Friday, September 2, 2011

September 2: Staple Singers, "Respect Yourself"

Artist: Staple Singers
Song: "Respect Yourself"
Album: Be Altitude: Respect Yourself
Year: 1971


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While every band or artist has their own story, some groups have legends that stretch back to the time before recorded music existed.  Though this is not necessarily a guarantee of any larger success, it is often the more classic, well-rooted sound of such acts that endear them to audiences, as their recordings are rarely anything less than fantastic.  Yet such groups can take quite some time to evolve, and few groups have shown both sides of this idea than one finds in the history of The Staple Singers.  Beginning in the early 1930's, Roebuck Staple was performing on guitar and singing in spiritual and gospel groups, before relocating to Chicago a few years later.  As the 1950's rolled around, Roebuck began performing with his three children in a number of different settings, and the group had a sound unlike anything else, staying firmly rooted in the spiritual sounds, yet spinning a jazzy groove over many of their songs.  This unique musical approach garnered them a recording contract, and the group experimented in everything from folk to blues, trying to find the best way to present their sound to the public as a whole.  However, it was not until the group signed to Stax Records that they truly found their form, and they reached their creative apex with their 1971 release, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.  Filled with some of the groups most timeless recordings, there is no other song in history that carries with it a similar musical and historical significance than what can be experienced on The Staple Singers' 1971 classic, "Respect Yourself."

In many ways moreso than any other song of the era, "Respect Yourself" perfectly captures the wide range of musical fusions that were present in the early 1970's, as the song is a fantastic blend of soul, funk, blues, and gospel.  From the moment the track begins, there is a deep groove in place, and the smooth, bouncing keyboard riff is nothing short of fantastic.  As this tone combines with the almost skip-paced drumming, one can hear the early signs of what would become the disco sound, and yet "Respect Yourself" is far funkier than anything from that time period.  This combination yields one of the smoothest musical landscapes in recorded history, and it is this tone that gives "Respect Yourself" a massively wide appeal.  Pushed even further by the winding, deep grooving bassline, it is quite understandable why the song quickly became an anthem, transcending boundaries in terms of both culture as well as musical preference.  Yet "Respect Yourself" manages to defy the popular notions of what a "radio friendly" song was, as the track is far longer than most in such a category, featuring a fantastic scat-laden breakdown.  The musical punctuation from the horns during this section becomes the ideal finishing touch to the song, and the way in which the entire band drops quickly back into the groove remains one of the most perfectly executed moments of musical drama ever recorded.  In fact, this is not all that surprising, as the band responsible for this sensational musical performance is none other than the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

However, while the music is certainly a building block for later sounds, it was the shared vocals within The Staple Singers that was their most impressive aspect, and the singing has not lost any of its power over the decades that have passed.  Regardless of which member of the family is singing, the level of intensity never drops, and the same can be said of the sheer talent within the vocals.  The fact that the singing is passed between different members gives "Respect Yourself" even more depth and range, as well as making the song more approachable in terms of singing along and making the song "your own."  This element is even more important due to the rather unsubtle message that the group conveys through the lyrics, written by Luther Ingram and Mark Rice.  The team penned the lyric after a discussion of the current state of African American culture (specifically youth) at the time, and the songs' title reflects their sentiment.  Holding nothing back, "Respect Yourself" goes after the overall attitude of youth towards the world at large, and the song places the responsibility for their lot in life on the people in question.  "Respect Yourself" quickly became an anthem for self-improvement and empowerment, and it would be one of the "calling cards" of the post-civil rights movement.  In many ways, the song is just as applicable today as it was nearly four decades ago, and its aim and intent can be easily pointed to any group of people from anywhere on the globe.

The lasting impact of "Respect Yourself" can be seen all across the decades and genres, with the track being covered by everyone from B.B. King to Joe Cocker to a rather unexpected hit from actor Bruce Willis.  Parts of the track were also lifted for Madonna's song of the same name, as well as a massive number of hip-hop songs.  These tributes are clearly not only due to the liberating and powerful lyrics, but to the music as well, and one would be hard pressed to find a better example of the "fat funk" sound that was the trademark sound of Southern soul as the 1970's began.  The way in which the horns push the sides of the song outward, with the bass and keyboards dancing down the center is as enjoyable a musical arrangement as one will find anywhere, and the clear link to the disco sound cannot be denied.  However, it is the vocal work of the entire Staples family that makes the original recording of "Respect Yourself" impossible to top, as they manage to perfectly balance their gospel-based style with the "new soul" approach of the era.  Whether it is Roebuck's almost scolding deep voice or the limitless soaring of Mavis, this is as close to vocal perfection as has ever been captured on tape, and the power of their singing is something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  Though the entire civil rights movement was filled with a number of unforgettable anthems, no other is on par with the power and sound one can find on The Staple Singers' magnificent 1971 single, "Respect Yourself."

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