Personnel: Roebuck "Pops" Staples (vocals, guitar); Al Duncan (drums).
Audio Mixer: Steve Addabo.
Liner Note Authors: Steve Berkowitz ; Robert Gordon; Nedra Olds-Neal.
Recording information: Chicago's New Nazareth Church, Chicago, IL (04/09/1965).
In April 1965, the Staple Singers had not yet crossed over to the R&B charts, and were devoted gospel artists at a time when the African-American church was playing a major role in the civil rights movement. Just a month before, Dr. Martin Luther King's march from Selma to Montgomery had pushed violence against peaceful activists onto the nation's front pages and nightly news broadcasts, and made the battle for racial equality the key issue of the day. The Staple Singers had recently signed to Epic Records, and the label wanted to record a live performance by the Staples in their natural environment, Chicago's New Nazareth Church, where the family worshiped when not on the road. Producer Billy Sherrill set up recording equipment at the church, and the result was the album Freedom Highway, which not only captured the sound of the Staple Singers bringing forth the spirit for the Lord, but saw them debuting their song "Freedom Highway," in which they spoke in no uncertain term about the need for civil rights, the first of many songs in their repertoire that spoke of issues in the secular world as well as celebrating God and Jesus. Fifty years after Freedom Highway was recorded, Epic/Legacy have issued Freedom Highway Complete, which presents the April 9, 1965 performance by the Staple Singers in full, in a new mix that emphasizes the interaction between the artists and the spectators, as well as presenting the concert in full, unedited form. While there are some minor flaws in this thinking -- most notably including seven minutes of Rev. Hopkins taking collection and scolding the flock for not donating enough -- the result is a truly extraordinary document. At the opening, "Pops" Staples reminds the audience that they're at a worship service, not a concert, and should react as the spirit guides them, and the joy of the worshipers is genuine and enthusiastic, and it flows back through the Staples, who reveal why the were one of the leading gospel acts of the day as they stretch these songs into glorious testaments of belief. At the same time, you can also hear what set them apart -- "Pops" Staples' guitar work is brilliant, a spectral variation on country blues figures transformed into magic by his sure touch and a bit of reverb, and Mavis Staples, 25 years old at the time, was already singing with the force and authority that would make her a legend. Freedom Highway Complete is a deeply moving document of a handful of gifted artists guided by their talents, their spirits, and their consciences at a critical moment in American history, and it's one of the most important archival releases of recent years. ~ Mark Deming