Wednesday, November 16, 2011

If He Can Preach It, We Can Sing It

... that's what Mavis Staples said on stage at Seattle's Jazz Alley on March 6, 2010, and it's a quote from her father. Mavis spoke about the Staples meeting Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Al., for the first time and, in particular, about their song »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« More to the point, she quotes her father Roebuck having said to them after the meeting: »Listen, y'all! I like this man's message! ... And I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it.« Listen here what Mavis had to say ... I took it from the concert video posted over at Vimeo, and I very much thank the lady who shared it with us all! Thank you!

Mavis Staples Talks (March 6, 2010, Seattle):

You may also watch the full video here:

Now, Mavis is saying that her father penned the song »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« in 1960. Others have said (I don't know on what authority) that Roebuck was inspired to write the song when watching TV coverage of the forced integration of Arkansas's Central High School in Little Rock, back in 1957. I don't know whether this is correct or at what time the Staples first performed the song (they often played it at meet- ings when MLK was about to speak as he liked the tune so much ... Mavis explicitly refers to this in the above video). However, they first recorded it, according to Hayes-Laughton' Gospel Discography and for all we know, in spring 1966.

The Staples (Ebony, Sept. 1965)
(on stage at Philadelphia's Uptown)

Now, there's a rub here. The song was released first, it seems, in late 1965 or (more probable) in early 1966 on Epic # 9880. (The following nos. of Epic 45s, 9881 ff., were all released in January '66.) The several discographies for Epic Records differ as to the time of release and they also differ as to which song was the A-side. Unfortunately, I do not know this 45 version of the song (there is a photo of sleeve and label here, but no music ...). What I know is the version as we have it on the Staples' 1966 Epic LP # BN 26196. This LP takes its title from this very song, viz. »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?«, and was released in May 1966. (Note: Some researchers were confounded by the fact that the 1991 Legacy CD by the name of Freedom Highway contains »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« and thus thought that the song was first released on the Staples' 1965 Epic LP # LN 24163 Freedom Highway, actually the recording of a live in-church session. Truth is, however, that the original Freedom Highway album does not include this song, while the CD by the same title features the very version of the Epic LP »Why?«, i.e. the one under discussion here.)

Ad from Billboard, May 7, 1966
Epic promoted the new album by an ad, head- lined: »The leading gospel-folk group of the college campus circuit with an album of most- requested songs!«. Billboard obligingly review- ed it one week later with the words: The family quartet is hard to top in this exceptional program of exciting and inspirational perfor- mances. Will soar in sales within the gospel field and easily spill over into the r&b field. Whether the material be sad or joyous, the group is equally brillant in its interpretations (BB, May 14, 1966).

Epic LP # BN 26196 (1966)
Listening to the LP version of »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« (you can do it below), you'll note the prelude by Roebuck Staples, serving as kind of an intro to the song. What this prelude does is setting the song's message in a specific context, and the context is openly and explicitly political, referring to the Civil Rights struggle: Those little children who can't ride the school bus because they're »of a different nationality« ... they weren't allowed to ride the bus ... and if you asked them about it they'd say: Why am I treated so bad? A song couldn't get much more of a protest song than this:

The Staple Singers: »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« from the Epic LP »Why« (1966):

The Staples did many a political song, as you all know; David Nathan in a '95 Bill- board article listed them, justly, among the »[r]ecording artists who helped provide lyrical ammunition in the struggle for civil rights« (Feb. 4, '95, page 28). However, »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« is not normally included in this category. We find no mention of it in Taylor Branch's monumental three-volume history of the Civil Rights Movement, nor is the song treated in even more relevant books like Peter Doggett's There's a Riot Going On (2007) or Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions per Minute. A History of Protest Songs (2010).

Billboard, May 13, 1967
During 1966, the song steadily acquired more popularity, and in early 1967 several covers were released. Some of these (by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Bobby Powell and Brian Auger & Julie Driscoll) were very successful, and maybe none more so than the superb version of the Sweet Inspirations (giving them their first r&b Top 40 hit in summer '67). The Sweets »depoliticized« the song and changed the lyrics in order to achieve that: I'm all alone ... I'm gonna walk up to my baby's door, ask him why he don't love me no more ... he was wrong, said I was to blame, but I walk on in and love him just the same, though he treats me so bad ... So, obviously, we got a love song here. This is fine with me, but I cannot understand why we find the Sweet's version included on the 2006 Soul Jazz CD # 129 Soul Gospel Vol. 2 ...

In view of the success of their song, the Staple Singers in 1967 did a sensible thing (sensible, that is, in view of sales prospect): They re-released it on 45 (Epic # 10158A) in a version more appetible for the general, i.e. mainly the mainstream white market, skipping the politically charged prelude of Pops Roebuck, adding a horn section and in general giving the tune a more pop-oriented feel. They didn't change the lyrics, though. You can hear this 45-version of 1967 over at the Black Gold blogspot ... the song dented, for a week, the pop Hot 100 charts reaching # 95 at the beginning of June 1967 ... and it was, by now, more or less devoid of its original message.
* * *
Photo from the back cover of the Epic LP »Why«
By the way, the song »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« really stands out on Epic LP # 26196. The remaining nine songs are all done professionally, but are lacking variety: they follow the same arrangements, are instrumentated very similarly and (with one exception) have Roebuck as lead singer. So, being a huge fan of Mavis, there is not much of a treat for me here, and the single song featuring Mavis's lead voice is a boring ditty by the title of »Move Along Train«. All in all, I think it is fair to say that the album contains a lot of fillers, making it one of the least accomplished LPs of the Staples. To give you an idea how the nine songs apart from »Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?« sound like, I'd like to play the second song from the album, »King Of Kings«, actually the one which I like best among all the fillers. Here we go:

The Staple Singers: »King Of Kings« from the Epic LP »Why« (1966):

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