Gospel group releases first new music in nearly 50 years

Michael Casey/The Associated Press | 6/20/2024, 7 a.m.
She made a single gospel soul record in the 1970s with her brothers, when they were all teenagers. Then Annie …
Siblings R.C. Brown, left, Annie Brown Caldwell, center, and Edward Brown, original members of the Staples Jr. Singers, gather for a group photo May 20 at Johnson Chapel Holiness Church in Aberdeen, Miss. Photo by AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

She made a single gospel soul record in the 1970s with her brothers, when they were all teenagers. Then Annie Brown Caldwell moved on with her life.

Decades later, she was running a clothing store in a tiny Mississippi town and singing on weekends with her husband and children when she got a call from a label founded by David Byrne. They wanted to add a single from her first band, the Staples Jr. Singers, to a compilation record.

That 2019 call led to more — the Luaka Bop label reissued the band’s 1975 record “When Do We Get Paid,” drawing rave reviews in 2022 for its raw sound and mix of blues, funk and soul. And soon the Brown siblings, now in their 60s, found themselves on a course that would make any rising pop star jealous.

In the past four years, they flew for the first time, toured Europe four times and played hipster clubs like Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right. And, finally last year, they saw a performance by Mavis Staples, whose group The Staple Singers inspired their own early sound with genre-busting, socially conscious Stax Records hits. Also a band of siblings, they covered several of their songs.

“It’s been a dream come true,” said Brown Caldwell, who was 11 when she and R.C. and Edward, who were 12 and 13, co-founded The Staples Jr. Singers in 1967. They started playing in the church where their mother was a preacher and father a deacon, and toured by van around the South.

And on Friday, the Browns are releasing “Searching,” their first batch of new songs in nearly 50 years, and gearing up for a tour in July to the Roskilde festival in Denmark as well as the Netherlands, Slovakia and Germany.

“It’s a blessing,” Brown Caldwell said. “It feels good. We are getting older and it seems the Lord just now is blessing our youth like it’s brand new again.”

Their resurgence began with a record collector who stumbled on their first single in a Midwest thrift store and bought it for $1.

Greg Belson, whose gospel collection fills three rooms in Los Angeles, was intrigued that the band’s name was so similar to The Staple Singers. He put “We Got a Race to Run” on a portable turntable he often brings with him, and was struck by their sound: “It sat completely in the wheelhouse of what I look for, which is specifically gospel with a soulful tinge, rather than what I would say more classical church-based gospel,” Belson said.

Yale Evelev, the president of Luaka Bop, heard Belson’s radio show and pulled from his collection for a compilation of 1970s gospel soul songs called “The Time For Peace Is Now.” He wanted to include the Staples Jr. Singers single, but first he had to find the band. He figured out that Annie Brown was now Annie Caldwell, and called all seven listed in Mississippi.

Like Belson, Evelev was attracted to a gospel sound that isn’t heard much on the radio these days. “These are soul records really,” he said. “Soul records with a message. That message imbues the performance with a certain underlying intensity and honesty.”

He reached Brown Caldwell on the last call.

“I never believed that this record would come up again,” Brown Caldwell said. “For real though. Is this for real?”

She agreed to put the single out but her brothers were initially resistant, and they balked at reissuing “When Do We Get Paid.” Only a few hundred original copies of the record exist, one of which Belson bought off a Milwaukee collector for $600.

“There was a lot of family drama that was happening that had existed for a long time,” Evelev said. “We kind of ended up in the middle of it, and it was a lot of back and forth and a lot of yelling at each other.”

They worked it out, and agreed to perform four shows in New York in 2022. Evelev heard some songs that weren’t on their 1975 record and asked if they had any unreleased music. It turned out they recorded about a dozen songs in Muscle Shoals in the 1980s.

Evelev brought in Ahmed Gallab, who performs as the artist Sinkane, as a producer, and he recorded them over two nights in a Mississippi church where they sat in a semi-circle or in the pews as they played. Gallab then went to Nashville to mix it and do some overdubs, aiming to have the songs “ring as true as possible” to when he first heard them play.

Like their first album, “Searching” weaves its gospel message with blues guitar and influences ranging from boogaloo to swamp music to rhythm and blues to soul.

A world-weariness comes through in songs like the lead track, “Living In This World Alone,” with Brown Caldwell lamenting how she misses her mother and tries to “live free from sin” without her.

“I can listen to their voices and hear the stories that they’re talking about and really understand them,” Gallab said. “That’s the one thing that’s really sets them apart, especially when Annie sings. She’s just telling you a story.”

The band members — now four generations of the Brown family — shrug off their newfound celebrity. On the latest record, R.C. plays guitar

and the two other siblings sing. Edward’s son sings backing vocals, R.C.’s son plays bass and R.C.’s grandson plays drums.

They still live in Aberdeen, a town of 5,000 along the Tombigbee River where they grew up and where Edward and R.C. retired from factory jobs. All three insist their mission remains the same as it was all those years ago — to spread the word of God and inspire listeners to follow his path.

Edward Brown said he rarely hears anything good on the radio anymore and worries about younger generations turning to gun violence.

So he is doing his part by singing and trying to “touch people” with his life story.

“You have to do what God said do,” he said. “When I hit the stage, I tell the Lord, ‘take self out, You take over.’ I just give it all to him and do what he wants me to do.”