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Weekend Playlist: The Best of The Staples Singers/Mavis Staples

By Jon Graef in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 24, 2013 6:30PM

Mavis Staples performs at the 2011 Hideout Block Party. bluelliott

To make a local connection to the March on Washington's 50th anniversary, this weekend's playlist compiles the best of The Staples Singers, the Chicago-based family gospel and R&B act who put Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights message into soulful, righteous freedom songs.

Staples sister Mavis Staples would later carry that message throughout a fruitful solo career, which, in recent years, has undergone a profound renaissance.

"And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it." With those words, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, began incorporating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s rhetoric into song, through his family band, The Staples Singers.

Here's how Mavis Staples, who sang alongside sisters Cleotha, Pervis, and Yvonne, recounted that fateful conversation, which took place back in 1963, to PBS:

Pops called us and told us, "Listen, y'all, this man Martin is here, Martin Luther King, and I want to go to his church. He has a church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and would you all like to go?" We said, "Yes, pops. We want to go." We all went to Dr. King's church that Sunday morning for an 11:00 service.

We go back to the hotel. Pops called us again. "Listen, you all, I really like this man's message. And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it."

And sing it they did, in songs such as "Freedom Highway," "When Will We Be Paid, and "Respect Yourself." The family's natural, infectious charisma as performers and singers also drove popular tracks like the number-one 1972 smash "I'll Take You There."

(Millennials may know the song from a late '90s Chevy Malibu ad campaign, which is just a thing that we've come to accept).

Kicking off the playlist, the autobiographical "My Own Eyes," from 2007's raw, defiant We'll Never Turn Back, a Delta blues-and-gospel inspired comeback album, reuses Pops Staples fateful words as a beginning of a musical memoir.

A line from "My Own Eyes" seems profoundly prescient in light of the anniversary of the March on Washington, the historical assembly where Dr. King stirred the consciousness of a nation forever through his "I Have A Dream" speech.

"It's been almost 50 years/how much longer will it last?," Staples sings, in a song inspired by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. "We need a change/now more than ever/we're still treated so bad."

Those lyrics perfectly encapsulate the profound range of feelings these songs inspire.

Namely, frustration that many of the injustices sung about here still exist, in far too many guises; and inspiration and hope, due to the resilience of the human spirit that this music documents.

"Change will come/but not overnight," Mavis Staples sings on "Ain't No Better Than You." Not that it needs to be pointed out, but in a post-Obama, post-Trayvon Martin world, hard work and much soul-searching still needs to be done. Here's your soundtrack, humbly submitted, with two glorious cheats at the end.