“Gospel goes deeper than entertainment,” Pops Staples said in 1968, shortly after his group, the Staple Singers, signed with Stax Records. “It is the word of god. But you can’t push that down anybody’s throat. All we can do is get as many people to hear us as we can.”
A new box set, Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection, which gathers together the band’s Stax discography on vinyl for the first time in ages, traces the Staple Singers’ eternal relationship with this central tension–how to expand their Chicago gospel roots for a popular audience–over the course of their six-album tenure with the Memphis-based R&B powerhouse label from 1968 until 1974.
For fans mainly familiar with the group’s biggest pop hits (“I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself”), hearing the band’s entire Stax discography presented as a whole comes as a revelation. Come Go With Me is the sound of a foundational American band exploring its own parameters, getting prodded by those around them to broaden their approach while discovering and stumbling through endless iterations of what that means for themselves. Unlike the band’s recent Faith and Grace collection, which crams the Stax material onto a one-disc compilation, Come Go With Me offers the first-ever complete portrait of the group’s most dynamic, and in some ways, most turbulent, period.
Presenting the Stax years in full makes it all the more powerfully poignant when, four albums in, the group finally does land on its classic formula, the one we all know, on 1972’s Muscle Shoals swamp-soul masterpiece Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.
More interesting is what happens before and after: on the transitional Steve Cropper-produced LP’s Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over and their Stax swansong, 1974’s oft-overlooked City in the Sky.
These albums are full of originals that should have been hits (see the 1974 gos-pop gem “There Is A God) and alternative sonic paths one wishes the band had explored more fully, whether on Mavis Staples’ disco-house barnburner “Trippin’ On Your Love” or the orchestral pop ditty “Little Boy.” For casual fans, these albums are brimming with new discoveries: forgotten razor-sharp polemics (“If It Ain’t One Thing It’s Another”) alongside clunkier attempts at political observation (“Washington, We’re Watching You”); milquetoast covers (“Games People Play”) and renditions that simply baffle, such as their attempt at Japanese folk music on “Solon Bushi.” In the late Sixties, Stax was still transitioning out of their mid-Sixties singles heyday into focusing on full-length statements, and the Staple Singers was one of their primary test cases. As Cropper put it, “we were shooting in the dark in how to handle albums.”
For more dedicated fans, there’s a full disc of singles, rarities, and live performances, though nothing at all that hasn’t been released before. The highlight? Pops Staples’ Wattstax performance of the group’s overlooked tour-de-force “I Like The Things About You,” complete with an extended spoken word monologue from Pops addressed to the massive young black crowd. “I just want to let you know,” he shouts, “we are somebody!”
“I Like The Things About You” shows the Staple Singers at their most potent and self-contained (the song, unlike most of the Staples’ Stax catalog, was co-written by Pops). Originally released in 1971, after Al Bell took over production duties from Cropper, the r&b original allowed space for the group’s MLK-era idealism while still channeling the burgeoning black power movement of the impending decade.
But today, “I Like The Things About You” also serves as a complicated reminder of the way in which the band continually struggled to channel its civil rights politics into the mainstream. They never toned down their socially conscious storytelling, but songs like “I’ll Take You There” made implicit what was once explicit racial justice sloganeering. During the period of their career when they had the greatest access to a pop audience, the Staple Singers never stopped wrestling with how to translate their message into something larger.