If you know anything about R&B and soul music, you know that that both genres frequently share a rather intimate relationship with the church, and in turn with gospel music. So it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that some of popular music’s most beloved and influential artists started singing in their local church – after all, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight. Teddy Riley, Mary J. Blige and an incredibly lengthy list of others. But in that list, let’s not forget The Staple Singers, who released some of the 70s biggest and most beloved hits such as “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” and “Let’s Do It Again."
Comprised of patriarch Roebuck "Pops” Staples and his children Cloetha, Pervis, Yvonne and Mavis, The Staple Singers first began performing an acoustic folk-based gospel sound in Chicago area churches in the late 1940s. They signed their first record deal in 1952 and released albums on a number of now-long defunct labels but when they signed with Epic Records in 1965, the quintet had started moving more towards pop music, getting attention for covering Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” By 1968, “Pops” and company signed with Stax Records. And interestingly enough, under the influence of producer Al Bell and engineer Terry Manning, The Staples started recording at the world renowned Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and moved more towards the funk, blues and soul sound that we know and love now – while still being firmly committed to gospel in some fashion.
In 1976, The Staples appeared in The Band’s The Last Waltz, collaborating on a version of “The Weight,” which the Chicago-based quintet had covered some time before. And although they were to never reach the popularity of their early and mid 1970s albums, they continued recording and relaxing albums both in the group and through a number of solo projects, which featured the other family members in prominent roles. In 1999, Pops Staples, joined by his daughters Mavis, Cloetha and Yvone went into the studio to record what would sadly be his last album. Pops had been ailing but still managed to sound vital and strong but during the recording process, he became too sick to finish. As the story goes, while on his sickbed, Pops called Mavis over and asked her to bring him a rough recording. She had left her father alone to listen to the recording and when she returned Pops told her, “Mavis, don’t lose this."
Although it took some time, Mavis asked Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to help her fill in the gaps on the recording and the end result is the posthumously released last Pops Staples album, Don’t Lose This which takes its title from the directions Pops gave Mavis while on his sickbed. The album’s first single "Somebody Was Watching” is an old-timey, bluesy gospel tune that starts off with a guitar line that’s as smooth as a fine whiskey. The song’s opening line “I’ve been shot up and shook down/I’ve been turned away and turned around …”“ sets up the idea that despite the narrator’s troubles and travails, someone was looking after him – that in some way, his experiences were both a test of his faith and resolve and even through the most difficult and trying, neither could be shaken; in fact, both were stronger than ever. In some way, "Somebody Was Watching” reminds me quite a bit of B.B. King’s cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean,” as the artists’ ages gave the material an added emotional heft and poignancy. There’s a sense of both men looking both backward at the accretion of experiences, feelings and people of one’s life and seeing their life with a very precise clarity. And then fearlessly accepting the unknown and inevitable.
It may have taken 16 years for this single and in turn for the album but it’s a perfect end note for an extraordinary career and an extraordinary life. Also, the single is just an exceptional, timeless track.