In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The uncomfortable truth about gospel is that it’s not that far from being sex music. Gospel is a genre that prizes love and sweat and passion, one built on voices raised in ecstasy. You don’t have to destroy gospel to turn it into a music about earthly pleasures; you just have to tweak its focus a little. That, historically, has been a problem for gospel. It’s not just that the greatest gospel singers have a habit of leaving the genre behind, turning toward pop music. It’s also that so many of those singers turn out to be really good at making pop music, and at treating pop music like it’s gospel. The distance between the two worlds isn’t as great as some gospel devotees might wish to believe.
Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin are among the greatest pop stars that America has ever produced, and both of them got loose as soon as they had the chance. But neither one of them ever got as loose as the Staple Singers did in 1975. It’s still a wild thing to think about: a long-running family group, respectable upholders of gospel tradition, hitting #1 on the pop charts with a song that is, plainly and obviously, about sex. And when you consider that the group is one aging father and three daughters, it’s hard to imagine anything quite this freaky happening even now, with or without roots in worship music.
Blame the movies. Pops Staples, who turned 61, the day before “Let’s Do It Again” hit #1, knew what the song was about. He had a solo part on the song: “Now, I like you, lady / So fine with your pretty hair / If you don’t mind my compliments / Just digging on the clothes you wear.” He didn’t want to sing it. Mavis Staples later said that Curtis Mayfield, the song’s writer and producer, tried to convince Pops that Jesus wouldn’t mind. Pops resisted. Finally, though, Pops’ daughters talked him into it. They wanted to hear their voices in a movie, and “Let’s Do It Again” was the way to make that happen.
In 1975, three years after the Staple Singers first hit #1 with “I’ll Take You There,” Stax Records, the Staples’ label, went bankrupt. So the Staples moved over to Curtom Records, the label that their fellow Chicagoan Curtis Mayfield had founded in 1968. In 1972, Mayfield had recorded the score for the blaxploitation classic Super Fly, and Mayfield’s rich, layered soundtrack showed just how far he could push his orchestral, psychedelic soul sound. Super Fly was one of the best albums of the ’70s — soul or otherwise, movie soundtrack or otherwise. And it was a hit, too. As a solo artist, Mayfield’s highest-charting single was “Freddie’s Dead,” one of his Super Fly songs. (It peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) Curtis Mayfield and the movies were made for each other.
For a few years, while working on his own music, Curtis Mayfield also wrote and produced soundtracks for other singers. In 1974, Mayfield did Gladys Knight & The Pips’ score for Claudine. (The single, “On And On,” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.) Later on, he also did Aretha Franklin’s score for 1976’s Sparkle. (The single, “Something He Can Feel,” peaked at #28.) And in teaming up with the Staple Singers for 1975’s Let’s Do It Again, Mayfield made the biggest hit of his life.
Let’s Do It Again, the movie, was a big hit, too. It was a blaxploitation buddy comedy, the second of three from director Sidney Poitier. As in his previous movie, 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night, Poitier teamed up with the now-disgraced Bill Cosby; the two played clueless everyman husbands who attempt to pull off a big con by fixing a boxing match. Jimmie Walker, already making a name for himself on Good Times, plays the hopeless boxer Bootney Farnsworth, and Poitier and Cosby turn him into a contender by hypnotizing him. Calvin Lockhart plays a crime boss named Biggie Smalls; that’s where the name comes from. The movie had a meager budget, and it made a ton of money.
You won’t get any of that plot description from Mayfield’s score. Instead, Mayfield took the movie’s title as his evident inspiration. The Staple Singers’ Let’s Do It Again score is basically nothing but sex music. Mayfield had to know what he was doing, and I’m pretty certain that there must’ve been something at least a little bit self-consciously transgressive about writing all these sex songs for this beloved gospel group. But maybe there’s something utopian about it, too. After all, sex doesn’t have to be dirty. Over the years, Mavis Staples has said again and again that the Staple Singers’ overall message was one of love. “Let’s Do It Again” doesn’t contradict that. It’s not a song about nasty, anonymous sex. It’s about personal connection.
As sex songs go, “Let’s Do It Again” is about as good as it gets. It’s warm, fuzzy, and lazy. The track unfolds at a mellow, unhurried pace. Everything falls into place with a natural sort of grace: skritchety-scratch guitar, soft bass burble, sun-dappled harp flourishes, golden-hour-sunray strings. The Staples sisters sing about “the smell of the morning flower, as we pass away by the hour” with casual, conversational elegance. They sound like they’ve been taken to the place they describe on “I’ll Take You There.” This is sex as a reason to celebrate: “Let’s do it in the morning, sweet breeze in the summertime / Feel your sweet face all laid up next to mine / Sweet love in the midnight, good sleep come morning light / No worrying about nothing / Just getting good, just getting good, just getting good loving.” Even Pops sounds happy.
“Let’s Do It Again” came out at a time when disco was ascendent. Veteran R&B stars were figuring out how to adjust — to speed their songs up, to build them around the beat. But “Let’s Do It Again” never worries about that. Instead, the song pulls the shades, dims the lights, and shuts the rest of the world out. It’s a blissful reverie, a quick interlude before the disco bulldozer fired up again.
Before “Let’s Do It Again,” Curtis Mayfield had written a ton of big hits for himself and others. But he’d only had his hands on one #1 single — the cursed Tony Orlando & Dawn’s “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” a cover of a song that Mayfield had co-written for his former Impressions bandmate Jerry Butler in 1961. So “Let’s Do It Again” would turn out to be, in a way, Curtis Mayfield’s crowning pop achievement, even if he wasn’t the artist credited. Finally, he’d written and produced a #1 single. He never would again.
The Staple Singers would never make another big crossover hit, either, though they kept recording steadily into the ’80s. A year after “Let’s Do It Again,” they gave the performance that most music nerds remember them for: Singing “The Weight” with the Band in Martin Scorsese’s concert film The Last Waltz. And in 1977, Mavis Staples, this time working without the rest of her family, again teamed up with Curtis Mayfield to soundtrack A Piece Of The Action, Sidney Poitier’s follow-up to Let’s Do It Again.
Almost all the people who made “Let’s Do It Again” are gone now. Pops Staples died in 2000, at the age of 85, after falling down and getting a concussion. Cleotha and Yvonne Staples both died this century, too — Cleotha from Alzheimer’s at 78, Yvonne of colon cancer at 80. Curtis Mayfield was only 57 when he died in 1999, nine years after being paralyzed by a falling stage light while playing a free concert in Brooklyn. But Mavis Staples, now 80, is still out there, maintaining a crazy touring and recording schedule. And her voice is still the liquid, expressive, triumphant force that we hear on “Let’s Do It Again.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ice Cube rapping over a “Let’s Do It Again” sample on a remix of his masterly 1993 single “It Was A Good Day”:
(Incredibly, Ice Cube has never rapped on a top-10 single. The original “It Was A Good Day,” which peaked at #15, remains his highest-charting track.)