13. Mavis Staples/Charles Bradley
(Eyes on the Prize)
I feel like I’ve encountered the alpha and omega of soul music this year - not because Mavis Staples and Charles Bradley are the greatest soul singers you’ll ever hear, though you could do a lot worse. I say this because between these two singers, you get the two twin polls of soul music.
Mavis Staples’s music is pretty much unceasingly, assaultingly optimistic. This is one lady who will not take your gloom. If the sheer happiness of her music didn’t shake you like an earthquake, it would feel totally false. As it happens, Mavis Staples (both as part of her family and apart from it) sings music that is almost hilarious in how good it can make you feel. The only problem with it is that it’s all pretty much the same - mostly effervescent, meant to uplift, with an unceasing chain of five-six-and seven chords, and no end to lyrics about how our troubles are over because we put our trust in the Lord.
And no wonder Staples is always happy, Staples is a gospel singer born into musical royalty who once got a marriage proposal from Bob Dylan, and whose equally famous father was friends with Martin Luther King, Robert Johnson, and Mahalia Jackson. Her family was one of the great symbols of the civil rights movement. She was singer worshipped as a goddess of gospel from the time she was a teenager. Fortunately, she at least seems to have done the only logical thing: be happy about it and make others as happy as she is, for a little while.
(I’ll Take You There. So amazing.)
When I saw her set at the Newport Folk Festival this July, I was spellbound. My friends wanted to leave so they could see Devil Takes Three. I told them to go without me, I was staying until the unbittered end. This set was one of the great concerts of my life. Unlike so many soul singers, she’s just improved with age. I remember seeing James Brown in 2004 and thinking how sad it was. Brown clearly wanted to make himself feel more contemporary to his audience, so he had his band started chanting catchphrases like ‘Whoomp There it Is,’ a song from 1980. But Staples clearly knew exactly what she was. The music was almost all gospel, and her bluegrass ensemble was bluegrass and her young backup singers had half her energy level, it worked. Her voice may now be an octave lower, but it’s in stunningly good health. When she got to her famous closer, ‘I’ll Take You There’, I had moved up to the second row just so I could sing along with the true believers. I may never have seen Otis Redding or Ray Charles or James Brown in better days, but I’ll be able to tell grandchildren that I saw Mavis Staples.
(The World (Is Going Up In Flames)
It is very sad to see that Charles Bradley is considered part of a genre called ‘Retro Soul.’ Bradley’s been singing nearly as long as Mavis Staples. But if Staples forged her craft on the stages of music halls, Charles Bradley forged his on the streets of Brooklyn. He heard James Brown in 1962, and immediately knew his destiny. Fifty years later he finally got his debut album. This comes after a decade of making a living as a handyman while impersonating James Brown on the side. Before that working as a cook at a mental institution, and was laid off right after he made a downpayment on his house. Shortly before his debut, his brother was murdered.
If Mavis Staples was a queen of life, then Charles Bradley was a footstool. If Mavis Staples’s music is unending joy, then Charles Bradley’s is raw, cathartic pain. If Mavis Staples’s music is a testament to the optimism of the Black America during the Civil Rights era, then Charles Bradley’s is a testament to all the struggle and heartbreak that followed.
(Why Is It So Hard?)
For me, the most powerful song on his album, No Time for Dreaming, is How Long. Imagine, if you can, that Otis Redding had a few more years and lived to see the MLK assassination and the 68 riots. What sort of music would he have written? Perhaps he’d have gone the sellout route, but I’d like to think that he might have been the great documenter in music of urban disintegration that we’d never had. If this song had come out forty years ago, it could have been the most potent soul song ever sung. And for all we know, as Le Malon pointed out to me, Bradley might have written this 4 decades ago. As it is, what he says in this song is nearly as true today as it was in the days following MLK’s death.
In talking about both of these artists, I’ve missed a crucial element. Both of them very clearly talk in their music about where their attitudes to contemporary America were forged. For Mavis Staples, her worldview comes straight out of the optimism and determination of the 60’s. A fact which you can readily see in the lyrics to Freedom Highway:
March for freedom's highway
March each and every day
Made up my mind and I won't turn around
Made up my mind and I won't turn around
There is just one thing
I can't understand my friend.
Why some folk think freedom
Was not designed for all men.
Yes I think I voted for the right man
Said we would overcome.
But Charles Bradley, a man formed by the 1970’s projects, is clearly a much more despairing about opportunities, about hopes for our country, about life itself. Just read the lyrics to How Long:
Must I keep going on?
To see all this pain in the world
How long, oh
Tell me, tell me
How long? o.
Ooh, oh, ow, oh
I talked my brother the other day
he said brother
please, gimme a little fix
I look at him and said
brother, don't leave me (repeat)
Must you keep suffering like this?
You know how people suffering
they looking for something, something to look up to
they looking for a change
what I'm gonna do
what i'm gonna say
please hear me...
make this world right, ooh people