Fifty years ago today, on Friday 9th April 1965, the Staple Singers were recorded during a service at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. This was no pop concert or rock and roll circus, but as Pops Staples gently reminded the congregation from the start, they were there to worship and sing God’s praises. Despite the presence of recording equipment, “We’re not here to put on a show.”
The resulting 44 minutes album, Freedom Highway, was released on Epic and featured 11 tracks, mixed for radio with much of the ambient noise from the church edited out. It’s been a difficult record to get hold of, unavailable for years, but has now been afforded a new release with the complete 77 minute/18 track service intact and, importantly, with every ahem, hallelujah, handclap and cry from the assembled Chicagoans left in the mix loud and clear. It’s wonderful to hear Pops, Mavis, Yvonne and Pervis in their natural environment and the effect they have.
The Staples had been recording for over a decade and their biggest commercial success was still further down the road. Freedom Highway captures them at a transition point where they expanded their repertoire from old spirituals and traditional songs (“Samson and Delilah”, “When The Saints Go Marching In”) and Pops’ own worship songs (“Build On That Shore”, “Help Me Jesus”) to include folk music (“We Shall Overcome”) and more excitingly the beginning of their own topical freedom songs which now added commentary and a soundtrack to the civil rights movement.
A series of attempts to march from Selma, Alabama in response to the killing of civil rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson began on 7th March 1965 and culminated two and half weeks later with 25,000 protestors at the capitol steps in Montgomery to hear an address by Dr Martin Luther King. The events stirred Pops to write “Freedom Highway” and it was performed days after completion here at the New Nazareth Church. The stirring performance and the reaction from those present already made it already sound like an anthem. “Made up my mind, and I won’t turn around” sang an impassioned Mavis. She's still singing it to this day.
Backed with Pops’ guitar, Al Duncan on drums and Phil Upchurch on bass, the Staples put on an incredible show, no matter what Pops said. Their voices come from deep within in their soul - whether singing in a mournful style or rejoicing and rattling and shaking the pews - and the interaction with the congregation warm and frequently funny. Pops though, for reasons best known to him, announces that after two beautiful children he had Mavis. “She was so ugly. I looked at my baby and I could hardly eat, she almost took my appetite”.
Quite what Mavis made of that heaven only knows but one man who wasn’t happy that evening was Rev. Hopkins who counted contributions to the collection plate during the mid-session interval. “This is awful. We’ve got less than 75 dollars. You know this is not right”. Rev. Hopkins had to practically beg, plead, cajole and embarrass to raise a hundred dollars. “We don’t charge anything but we must have some more money. The Staple Singers are one of the best groups in this country. This is their home. If anyone should support the Staples Singers, Chicago should.” He finally got it but rued “Sure takes a lot of time trying to raise money in a Baptist church.”
This whole CD is a pure delight from start to finish and puts the listener right there, up close and intimate with the Staples. I don't have a religious bone in my body, it matters not, this is powerful, moving, heartfelt music and, lest we forget, fun. What more could one ask? As Pops Staples says, “I want to make Heaven my home, but I want to enjoy myself a little down here too”. Amen.
Freedom Highway Complete by the Staple Singers is available now, released by Epic Legacy Recordings.