Staples Jr. Singers

Staples Jr. Singers

BIOGRAPHY

The Story of the Staples Jr. Singers


It sometimes happens that a stone cold classic from a bygone era gets rediscovered. But how often does that rediscovery happen when the band is still around? And how often does it lead to a new album? That’s the surprising circumstance behind the Staples Jr. Singers’ long-awaited second album, Searching (June 14).

Back in 1975, when the Staples Jr. Singers were just teenagers growing up in the small, rural town of Aberdeen, Mississippi, they got to make a single record together, one which, because of its rarity, became coveted by gospel soul collectors: When Do We Get Paid. They paid for the record themselves and pressed a few hundred copies, selling most of them on their front lawn to their neighbors.

Following Luaka Bop’s re-issue of When Do We Get Paid in 2022, the Staples Jr. Singers finally had their time in the sun: The Guardian called their album “Powerful,” The Boston Globe named it #7 Best Album of the Year, and UNCUT (8/10) said that it was “music that deserves your attention.” And to make the response all the better, the Staples Jrs. Singers were around to witness it.

Who are the Staples Jr. Singers, and why do they share a name with that other gospel group you might have heard of, the ones who famously crossed over?

The Jr. singers are the Browns, a family of ten who came of age in the ’60s in northeast Mississippi between the black prairie and the pines. Back then, the South was desegregated on paper but not always in practice. Their parents found refuge and support in the church against the backdrop of an unwelcoming town (and nation), while their kids found refuge and a greater purpose in life in the music.

Every weekend, when everyone was off from work, the family would pile into their van and travel across the Bible Belt to gospel programs and talent shows in the region. Excited audiences would flock to them afterwards, telling them, “Y’all sound like the Staple Singers, y’all should call yourselves the little Staple Jr. Singers!” And so they did.

Most of the siblings were in the band at one time or another, but now Edward and R.C. Brown, and their little sister Annie Brown Caldwell — all in their 60s — are the siblings who have survived. And while the Browns continued to play together after they recorded When Do We Get Paid, they never made another full-length record together.

Until one warm evening in October 2023, when the family gathered in a single-room church in West Point, Mississippi, called The Message Center. There, across the street from Annie’s house, they played songs they had written nearly fifty years before — though now they carried a different message.

“It was good to be able to go back,” said singer Annie Brown Caldwell, “and look back over our life. Some of the same songs that we had sung, those songs have a new meaning to me.”

Searching was recorded live over two evenings after the singers’ work days were done. The engineer Albert Di Fiore set up a mobile studio in the back room of the church, and the musicians sat in a semicircle, some even on pews, playing their music in a room as it was meant to be played.

“The process was very easy,” said producer Ahmed Gallab, who performs as the artist Sinkane. “There’s nothing like a family bond/band. It was so special to watch how locked into each other everyone was. You can hear and feel that on this record.

As on their first record, the three original members of the Staples Jr. Singers took turns singing lead. Annie’s powerful voice, full of pathos, starts the record off with “Living In This World Alone.” Annie, who owns a clothing store in downtown West Point and sings with her husband and children on the weekends as part of Ms. Annie Caldwell & Family, has performed on the same stage as Al Green with her group. You can hear a bit of his influence on the opening melody.

Edward sings lead on “Lost In a World of Sin,” a song about the power of faith, with his youngest son Troy supporting him on backing vocals. “I keep on searching,” the two generations of Browns sing together.

“Nothing records the passage of time quite like the human voice,” Anton Spice writes in his liner notes for Searching. “When R.C. now sings of the road getting rough and the going getting tough, I imagine the words delivered with the bruising gravity of experience. I hear in them not the purpose and naivety of youth but the reflections and insights of age.”

Before this recording session, it had been a few years since R.C., who plays guitar for the Staples Jrs., had been capable of singing lead. You can hear his faltering but lyrical voice on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” an uplifting anthem that shares the Staples Jrs.’ infectious and positive ethos, which has only grown more potent over time: “I’ve got a feeling,” R.C. sings, “That everything’s going to be alright.

The musical family behind the Staples Jr. Singers are now going on four generations. Here, the original three Staples Jr. Singers, Edward, R.C., and Annie, are joined by some of the new vanguard: Edward’s son Troy on backing vocals, R.C.’s son Gary on bass, and R.C.’s grandson Jaylin on drums.

“I feel like I was able to witness part of this family’s continued story and legacy in real time,” Gallab said. “That was a very special thing to witness.”

Since the success of the re-issue of When Do We Get Paid, the Staples have now concluded four successful tours of Europe—before that they had never been on a plane, let alone left the South—including celebrated appearances at Le Guess Who?, the North Sea Jazz Festival, and WOMAD UK, as well as sold out shows in Köln, Stockholm, and Paris, among so many others. In Great Britain, they were lauded by Gilles Peterson and Craig Charles of BBC 6 Music. In Dublin, their childhood family photo was plastered on a giant billboard.

These days, the family talks a lot about what a wonderful experience this has all been for them. “We never figured we would get this far,” said lead singer Edward Brown.

And this July, they’ll be back in Europe on a tour that will begin at Roskilde and take them to the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Germany. The family couldn’t be more excited to get back on the road.

“We want to go on tour and do many things that we didn’t get the chance to do in the beginning of life,” said Annie, “Because the time and money wasn’t there. It all came late, being in our sixties now—but it looks like it’s just beginning, you know? Life is just beginning for us.”

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