THE STAPLE SINGERS-BE ALTITUDE: RESPECT YOURSELF.

THE STAPLE SINGERS-BE ALTITUDE: RESPECT YOURSELF.

One of the most important moments in The Staple Singers career was when the Reverend Jesse Jackson advised Al Bell to produce the group’s music himself. Before this, Steve Cropper Booker T and The MG’s guitarist and producer, had been in charge of producing the groups two previous albums. Previously, the group had been with Epic, but had been signed with Stax Records in the summer of 1968 by Al Bell, the company’s vice-president. Al Bell was a longtime friend of the Staples’ family, with their friendship having started in the mid-fifties. The Staple Singers’ two previous albums for Stax had been well received, but although full of good music, weren’t huge commercial successes. This must have been frustrating for the Staples’ family, who had signed their first recording contract back in 1952. However, with the intervention of the Reverend Jackson, and some decisive action from Al Bell, all that was about to change.

After Al Bell had spoken to Reverend Jackson, he decided to take the great man’s advice, and produce the group himself. Quickly, Al Bell decided that, instead of using the house band to play on The Staple Singers’ forthcoming album, he’d head down Highway 98, to another legendary studio. With The Staple Singers in tow, Al headed for Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Once there, he enlisted the services of The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and The Memphis Horns. Having laid down both the backing tracks and vocals, Al and The Staple Singers headed back to Memphis and the Stax studios on McLemore Avenue. Once there, the vocals were rerecorded, with the ones recorded at Muscle Shoals just being rough takes. Only one problem had to be resolved, when Purvis Staples decided to quit music, and set up his own management company. His sister Yvonne was brought in, and she sang his parts on the album. After this, overdubbing and mixing were completed, everyone realized that the album was not only very different to the groups previous albums, but very good indeed. 

When Be Altitude: Respect Yourself was released in 1972, it became The Staple Singers’ most commercially successful album. It reached number nineteen in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts. Three singles were released from the album. Respect Yourself the first single, was released in 1971, reaching number twelve in the US Billboard 100 and in the US R&B Charts. This would be surpassed by the second single I’ll Take You There, released in February 1972. Written and produced by Al Bell, it reached number one in both the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. The final single taken from the album, was released later in 1972, and was This World. It failed to match the success of its two predecessors, only reaching number thirty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and six in the US R&B Charts. However, this period was the most successful of the group’s long career. They’d just had a number one single, three top ten singles in the US R&B Charts and in Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, an album that had just reached the top twenty. The big question was why was Be Altitude: Respect Yourself such a huge success, and what had changed in The Staple Singers’ music? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself opens with The World, the third single released from the album. It has a quite spectacular start with a soaring guitar assailing you from the right, before drums kick in at your left. They’re accompanied by bursts of blazing before the vocal enters. When it does, Mavis’ voice is a mixture of joyousness and restrained power. Behind her, a pounding driving rhythm section of David Hood on bass and drummer Roger Hawkins accompany the dual guitars of Jimmy Johnson on rhythm and Eddie Hinton on lead. Their playing is fantastic, fast and accurate, as their guitars chime, soar and scream. Together with the bursts of braying horns, they produce a fast paced, uptempo and joyful accompaniment to Mavis’ vocal. Although the track may have only reached number thirty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and six in the US R&B Charts, it’s a much better track than that. Three and a half-minutes where a fantastic vocal and arrangement unite, to produce one of the album’s best tracks.

If you were to ask most people to name a track by The Staple Singers, most would say Respect Yourself. Since its release, it has become one of the group’s best known and best loved tracks. It’s that familiar opening with keyboards, rhythm section and horns blazing before Pops’ understated vocal enters. Behind him, the rest of the group sing backing vocals, while a pounding rhythm section, guitars and keyboards accompany them. The lead vocal changes hands several times, with Mavis powerfully telling everyone to respect themselves. According to Mack Rice, the song was about encouraging African American people to respect themselves. This song about self-empowerment became important at a time when the civil rights movement was just about over. Meanwhile, the band have locked into a funk groove, and are feeding off each other, encouraging one another to greater heights. During the track, they, like The Staple Singers, just get better as the song progresses. It’s a stunning track, and by the end of the track, everyone involved must have realized that they’d just laid down a classic track. 

Name the Missing Word is very different from the two previous tracks when it opens. It’s slow, spacious, floaty sound with chiming guitars rhythm section and keyboards being joined by subtle bursts of horns before Mavis slow, thoughtful vocal. Her vocal is both hugely emotional, laden with power and even a little anger, as she sings about a turbulent relationship. Quickly, the arrangement fills out, becoming fuller, melodic keyboards and chiming guitars. Add to this a harmonica solo that’s compliments the emotion in Mavis’ vocal, and lush, sweeping strings which get across the sadness and heartache in the lyrics. Together, they create a dramatic, slow arrangement. This is perfect for Mavis’ vocal which is translates the drama and emotion of the lyrics perfectly. Although very different from Respect Yourself, it demonstrates the versatility of The Staple Singers and their confidence in singing a variety of different styles of song.

The follow-up single to Respect Yourself was I’ll Take You There, which gave the group their first number one single in February 1972, spending just one week at number one. Their second and last number one single was 1975s’ Let’s Do It Again, written by Curtis Mayfield and released on his Curtom label. This song was part of the soundtrack to Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby’s film, Let’s Do It Again. However, I’ll Take You There is one of the most moving songs on the album, albeit one with a lovely, feel-good sound. During the track, Mavis asks everyone to find heaven. When you listen to the introduction, many people will recognize it as being part of a reggae track The Liquidator. Al Bell wrote the song in one key, C, only using three chords, C, F and A. After the “borrowed” introduction, Mavis pleading, emotive vocal enters, with the rhythm section, chiming guitars and short snaps of horns accompanying her. Later, an electric piano is played by Barry Beckett, while engineer Terry Manning plays harmonica. Both instruments are important in the track’s success. Just as important were The Memphis Horns soulful contributions, which can be heard throughout the track. Like on many other tracks and albums, they helped transform the track. However, without Mavis almost preaching vocal, this wouldn’t have been the same track. Here, she demonstrated just how hugely talented a singer she was, giving a powerful, moving and emotive performance on this brilliant track.

Keyboards, percussion, rhythm section and guitars combine with The Staple Singers as This Old Town (People In This Old Town) opens. The song has elements of soul and funk in the driving arrangement and features Mavis giving another powerful vocal. Behind her, the rest of the group contribute backing vocals and tight harmonies while The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section provide a funk laden arrangement. This sits well with Mavis soulful lead vocal and equally soulful contributions from the rest of the family. Towards the end, blazing horns cut in, as the boys from Muscle Shoals lock into another groove, driving the track along to its conclusion. From beginning to end, this song doesn’t disappoint, thanks to another great arrangement from Al Bell and the Muscle Shoals crew and of course, the intensity and emotion of Mavis Staples vocal.

When We the People opens, the track is spacious, even hesitant, with the rhythm section, keyboards and blazing horns entering. They seem unsure of whether to stick or twist, whether the track is going to be fast or slow, funky or soulful. In the end, Mavis grabs the track by the scruff of the neck, and with the help of the family and Muscle Shoals finest musicians, waves of spacious music unfold. It’s mainly the rhythm section, keyboards, guitars and braying horns that are responsible for this. During the track, the lead vocal changes hands, but always sounds best when Mavis regains control of the microphone. She’s definitely the star of the Staples’ family. Although the track started hesitantly, things got back on track, ultimately resulting in a good track, although maybe not as good as others on the album.

It’s a much more understated sound on Are You Sure, a track that’s very different but very good. Keyboards, chiming guitars and rhythm section accompany the group. Their vocals unite to produce a much more gentle, subtle sound. Behind them, the arrangement has similar qualities, understated, never once overpowering the vocal. When Mavis sings the lead, her voice grows in power and emotion as she sings the questioning lyrics. It gives way to the previous understated sound. Meanwhile, the arrangement now includes percussion and a mellotron, and meanders beautifully along providing a sympathetic backdrop to the vocal. Taken to together, the vocal and arrangement combine to produce a quite different track, but one that’s very good.

Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)? is written by Roebuck “Pops” Staples and sees the group include another gospel influenced track. It’s the only track on the album that doesn’t quite work for me. The arrangement is good, with the addition of the hugely atmospheric Hammond organ a masterstroke. It wails beautifully throughout the track, especially as the track opens. It accompanies the rhythm section and vocal which are all slow and moody. Behind the Pops’ vocal, the rest of the group contribute backing vocals, while subtle strings sweep in, and chiming guitars play. My problem with the track is Pops vocal, it isn’t celebratory or joyful enough for the subject matter. If his voice was more like the backing vocals, it would be much better. Either that, or he should’ve let Mavis sing the song, she’d have transformed the track into what it could and should’ve been, joyous.

A Hammond organ plays, accompanied by rhythm section, guitars and blazing horns before Mavis sings a joyous vocal as I’m Just Another Soldier opens. There’s a spiritual nature to the lyrics, which Mavis brings to life magnificently. This is helped by an equally joyous arrangement which has the Hammond organ and rhythm section at its heart. Mavis is transformed into a soldier of the Lord, marching at the beat of his drum, preaching about love. As the track progresses, it veers between a march and a swinging arrangement with horns a swinging, while guitars chime, and the Hammond and rhythm section add drama and emotion. Apart from the arrangement, it’s Mavis joyful, celebratory vocal that brings this song to life, making it such an uplifting track. This proves my point about the last track, that if Mavis had been handed the vocal duties, it would’ve been a much better track.

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself closes with Who, which opens with keyboards, chiming guitars and rhythm section combining before Mavis’ dramatic vocal enters. Adding to the sense of drama is a Hammond organ and then sweeping strings that enter. Together, they combine with Mavis’ hugely emotional and passionate vocal about God and what he’s done, and does for everyone. Again, Mavis transforms the lyrics, breathing life and energy into them, with her gospel tinged vocal. Behind her, the arrangement is perfect for her vocal. It’s a stirring mixture of drama and emotion, full of energy that the band produce. They seem to lock into another groove, one that’s got made in Muscle Shoals written all over it. With an arrangement as good as this, combining with Mavis vocal, this is a fitting way to end the album, with a track that highlights The Staple Singers’ gospel roots.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reviewing Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, especially now that I’ve got a copy of the newly rereleased and remastered copy of the album. Joe Tarantino’s remastering of the album brings the album to life. Now it’s possible to hear things on the album that previously, you’ve never heard before. If you’ve got a previous copy of the album, and are unsure whether to buy this version, I’d recommend you to do so. Not only is the sound quality excellent, but it features two bonus tracks Walking In the Water Over Our Head and an alternate take of Heavy Makes You Happy, which are both good tracks. The album itself features for me, the best music The Staple Singers recorded on Stax. Al Bell’s decision to use the famed Muscle Shoals musicians was a controversial one, but one that ultimately, was a masterstroke. Doubtless, Steve Cropper must have been unhappy losing his control of the group’s music, given that their two previous albums had featured some great music. However, they weren’t commercially successful, that was the problem. Once Be Altitude: Respect Yourself was released, Al Bell’s decision was vindicated, after all a number one single and top twenty album was a pretty good result. Sadly, The Staple Singers next two albums on Stax, Be What You Are and City In the Sky failed to recreate the success of Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Be What You Are released in 1973 only reached number 103 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. 1974s’ City In the Sky stalled at number 125 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. Of the six albums The Staple Singers released on Stax, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself was not only the most successful, but the best. They never bettered this album on Stax, and this is album to buy if you want to hear The Staple Singers at their very best. If you do, make sure you buy the newly remastered version, for the brilliant sound quality, which helps you to enjoy the excellent music on the album. Standout Tracks: The World, Respect Yourself, I’ll Take You There and This Old Town (People In This Old Town).

THE STAPLE SINGERS-BE ALTITUDE: RESPECT YOURSELF.

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself [Stax Remasters]

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