Having signed to Stax Records in 1968, The Staple Singers went on to be one of Stax’s most successful groups. They helped fill the void left by the death of Otis Redding and the loss of Sam and Dave to Atlantic Records. Along with Isaac Hayes and Booker T. and The MGs, The Staple Singers were Stax Records most successful  artists. 

Between 1968 and 1975, when Stax was declared insolvent, The Staple Singers released six albums. Then six years after Stax was declared insolvent, the label had been relaunched. The Staple Singers hadn’t re-signed to Stax. Instead, they were signed to 20th Century Fox, when an album’s worth of material was discovered in Stax’s vaults. It was given a musical makeover to given the music a contemporary sound. Overdubbing was used extensively. Synths, rock-tinged guitars and handclaps are added to The Staple Singers’ vocals on what became This Time Around, which was rereleased by Ace Records recently. Before I tell you about the music on This Time Around, I’ll tell you about The Staple Singers’ time at Stax.

After two false starts, with 1968s Soul Folk In Action and 1970s We’ll Get Over, things improved for The Staple Singers. 1971s The Staple Singers reached number 117 in the Us Billboard 200 and number nine in the US R&B Charts. It seemed that twenty-three years after Pops had founded The Staple Singers, things were looking up. That is something of an understatement.

Before the release of Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, in 1972, the anthemic Respect Yourself was released as a single. It reached number twelve in the US Billboard 100 and number two in the US R&B Charts. A stonewall classic, full of social comment, Respect Yourself was later, inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. Be Altitude: Respect Yourself then reached number nineteen in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts. Then came I’ll Take You There, The Staple Singers’ most successful single. A dual number one, it sold over a million copies. This wouldn’t be their last number one single, but Be Altitude: Respect Yourself proved that commercial success and critical acclaim don’t last forever.

If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) a single released from 1973s Be What Your Are, reached number nine in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Be What Your Are failed to replicate the success of Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Reaching just number 102 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirteen in the US R&B Charts, this was disappointing for The Staple Singers. Worse was to come.

City In The Sky was The Staple Singers final album for Stax. Released in 1974, it reached number 125 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. Apart from the title-track reaching number four in the US R&B Charts, it was a disappointing end to The Staple Singers’ time at Stax. The only small crumb of comfort was they left before things got messy and Stax was declared bankrupt. Having left Stax in 1975, The Staple Singers never realized that City In The Sky wouldn’t be the final album they released on Stax.

Having left Stax things initially looked good for The Staple Singers. They signed to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records and recorded the soundtrack to Let’s Do It Again, a movie featuring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. Released in 1975, it reached number eighty-seven in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. The title-track gave The Staple Singers their second dual number one single. That however, was as good as it got for The Staple Singers. 

Following the success of Let’s Do It Again, The Staple Singers signed a three album deal with Warner Bros. 1976s Pass It On reached a disappointing number 166 in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty in the US R&B Charts. Executives at Warner Bros. must have been nervously hoping this was a blip. After all, here was a group who a year earlier, had enjoyed a number one US R&B album and dual number one single. Maybe normal service would be resumed with 1977s Family Tree? No. It reached just number fifty-eight in the US R&B Charts. The Staple Singers’ final Warner Bros. album was 1978s Unlock Your Mind. Reaching number thirty-four in the US R&B Charts, this was a minor improvement. However, unsurprisingly, Warner Bros. didn’t renew The Staple Singers contract. 

Not only did Warner Bros. not renew The Staple Singers’ contract, but no other label signed them. Pops was now sixty-four, and although he was the de facto leader, Mavis was the real star of The Staple Singer. This would become obvious in 1981, when the newly resurrected Stax decided to release a “new” Staple Singers album.

Two years after being declared insolvent, Stax made a comeback. This was when Fantasy Records bought Stax’s post-1968 catalogue in 1977. A year later, the newly formed Stax started signing a new roster of artists. It also started releasing albums of previously unreleased material. One of these would be by The Staple Singers.

After leaving Warner Bros. The Staple Singers eventually were signed by 20th Century Fox. For three years they’d been without a record deal. Pops had been thinking about retiring. He was sixty-seven and had founded The Staple Singers thirty-three years earlier. Later in 1981, The Staple Singers released their only album for 20th Century Fox, Hold On To Your Dream. That was the second Staple Singers of 1981.

Early in 1981, the newly formed Stax releasing This Time Around. It Rather than being billed as The Staple Singers, Mavis’ importance was recognized. This Time Around was credited to The Staple Singers Featuring Mavis Staples. At last, Mavis was receiving the credit she deserved on an album which featured songs recorded between 1968 and 1975.

The eights songs on This Time Around included three tracks Bettye Crutcher wrote. They were Live In Love, A Child’s Life and People Come Out Of Your Shell. Bettye also cowrote This Time Around with Mack Rice and Bobby Manuel, a Stax studio engineer. Philip Mitchell penned Trippin’ On Your Love and When It Rains It Pours. Marshall Jones and Carl Smith cowrote I Got To Be Myself. We Three Mk.2, consisting of Carl Hampton, Raymond Jackson and Homer Banks contributed It Wasn’t For A Woman. These eight tracks were then given a musical makeover.

Rather than release the eights tracks as they were recorded, someone at Stax decided to give the track a musical makeover. The idea was to give the track a contemporary eighties sound. This meant synths, synthetic handclaps and rock-tinged guitars. All this was de rigeur during 1980 and 1981. Which musicians were responsible for the overdubbing isn’t clear. Neither is it clear who played on the eight tracks. What I can say with some degree of certainty, is that originally, The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section featured on the eight tracks. These eight tracks marked The Staple Singers return to Stax.

This Time Around was released in 1981, as The Staple Singers Featuring Mavis Staples. That didn’t help sales. The Staple Singers hadn’t been successful since 1975. Even a musical makeover couldn’t improve their fortunes. What must have seen like a surefire success for Stax, had backfired. This wasn’t exactly how the second coming of Stax had been envisage. No. Commercial success and critical acclaim had been what had been envisaged. Sadly, that wasn’t case. Is This Time Around one of these albums that music fans will cherish and discover This Time Around? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Opening This Time Around is the Bettye Crutcher penned Live In Love. A whoosh of synths signals the entrance of chiming guitars and Mavis’ husky, lived-in vocal. A funky bass, piano and gospel influenced harmonies are joined by searing, rock-tinged guitars. They provide the backdrop for Mavis whose vocal is a mixture of power, passion and control. As the band combine soul, funk and rock, Mavis sings call and response with the rest of the family.  Pops and Co. provide the perfect accompaniment to the soulful strains of Mavis’ emotive, evocative vocal.

Subtle beeps and squeaks was the way to accompany Mavis tender, heartfelt vocal on This Time Around. Sweeping, soaring harmonies and a meandering arrangement accompany Mavis. Then all of a sudden, rocky guitars, pounding guitars and synthetic handclaps join Mavis. Strangely, this suits her vocal. Feisty and sassy, it becomes a vamp. She’s spurred on by the rest of the family. Her delivery veers between jazzy to soulful, sassy and sensual.

The keyboards that open Trippin’ On Your Love, have a similar sound to the ones that featured heavily on Bettye Crutcher’s Long As You Love Me. They provide a backdrop that sounds as if its roots are in the church. Her vocal is slow and heartfelt. Then as drums crack and guitars chime, Mavis ups the tempo. Soon she’s found her inner diva. Her breathy, sultry vocal is enveloped by keyboards and a pounding rhythm section. Mavis delivering a strident, sassy vocal struts her way through the lyrics. The finishing touch would be swathes of strings. They’re sadly absent, although the keyboards work well, encouraging Mavis to deliver her best vocal on This Time Around.

A Child’s Life has an arrangement that almost marches along. Above it, sits Mavis impassioned, melodramatic vocal. Washes of Hammond organ are at the heart of the arrangement, while drums provide the heartbeat. Horns add bursts of melancholia. The focus of your attention is Mavis’ vocal, which is best described as emotive and compelling.

From the get-go, I Got To Be Myself has a downright funky sound. Soaring harmonies, bursts of horns, washes of Hammond organ and a meandering, but funky rhythm section set the scene for Mavis. Combining power, passion and frustration harmonies respond to her call. Soon, they’re joined by grizzled horns, pounding drums and the Hammond. Horns and Hammond take turns to inject drama. Even the bass gets in on the act, before the rest of the family add some of their famous gospel-tinged harmonies, ensuring the songs swings….and then some.

People Come Out Of Your Shell has a late sixties sound. It’s the way the quivering strings and rhythm section combine. Mavis’ vocal is full of frustration and anger, as she sings about the needless killings in Vietnam. Horns rasp and drums pound as the band lock into a tight and dramatic groove. The rest of the family add sweeping harmonies. Their harmonies are dropped in just at the perfect moment. Like the horns, they’re the perfect foil for Mavis’ vocal. 

When It Rains It Pours is the second song Phillip Mitchell wrote on This Time Around. A slow, spacious and funky arrangement accompanies Mavis’ powerhouse of a vocal. Full of sadness and pathos, there’s a wistful sound to her vocal as she delivers the lyric: “When It Rains It Pours.” Cooing and later, soaring, dramatic harmonies, accompany the floaty, funky arrangement. Pizzicato strings, flourishes of piano and chiming guitars join the bass, which drives the arrangement along. As for Mavis her husky, worldweary and rueful vocal breathes life and meaning into the lyrics.

Closing This Time Around is It Wasn’t For A Woman. It has a slow, spacious and pensive introduction. That’s your signal to listen intently. You can’t help but be enthralled when you hear Mavis vocal. She’s accompanied by an understated arrangement. Featuring swathes of strings, piano, a subtle rhythm section and harmonies this is the ying to Mavis yang’s. Her vocal is intense and impassioned, tinged with emotion and melancholia.

In many ways, This Time Around is a fascinating concept. Here were eight songs recorded anywhere between 1968 and 1975, that lay undiscovered until 1980. Then someone at Stax Records decided to release them. They had two options. One was release an album comprising unreleased songs in their present form. The other option was to give the eight tracks a musical makeover, so that they’d have a more contemporary sound. There are arguments both approaches.

Releasing This Time Around as it was, meant listeners heard the music as it was intended to be heard. The music would sound authentic. It was a musical pictorial of The Staple Singers between 1968 and 1975. For their fans, this surely would’ve piqued their interest? After all, maybe their were some hidden soulful gems on This Time Around? That’s one side of the coin.

Conversely, by 1981, The Staple Singers weren’t exactly successful. Far from it. Many people had forgotten about them. They were the fodder of oldies stations, not cutting-edge music. It had been a long time since they’d released a successful album. If This Time Around was going to revive The Staple Singers fortunes, it required some “work,” a musical nip and tuck. Synths were botox, synthetic horns and handclaps a nose-job and searing rock guitars a tummy-tuck. Mostly this works. Sometimes, the tracks could’ve and should’ve been left alone. It all depends on your preferences. As far as I’m concerned, rock guitars and synths on soul albums don’t often work. I can forgive this on This Time Around. After all, This Time Around finds Mavis Staples at her soulful best.

On the release of This Time Around, it was no longer The Staple Singers. Instead, Mavis Staples was receiving the credit she’d long been due. Billed as The Staple Singers Featuring Mavis Staples, Pops and the rest of the family needed Mavis more than she needed them. One of the most talented vocalists of her generation, Mavis is one of the very few singers who brings lyrics to life. You believe what she sings. Her vocals tug at your heartstrings and emotions. That’s the case on This Time Around, an intriguing and compelling album, where at last, Mavis Staples steps out of Pops’ shadows. Although This Time Around is still a family affair, This Time Around Mavis Staples is at the head of the table, where she deserved to be and stay. Standout Tracks: Live In Love, Trippin’ On Your Love, I Got To Be Myself and When It Rains.


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