Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Live: Staple Singers, 1989

Staple Singers, Harbourfront, Toronto, August 1989


Like most people my age, I discovered the Staple Singers through "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There," big hits back when AM radio was interesting and crossover singles by a family gospel group had a chance of competing with T. Rex, David Bowie, Elton John, Carly Simon and America. I rediscovered them a few years later when the songs were included on some Stax/Volt compilations I picked up in the cut-out bins during my big high school infatuation with soul.

The client was NOW magazine and the venue was the lakeside open air stage at Harbourfront, which at that point carried the name of a tobacco company. The Staples might have been playing as part of WOMAD, which was my big once a year chance to feed my musical neophilia, though in this case I had a chance to see a group whose long history I'd only learned about through liner notes, and whose deep back catalogue of gospel recordings I still hadn't really explored yet.

Mavis Staples, Staple Singers, Harbourfront, Toronto, August 1989

It had been five years since Turning Point, the album that featured their cover of "Slippery People" by Talking Heads, and their last chart hit. Their last album as a group would be released a year later, though the Staples were probably back on the road touring under the buzz generated by Time Waits For No One, the first of two albums Mavis Staples would record with Prince.

With some acts you have to work hard to give some impression of their personality as performers. With too many you end up with endless frames of brow-furrowing concentration with their guitar neck or keyboard, and a face partially obscured by a microphone. With others, like Mavis Staples, you really just have to keep your camera focused and framed around them as they do the thing they were born to do.

The best time to see Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers was probably at a church in Chicago in the late '50s, on the chitlin circuit in the '60s or on tour in the early '70s, with a band drawn from the Stax and Muscle Shoals network of musicians. I was too young to have done any of that, but seeing the band on an August night next to a marina full of boats more than compensated. 

Roebuck "Pops" Staples, Harbourfront, Toronto, August 1989

I had fallen in love with Pops Staples' guitar sound, all neck pickup and tremolo, back when my curiosity about the group led me to their recording of "Uncloudy Day" several years earlier. He mostly stuck to the shadows at Harbourfront that night, but I took out my flash for one of the three rolls I shot and managed to get one half decent shot of him, pensively eyeing his instrument. I don't think anyone else could make a leisure suit look that good.

Mavis Staples is still touring and recording. Pops Staples died on Dec. 19, 2000.


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