By the time Pops Staples sang “Papa Legba” in David Byrne’s movie True Stories, the relationship between the Staple Singers and Talking Heads was already well-established. In 1984, the Staples had a minor hit with their cover of Speaking in Tongues’ “Slippery People,” on which Byrne played guitar, and which they promoted with an appearance on Soul Train. I prefer it to the original.
Biographer Greg Kot writes that the idea for the single came from a producer the two groups shared. From Kot’s I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era:
When the songwriting-production team of Gary Goetzman and Mike Piccirillo persuaded the Staples to record “Slippery People,” they enlisted Byrne to play guitar. “Gary was a producer on Stop Making Sense and he was instrumental in helping me get [the 1986 Byrne-directed movie] True Stories off the ground,” Byrne says. “He produced records as well as movies, and he and his production partner had the idea to find contemporary material that the Staples could cover that would also sound like something they might have written. ‘Slippery People’—just the title alone sounds like a song they could have written. Musically, it was definitely influenced by gospel—its very gospel call-and-response chorus made it a natural fit for them.”
Byrne’s Gumby-like dance moves for Stop Making Sense had been in part inspired by the way worshippers in Southern sanctified churches responded when filled with the Holy Spirit, their bodies writhing and undulating while speaking in tongues. “David’s inspiration was seeing people in church, and that’s what I connected with,” Mavis Staples says. “My head went off into the Bible.”
With Byrne’s chattering guitar skipping atop a grid of percolating percussion, the Staples’ version of “Slippery People” cast Pops in the role of the preacher and Mavis as the congregation responding to his sermon. She sounds like she’s scatting in tongues, a brilliant jazzy take on Deep South church tradition.
The single rose to number 22 on the R&B chart and anchored the group’s 1984 Turning Point album as part of a two-album deal with Private I Records, a subsidiary of CBS Inc.
Then 70, Pops talks about emerging from retirement and the success of “Slippery People” in the post-performance interview with Don Cornelius below. On their next LP, the Staple Singers interpreted “Life During Wartime,” with less exciting results—the production makes me picture Chevy Chase behind the wheel of a convertible with a dog in the passenger seat, but I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind.
Slippery People (club version):
Live on Soul Train:
Thank you Adam Payne!