug: “He was worth the sixty [thousand]. I don’t know about the music, but for the city, he was,” and Bobbit said that Brown ultimately shrugged off the loss and said it was good for the people. Even though White refers to both Brown and himself as “two arrogant people,” the fact that Leaf does not linger over the financial losses allows both White and Brown to save face. While Brown’s financial losses are an integral part of the story, the appropriate amount of attention is paid and the majority of the emphasis remains on the concert, not the money.
The dramatic structure of The Night James Brown Saved Boston is relatively straightforward. Little information is given about either Brown or Dr. King prior to April of 1968 and instead, the story limits itself to the 48-hour period surrounding King’s assassination and the Brown concert. (For those in need of biographical background, Rickey Vincent’s liner notes summarize Brown’s childhood and rise to stardom.) Throughout the documentary, the music and politics are interwoven without seeming preachy or overtly sentimental: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” underscores a speech given by King on April 3, 1968, lending King’s extended syllables (“I’ve seen the promised land,” “we as a people”) a sense of musicality; at another point, footage from the concert shares the screen with a news report about the violence in other parts of the country, juxtaposing the peace in Boston with the violence in other cities. Otherwise, Leaf sticks to bouncing back and forth between the commentators and still images or concert footage, rather than inundating the viewer with too much information. The final fifteen minutes, which are devoted to Brown’s activities and activism after that night, including “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” drag and feel like a frantic attempt for an effective closing.
James Brown Live at Boston Garden, which resurrects the footage that had previously been abandoned in the WGBH archives, presents the concert exactly as it appeared on television that night. It opens with Atkins introducing Brown, a brief speech by White, and then, there is nobody but James Brown. The sound quality is less than stellar, but as Russ Morash, the director at WGBH, explains on disc one, the poor sound quality resulted from the incongruous equipment (the audio department usually handled “fine,” classical sounds) and the fact that “they substituted the most expendable mics that they could, fearing the worst, that they would be thrown to the floor and stamped on.” Regardless, the performance is outstanding: Brown does not need pyrotechnics, elaborate stage machinery, or his own personal lighting director – when his hair shakes itself loose from the pompadour, the sweat courses down his face, and his limbs seem to move without regard to his bones, any concerns about the sound quality are forgotten. The performance of “I Got a Feeling” last over ten minutes, and it is arguably the most outstanding number in the concert. The solos by tenor saxophonist Maceo Parker and drummer Clyde Stubblefield in “Cold Sweat” are also show-stoppers. Following is a brief clip of “I Feel Good” from the Boston Garden concert:
James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68 rounds out the triumvirate of discs in this collection, and it is the least exciting of the three but still a worthwhile viewing experience. The color video often just includes head shots or images of Brown from the chest up; such a field of vision erases his dancing and the unstoppable energy that seems to radiate from every cell in his body. Distance shots are almost too far away to capture the frenetic movement in Brown’s dance breaks, and there are too many visual distractions, such as heads in the audience and light refracting from band members’ instruments, to capture the full effect of Brown in motion. Of course, the deficiencies are not the responsibility of those who reissued this performance, and this series, broadcast on television as James Brown: Man to Man, is one of the few lengthy live performances recorded prior to Brown’s 1968 Boston concert. The middle of the program features footage of Brown in Harlem and Watts, discussing the state of blacks in the United States and remarking, “My fight is for the Black American [to] become America.” The bonus features on the disc include three other live performances, including “Out of Sight” from the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I Show, and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” both performed at L’Olympia in Paris in 1967 and 1968, respectively.
This collection addresses an exquisite moment in American history in which music and politics reflected the best and worst parts of the human spirit. The music is incomparable, and it is no hyperbole to say that the energy in Brown’s performance transcends time, whether viewed on a black-and-white TV set in 1968 or on a 2008 digital flat-screen. Ultimately, what these discs are missing is Brown’s own (speaking) voice. West, Atkins, White, and Sharpton relate statements Brown made to them, but these secondary reflections are no substitute for hearing the Godfather of Soul himself speaking. While James Brown’s speech certainly lacked the elegance and polish of Dr. King’s, the documentary would be that much more effective if even one sentence about the concert from Brown himself was included. Alas, the music is his only statement. And what a statement it is.