When commissioned to compose a sequence of poems to be set to music to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising the song “I’ll Take You There,” from the same era, was among the first that came to mind. A kind of anthem first performed and recorded in 1972 by The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There” was a protest song that reflected a kind of optimism, an instant and uplifting hit. Al Bell’s lyrics are a call and response echoing the text of the title, building power on repetition, responding to an idea of hope for a future with: “Ain’t no smilin’ faces / Lyin’ to the races”. The original recording features Mavis Staples as the lead singer. Mavis joined her family’s gospel singing group at the age of 11. The r& b soul singer/civil rights activist, turns 80 this summer––on tour, still singing this still necessary song.
Everybody loves Mavis Staples. She’s an American treasure, best known for providing a soundtrack for the civil rights movement with her family, The Staples Singers, with gospel-tinged classics like “Respect Yourself” and “Freedom Highway.” But today, I want to share my love of her version of a classic song, usually associated with Luther Vandross: “A House is Not a Home.” Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, arguably two of the best songwriters of the 20th century, “A House Is Not a Home” is one of the most enduring songs in their treasure trove of a catalog. I cannot think of a duo who wrote more songs that I sang in front of a mirror holding a hairbrush as a mic!
The song is set up with the lyrics “A chair is still a chair, even when there’s no one sitting there. But a chair is not a house and a house is not a home when there is no one there to hold you tight and no one you can kiss goodnight.” Deceptively simple and pedestrian. But in the mighty hands of Mavis Staples, the stunningly uncomplicated and perfect poetry makes itself gut-wrenchingly known. A lonely Saturday night song sung with a Sunday morning feel. To hear a singer as warm and passionate as Mavis interpret the song gives me goosebumps every single time I hear it.
Music by Burt Bacharach
Lyrics by Hal David
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