By the 1970s, Black gospel had found itself being influenced by musical styles it had played an indispensable role in developing in the first place. There’s no way Ray Charles’ most innovative work for Atlantic in the 1950s could have existed without it. Soul acts such as Otis Redding and especially James Brown snagged its vamps, fervor, and in the case of Brown, its use of screams and the appearance of being emotionally overcome to the point of collapse as a way to “take the audience to church” so to speak. Superstars such as Sam Cooke or Lou Rawls came straight out of gospel’s mid-century golden era.
Yet, by the end of the 1960s, thanks to the innovations of Brown and others, gospel crossed over, with updates in its sound brought on by the innovations of post-civil rights Black music. The Staple Singers were at the forefront of all this secular/sacred blend, making records since the late 1950s and headed by patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples’ tremolo-laden, swampy guitar runs and daughter Mavis Staples’ otherworldly lead vocals. “I’ll Take You There”,” they bellowed from radio stations all across the US as the song hit number one in 1972. They did it without a single mention of Jesus.
But underneath the Staples’ hits or Edwin Hawkins’ choir-driven “Oh Happy Day”, there were hundreds of regional gospel acts grabbing from soul and funk’s vamps, a form of relentless repetition snagged from the church to begin with. The Masonic Wanderers, the Flying Clouds of Augusta, Georgia, the True-Tone Singers, the Triumphs, the Modulations, the Relatives, and many others plugged guitars into amps and rode gnarled hunks of raw riffs as vocalists reached states of shrieking ecstasy and choruses responded. This was music shaved to its essence, stripped of production, major label attention, or audience outside of the groups’ localities. Labels such as Gusman, More Love, Arctic, Designer, and seemingly thousands of other micro-imprints pressed singles and LPs in minuscule qualities to be sold at church functions, in local shops, or on the streets. Thanks to the work of reissue labels such as Numero, Tompkins Square, Big Legal Mess, and others, we can wash away our troubles in countless hours of the era’s heaviest, hardest sides.
Now, the Luaka Bop label is adding a critical piece to the obscure, raw gospel puzzle by bringing the Staples Jr. Singers’ lone LP When Do We Get Paid back from obscurity. The Staples Jr. Singers – clearly honoring their primary influence in their name – were also a family band based in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Their earliest line-up featured vocalists Annie and Edward Brown and guitarist RC Brown, all of whom were between 11 and 13 years old at the time of the group’s formation. When they got old enough to travel, complete with gear bought on credit from the local music shop, they toured the Deep South and the Midwest. Once more established groups heard them, they got the chance to record their first single in 1974, sales of which led to their 1975 LP for Brenda Records, a little-known label from the Browns’ home state that had also released their single.
It’s a recording of fragile beauty and turbulent groove. Opener “Get on Board” eases us in with a dangling, slow-paced guitar lick and vocals so haunted they seem to nearly come undone. A good comparison here is Famous L Renfroe’s obscure 1968 DIY gospel album Children. But by track two, the uptempo “I Know You’re Gonna Miss Me”, the band hits with the kind of swamp-funk that would have sent any audience to its feet. From here on out, the template is set. There’s infectious party gospel (“I’m Going to a City”) and slow, bluesy trance (“Somebody Save Me”), all written by the group and driven by RC’s pugnacious electric guitar churn. For 13 tracks, they hold tight to these grooves, adding a bit of wah-wah or organ here and there.
In the years following this release, the Staples Jr. Singers expanded as other family members came on board. They also smartly changed their name to the Brown Singers. Apparently, they’ve written multiple LPs’ worth of tunes, too, though without documentation, we’ll have to resort to our imaginations to hear any of them. However, thanks to Luaka Bop’s attention, the group – still driven by Annie, Edward, and RC – not only played their first live set in 40 years for the Paris Review but YouTube and Vimeo house more recent interviews and performances as well. Their music hasn’t changed or aged a day, and the attention this crucial reissue is bringing them couldn’t happen to more deserving folks.