Mavis Staples - “Don’t Knock”
From the album You Are Not Alone (2010)
Growing up a secular Jew, I wasn’t really exposed to gospel music as a kid. At all. As with most of the music I’d eventually fall for, I had to do a lot of discovery and self-education by listening, reading, and trying to figure out the influences of singers like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding. I loved these musicians from the first time I heard them, and eventually I’d get curious and wonder who they listened to, or where they got their styles and ideas from. It was always a great musical adventure, mixed with some detective work, trying to trace the lineage. And since I’m friends with other music fanatics, we’d always have a good time trading albums and turning each other on to new discoveries and long hidden gems. Good times.
Even though I’m not at all religious, I’ve always been drawn to the sound of gospel music. I can’t pinpoint when it started, but I suppose I really started digging into the music when I was in my early 20s. To me, it’s always been analogous to a quote I read about Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, who once mentioned to an interviewer that he liked the sound of church bells, just for the sound they made. For me, I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics or the message of a gospel song - it’s just about the sound of all those passionate voices, weaving together and over the church organ or the piano, the stomping in the risers, the echo throughout the church hall. The sound is what draws me in, regardless of whether the song is about having a friend in Jesus or is something packaged to appeal to the more secular-minded folk like me.
SO - somewhere along the way, as I made the links between Aretha and Ray and the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir, I eventually made my way to the Staple Singers, who had a gritty, rootsy, church-based sound. I was knocked out. And, being a fan of Wilco, I was even more knocked out a few years back when Jeff Tweedy started writing songs for and producing an album for Mavis Staples. One of the results from their first collaboration, You Are Not Alone, is this gorgeous reading of an old Staples classic, Don’t Knock. It sounds like it could’ve been recorded in the back room of a neighborhood church, with Staples’ husky vocals, tight backing vocals, a bouncing, echo-drenched guitar stomping out the chords, and a sparse rhythm section.
It might be sacrilege to state it, but I think this version might even top the original. But I’ll let you be the judge.