Every weekend, they would pile into their family van and travel across the Bible Belt, performing sometimes as many as three shows in a single day. Back then, the South was desegregated on paper but not always in practice, and the Staples Jr. Singers weren’t always sure what kind of welcome they would receive—whether a new audience would embrace them, whether local restaurants would serve them.
The Browns got their big break in 1975, when a traveling gospel singer Joe Orr introduced them to a man who ran a now long gone recording studio in Tupelo—like a figure from a parable, he only went by the name of Big John. They were just teenagers at the time, and they drew inspiration straight from their lives.
“It was kind of like some of the things that my parents were going through,” said Annie. “They didn’t have much, but the little they had, they tried to take care of the family. My daddy used to work, come home and make sure that we had food, clothes on our back, and a place over our head. So, those songs had the meaning of some of the things that we were going through.”
They sold the records themselves, sometimes after their shows, other times right out of their childhood home. “People used to come by—and people liked our style that we had back then,” said Edward, “we had our own style of music right there.”
Forty years, three generations, and countless performances later, the original members of the Staples Jr. Singers are still on the circuit, performing almost every weekend with their families. Although they don’t go by the Staples Jr. Singers anymore—they changed their name to the Brown Singers in the late 70s, then marriage made two bands out of one: Annie Brown Caldwell formed a gospel dynasty of her own, the Caldwell Singers, with her husband and daughters.
While the Browns and Caldwells have written an entire catalog of gospel music since the era of 1975’s When Do We Get Paid, for the Staples Jr. Singers, the incantatory funk of this music still holds the power to help make a way out of dark and troubled times.
“I can be a witness,” Annie said. “Back then you could feel it. You were basing it on yourself. These are the songs that are really going to take us over.”