Yet the story of how the group finished out the 70s reveals, in a way, the resilience of their connections to the South. After an initial, stunning success with Mayfield, and changing their name to The Staples, they drifted for a time, only to revisit Muscle Shoals (where their biggest Stax hits had been recorded) for an earthy return to form by decade's end.
It's a story that spans a series of four reissues that Omnivore Recordings is dropping this month. The Let’s Do It Again soundtrack and Pass It On, both produced by Mayfield, came out June 5, while Family Tree, produced by Eugene Record (The Chi-Lites) in Chicago, and Unlock Your Mind, produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett in Muscle Shoals, will be available June 26. All the releases contain bonus tracks, including singles mixes, and copious liner notes by Rob Bowman.
For much of their early gospel career, the Staple Singers had one foot in the folk world, even on their Stax debut, Soul Folk in Action. Only later, with Al Bell at the helm, did the Memphis label forge a more polished sound for them, crafting the horn-driven funk of hits like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There" at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.
With Mayfield, their sound grew even more polished. And the raging success of their first single, "Let's Do It Again," in late 1975 seemed to validate that choice. The band and production style were as funky as ever, albeit with a slicker, more urbane approach that resonated with the frankly sexual subject matter.
The Staples' work with Mayfield echoed the rest of the 70s in other ways as well, occupying a glossy niche somewhere between soul, funk and disco. Of course, this wasn't just a Chicago sound. Isaac Hayes records from the same year are not so different.
When their second album for Curtom didn't make as much of a splash, they went even glossier on Family Tree. The Chi-Lites had some of the slickest, smoothest soul sounds of the early 70s, so it the object was to add even more polish than Mayfield, Eugene Record, The Chi-Lites' former leader, was the right choice.
It must be said, of course, that even the greatest polish can't obscure the beautiful, soulful grit of Mavis Staples' singing, or the family of voices that surround her with their harmonies. All the records reward deep listening for those voices alone, with the added bonus of world-class funk players creating state-of-the-art rhythm tracks that could have samplers and beat pirates working for decades to come.
Finally, the grittier side of funk is brought a bit more to the fore on the final release of this era, Unlock Your Mind. A follow up hit to "Let's Do It Again" having eluded them, The Staples returned to Muscle Shoals Sound and the Muscle Shoals Horns, not to mention the Swampers, players who had cut some of the great soul sides of the previous decade.
While the Muscle Shoals sound had taken on a great deal of polish itself by 1978, there's murkiness to the grooves here that eludes the Curtom material, with all due respect to the genius of Curtis Mayfield. And, perhaps because of producer Jerry Wexler's influence, the choice of material is decidely eclectic, more in keeping with their earlier albums for Stax. The outlier in that regard is a cover of the Electric Light Orchestra's "Showdown," which makes for a strong track. And, as it turned out, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach worked, and the title track reached #16 on the R&B charts, a gratifying high note on which to end the decade.
If, like me, you bought into the "disco sucks" mentality of the punk years, nearly all of this material may have slipped past you. Yet with these reissues, a bright bubble of 70s optimism and panache can live again, as we hear with fresh ears how the consummate musicianship that drove disco and 70s R&B flowed so effortlessly, and so creatively. It's a welcome cool breeze in these more claustrophobic times.