The Staple Singers
Freedom Highway — Complete
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Don't Lose This
"We're not here to put on a show," remarked Roebuck "Pops" Staples on the night of April 9, 1965 before a congregation at Chicago's New Nazareth Church. The mission of this iconic gospel stylist was to hold a service. But with the Civil Rights Movement at a boil thanks to the three historic marches in Selma, Ala., just few weeks earlier, Staples also had a message for the world.
So tucked in alongside the spirituals Help Me Jesus and Precious Lord, Take My Hand were We Shall Overcome and a tune Staples penned in honor of the marches, Freedom Highway. A mix of pure gospel jubilation, sagely solace and the exquisite guitar tremolo that gave the Staple Singers the most distinctive crossover sound of any gospel group before or since, Freedom Highway became the title tune of a concert recording that, like the Selma marches, is being revisited on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
Curiously, the reconstituted album, Freedom Highway — Complete, comes to us on the heels of Don't Lose This, a collection of Staples' final — but, until recently, unfinished — recordings that have been lovingly completed with some celebrity assistance.
Staples' desire that Freedom Highway be viewed as church service is now fully realized. The 30-plus minutes of bonus material gives us everything, right down to the benediction and audio of a pass-the-plate offering that failed to raise even $100 to pay the Staple Singers on its first go-round. But there is also glorious music, like a brief Build on That Shore that highlights the effortlessly soulful harmonies of Staples and his children, including a 25 year old Mavis Staples, and a volcanic Tell Heaven that fully lets Mavis loose after some serious father-daughter testifying.
Mavis co-produced with her father the initial 1998 sessions for Don't Lose This before the latter's death in 2000. But it took the help of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, a collaborator and producer on albums that helped reboot Mavis' solo career, to bring Don't Lose This to completion.
As with the vintage records of the Staple Singers, the gospel intensity simmers quietly around Pops' whispery singing and the sinewy lines of his guitarwork. Both are highlighted beautifully on an unaccompanied version of Nobody's Fault But Mine that gives this music a strong roots-blues feel. Then again, No News is Good News and Somebody Was Watching, which reunite the all three Staples sisters, rocks with the same freshness that stirs the swing behind the album-closing cover of Bob Dylan's Gotta Serve Somebody.
It makes for a fascinating epilogue to steadfast gospel career that never strayed from the Freedom Highway.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic