The Staple Singers released their first recordings in the mid-'50s, and they were highly influential and well-respected in gospel circles a decade later, but the mainstream audience was unaware of them as they began flirting with pop music forms without making a decisive move away from their spiritual roots. In 1968, they signed with Stax Records, one of America's strongest soul labels (who also had a sideline in gospel), and at Stax they not only enjoyed their greatest commercial success but learned how to make music that pleased the mass audience while maintaining a moral and spiritual authority that quieted any suggestion of compromise. The Staple Singers cut six original albums for Stax, and Come Go with Me: The Stax Collection is a handsome box set that brings them together in refurbished and remastered form, along with a bonus disc of non-LP single sides and live tracks from the soundtrack of the movie Wattstax.
Come Go with Me makes it clear the Staple Singers didn't nail their hit formula right off the bat. The title of their first Stax LP, 1968's Soul Folk in Action, affirms no one was sure just where to classify them at first. That album and 1970's We'll Get Over were both produced by Steve Cropper, and while he and his Memphis crew gave the albums a polished and soulful sound, it didn't entirely flatter the Staples despite the excellence of their vocals, and the song selection wasn't always the best (there just wasn't room for them to bring anything fresh to "Games People Play" or "[Sittin' On] The Dock of the Bay"). Despite its singularly awful title, 1971's The Staple Swingers was a major improvement. Stax co-owner Al Bell took over as producer and took them to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to cut with their fabled house band, and the leaner, tougher grooves favored Mavis Staples' powerful, emphatic lead vocals, as well as the occasional vocals and incisive guitar work from Roebuck "Pops" Staples, her dad and the group's leader. The album gave the Staple Singers their first significant R&B hit, "Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)," and 1972's Be Altitude was even better and produced a pair of stone classics, "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There." 1973's Be What You Are and 1974's City in the Sky weren't quite as solid, but having secured their place on the pop and soul charts, the group felt free to return a bit of their churchy side into their vocals and lyrics, and their fusion of the sacred and the soulful was never more powerful, even if the records didn't cohere as well. Listeners looking for a concise introduction to the Staples' best work should pick up 1991's single-disc The Best of the Staple Singers, but Come Go with Me demonstrates how consistently rewarding and even moving their lesser work can be, and listened to in full, their Stax catalog is a soul-satisfying revelation.
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