The Staple Singers had been a together for nearly two decades when they landed at Stax in 1968. They'd recorded old-school spirituals for Vee Jay and folk-influenced sides for Riverside before finding a new direction with the Memphis soul powerhouse; not only did the Staples adapt to the soul and funk energy of Stax, but they evolved their material from the pointed social topics of the folk era to less specific, but highly empowering "message music." Their first two Stax albums, 1968's Soul Folk in Action and 1970's We'll Get Over, featured backing from the label's house band, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, and mixed terrific material from Stax songwriters with Staples' originals. Despite the quality of each release, nothing clicked on the charts, and the group's third long-player, 1971's Staple Swingers, found Stax executive Al Bell taking over production chores from M.G.'s guitarist Steve Cropper.
Even more importantly, Bell began recording the Staples' backing sessions in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section: Eddie Hinton (lead guitar), Jimmy Johnson (rhythm guitar), David Hood (bass), Barry Beckett (keyboards) and Roger Hawkins (drums). Hood's deep bass lines and Hawkins' rhythm touch anchor this album, solidified by Johnson's chords, Beckett's vamping and Hinton's inventive fills; the Memphis horns add texture and accents without ever needing to step out front to announce themselves. Produced at a time that Stax was evolving from its soul glories of the `60s to its funkier output of the early `70s, the Staples hit a third gear as they built the album's tracks, particularly the hit singles "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself," from perfectly intertwined strands of soul, funk, and gospel. Also blended in to "I'll Take You There," as Rob Bowman astutely observes in the liner notes, is the reggae of the Harry J All-Stars' instrumental "The Liquidator."
The album's original ten tracks include longer versions of the singles, stretching each to nearly five minutes. You can understand why the extra vocalizing of "Respect Yourself" was trimmed for radio play, but Staples fans will treasure the full-length production. Concord's 2011 reissue adds two previously unreleased bonus tracks: the cautionary "Walking in Water Over Our Head" and an alternate take of Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom's "Heavy Makes You Happy." The latter forgoes the horn arrangement of the original single, emphasizes the rhythm section (as did all of engineer Terry Manning's album mixes), and adds forty-three seconds to the running time. These are great additions to an album that's already the best full-length of the Staples' career, and one of the best Stax ever produced. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]