The Staple Singers: Be Altitude: Respect Yourself

This uplifting R&B and gospel album from the family band was the highlight of a long career, evangelises Steve Sutherland as he hears the 180g reissue

One of last year's musical highlights was the release of Summer Of Soul, the documentary lovingly assembled by Questlove about the Cultural Festival that took place on six Sundays between June the 29th and August the 24th 1969 at Mount Morris Park in Harlem, New York.

The Woodstock Festival, just upstate, was also underway at the time, destined to become famous worldwide thanks to the movie and albums that followed. The Harlem event, though filmed, was pretty much lost to history, the footage stored away for over 50 years until discovered and assembled into the documentary.

Precious Memories
The film is superb from start to finish but if I had to choose peaks, I'd say an imperious Nina Simone's furious 'Backlash Blues' and 'Are You Ready'; The Chambers Brothers grooving through a freewheeling 'Uptown'; Sly & The Family Stone's magnificent 'Sing A Simple Song' and 'Everyday People'; Stevie Wonder just being all-round astonishing; and Mahalia Jackson breathing new life into the gospel standard 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand'.


Label of the original UK release from 1972 on Stax

Jackson was backed dramatically by the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir, an organization dedicated to improving the economic conditions of black communities across the US. It was a righteous piece of business, directed by Ben Branch who'd been with Martin Luther King Jr just before his assassination in April 1968. In fact, King's last words were purported to be to Branch, asking his friend to play 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand' at a rally to have been held later that day. 'Play it real pretty', King had instructed, and play it real pretty they certainly did at this emotional Harlem gathering.

Just as she was being introduced to the crowd, Mahalia Jackson, the undisputed Gospel Queen, now 58 but looking and feeling a great deal older, called to her side a singer some 28 years her junior who was lurking at the back of the stage just to get a close glimpse of her hero. Declaring she wasn't feeling quite herself and could do with a little help, Jackson encouraged her devotee to share vocals, and the pair went ahead and endowed that famous old hymn with a ferocious spiritual zeal (when I first saw it in the cinema, it reduced the audience to tears). On the Harlem stage it was as if a torch was being handed down to a new generation, and its inheritor was Mavis Staples. She went on to hold it high and do it proud.

Like Ms Jackson, Ms Staples was brought up in the church. She spread the good word via The Staple Singers, a family group formed in the early 1950s by her father Roebuck 'Pops' Staples, a tasty guitarist, dapper dresser and upright citizen who was wonderfully adept at matching Christian values with modern ideals.


Concorde Records press shot of The Staple Singers (l-r) Pops, Cleotha, Pervis and Mavis Staples

Raw 'N' Folky
Keeping the faith but moving with the times, their early recordings were raw and folky. One album, Uncloudy Day, found even a young Bob Dylan flummoxed. 'It was the most mysterious thing I'd ever heard...' he recalled. 'I'd think about them even at my school desk... Mavis looked to be about the same age as me in her picture [on the cover]... Her singing just knocked me out.'

By the early 1970s The Staple Singers were a major power for good, active participants in the civil rights movement which they soundtracked with not only gospel numbers but covers of songs that warned there'd better be some changes or else. Check out their versions of Buffalo Springfield's 'For What It's Worth' and Dylan's 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' – both the match of the originals.

At the end of the '60s the group moved up a further notch, signing to the prestigious Stax label where they recorded their excellent secular hit 'Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)', which had been a big success in the UK for Bobby Bloom. Then came their most popular LP, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, which chimed perfectly with the zeitgeist.


Priced £29.99, the 180g reissue of Be Altitude: Respect Yourself can be bought online at

Biblical Epic
This record was named after the passage in Matthew 5 in the Bible, which is known as the Eight Beatitudes and introduces the Sermon On The Mount. It's the one that goes: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled...'. And it neatly illustrates The Staple Singers' modus operandi – songs which spell out the travails of long suffering under discriminatory laws, the dreadful plight of the impoverished and the temptation to stray from the straight and narrow, but all delivered in an upbeat manner, and with a positive outlook and a call to action. Like treating a wound with honey.

Produced and arranged by the Stax label's co-owner Al Bell, beautifully engineered by Terry Manning and backed by the peerless Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Memphis Horns, the album's funky groovers 'This World', 'I'll Take You There' and 'Respect Yourself' were big chart hits, positioning the group among the soul elite alongside Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield et al. Side B opener 'We The People' was later adopted as one of the themes behind Joe Biden's successful 2020 presidential election campaign.

Spreading The Word
The Staple Singers had the gift of being both homespun and cool, anciently rooted yet hip and contemporary, their appeal naturally traversing age, race and creed. The songs on this 1972 album are, by and large, sermons – but they never sound preachy. Instead, they sound truthful, angry, determined, dignified, and full of hope.


Pops poses in front of (l-r) Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis Staples

The group continued the good work spreading the word, encouraging pride and helping lift people up, but they never bettered Be Altitude. There were other highs – they had a No 1 hit with 'Let's Do It Again' on Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label once Stax went bankrupt, appeared in The Band's farewell movie, 1976's The Last Waltz, performing a stonking version of 'The Weight', and were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999.

But Pops passed away in 2000, aged 85, and Mavis is the sole Staple Singer now left on the planet to carry on the mission. Her latest album, Carry Me Home, recorded with The Band's Levon Helm in 2011 just before he died, was released on the US independent label Anti earlier this year.

Her light shines on.

Re-Release Verdict
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Staple Singers' Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, Craft Records/Stax has reissued the LP on 180g vinyl with gatefold sleeve and the original album artwork [50th Anniversary Edition, CR00511] – its first re-release on the format since 1987. 'All-analogue' mastering/vinyl cutting, using the original stereo tapes from the record's Muscle Shoals Sound Studios sessions, has been undertaken by Jeff Powell at Memphis's Take Out Vinyl. HFN