RL Reeves Jr’s New Orleans Album of the Week: Pops Staples’ Peace To The Neighborhood’

I was working at Charlemagne Records in Birmingham, Alabama the year that Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples’ classic LP Peace To The Neighborhood came out. The old record store was in the middle of what would be a 43 year run before sadly shutting their doors earlier this year.

We were stunned when the 78 year-old gospel singer’s album was our top seller for six weeks.

How good is it?

Only a veteran bluesman like Mississippi-born Mr Staples could take Jackson’s Browne’s World in Motion, and turn it into a Delta blues front porch hymnal. I played the two back to back and Pops makes Jackson’s version an easily dismissed trifle.

If Welcome is front porch music then Down in Mississippi (where, “the season was always open on me”) is a song so gritty and raw that it can only be played on the back stoop. That’s Ry Cooder murdering the slide guitar with Pops’ singing like somebody Alan Lomax found in the 1940s up near Senatobia.

Another standout is This May Be the Last Time a Pops-penned-tune later turned into a hit for the Rolling Stones. It’s an easy-loping rocker perfect for a Sunday afternoon drive in the family Buick.

When young Pops was only nine years old, his family sold their farm and began renting 150 acres on the Dockery Plantation, home of Sunflower County bluesman Charley Patton. Can you imagine the effect that hearing Patton play Boweavil Blues in-person had on wide-eyed farm kid, young Roebuck? It would shape Staples for the next seven decades.

Perhaps Patton’s neighbor Tommy Johnson rode a mule to Dockery for a wang dang doodle, and the two jammed on Johnson’s Cool Drink of Water Blues furthering the education of Roebuck Staples.

Pops recalls these hootenannies:

They’d have a plank nailed across the door to the kitchen and be selling fish, and chitlins’ with dancing in the front room, gamblin’ in the side room, and maybe two or three gas or coal oil lamps on the mantlepiece in front of the mirror.

A black child’s life on Dockery Plantation would not have been an easy one. Toil began before sunrise and did not cease til after sunset. There were fields to plow, cotton to plant, weeds to hoe, and eventually cotton to pick and bundle. If you ever wondered how Pops got his blues, well, it just came natural.

In 1926, 12 year-old Roebuck put a five dollar Stella guitar on layaway at .50c a week. When he got it paid off his parents thought he was going to wear it out, and had to force him to stop playing at night so he could get some sleep before the next days work.

At just 16, and with 13 siblings Roebuck started playing local house parties, and gutbucket style clubs and barrooms. “We would sing the blues and gamble while the ladies would be in the kitchen cooking chitlins’ and greens,” he recalls.

And the money was astounding. Sometimes Pops take-home would be as much as five dollars for a single nights work. Contributing to the weal of the family was a given but the young man wanted more out of life. After falling in love and marrying at 18, he began saving his money so as to migrate north to the promised land of Chicago.

By 1935, Roebuck and wife Oceola had begun raising two children, Cleotha and Pervis, and the need to get off the plantation had grown more urgent. After scrimping and saving for months, Roebuck was able to purchase the bus ticket that would hopefully allow their dream to materialize.

After arriving in the City of Big Shoulders, he got a job working in the ham house at Armour Meat Packing for .50c per hour; he satisfied his creative urges by joining the Trumpet Jubilees (not to be confused with the Tennessee group of the same name) so he could raise his voice in praise of the lord. Pops abandoned the rough and rowdy ways of blues music, and just kept his head down working menial jobs to support his growing family.

Roebuck eventually came to his senses, bought a pawnshop guitar for $7.50, and began training his brood to sing. They would woodshed for five years before performing live for the first time in 1948. Their appearance, at a church, netted them $17.50.

By 1953, Pops had the money and wherewithal to finally record his little family group. On a two track Ampex tape machine the Staple Singers put down two cover tunes: These Are They by Dorothy Love Coates, and Faith and Grace by Rebert Harris. Only 500 copies were pressed in the 78 format and they command a high price on the collector’s market.

That session marked the beginning of what we become the most successful gospel recording act to ever come out of the state of Mississippi. The Staples would become known as the first family of gospel music, and go on to sell millions of records.

Patriarch Roebuck would even occasionally branch out into secular music. This caused much hand-wringing by the gospel cognoscenti to which Staples replied “Ain’t nobody want to go to heaven more than me, but we got to live down here too.”

Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples passed away on December 19th 2000. His Peace To The Neighborhood album still gets plenty play here in New Orleans 9th Ward some two decades later.

Peace To The Neighborhood recording personnel:

Pops Staples – vocals, background vocals, guitar
Bertram Brown – vocals (3) / William Brown – vocals (3, 9) / Jackie Reddick – vocals (3) / Jackie Johnson – vocals (3) / Terry Evans – vocals (4, 10) / Willie Greene – vocals (4, 10) / Arnold McCuller – vocals (4, 10) / Mavis Staples – vocals (5, 6), lead vocals (8) / Yvonne Staples – vocals (5, 6), background vocals (8) / Cleotha Staples – vocals (5, 6), background vocals (8)
Bonnie Raitt – vocals (1), guitar (1) / Jackson Browne – vocals (1), guitar (1)
Ry Cooder – guitars (4, 10) / Thomas Bingham – guitar (2, 3, 5 – 7, 9) / Michael Toles – guitar (3, 6, 8, 9)
Milton Price – bass (2, 3, 5, 9) / Hutch Hutchinson – bass (1) / Buell Neidlinger – bass (4, 10) / Dywane Thomas – bass (6 – 8)
Lester Snell – keyboards (2, 3, 5 – 7, 9) / Marvell Thomas – keyboards (8)
Wayne Jackson – trumpet (3)
Andrew Love – saxophone (3)
Rickie Fataar – drums (1) / Steve Potts – drums (2, 3, 6 – 9) / Jim Keltner – drums (4, 10) / James Robertson – drums (5)
Debra Dobkin – percussion (1)

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sources
Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation By J. William Harris
I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That … By Greg Kot
Talking Guitar: Conversations with Musicians Who Shaped Twentieth-Century … By Jas Obrecht
Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues by Dr David Evans
The Story of the Blues by Paul Oliver
The Staples Singers – The Message Is The Music (Black Stars Magazine June 17, 1972) by Lacy J Banks
From Prayer of Death to Uncloudy Days, The Staples Singers Early Days by Opal Louis Nations

b. December 28, 1914
d. December 19, 2000

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