Prince Covers the Staple Singers to Ask ‘When Will We B Paid?': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
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To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Prince’s recordings — and their appeal — transcended all manner of musical and societal boundaries, but as a performer, he certainly wasn’t blind to America’s racial divide. And while it wasn’t a topic he addressed often in his work, he wasn’t afraid to tackle it in blunt terms, as he did with his cover of the Staple Singers‘ 1970 song “When Will We Be Paid.”
Originally recorded for the group’s second Stax release, We’ll Get Over, the Staples’ version arrived in the midst of the civil rights movement. Written by Randall Stewart, a member of the Stax songwriting stable, the song called for equal treatment between races while advocating for slavery reparations — a subject that continues to provoke debate decades later.
While the song wasn’t a hit at the time of its release, and has been more or less swept aside as subsequent generations have codified the modern civil rights songbook, its impact wasn’t lost on Prince — who, by the late ’90s, had already done his part to try and keep the Staple Singers’ legacy alive. Signing vocalist Mavis Staples to a deal through his Paisley Park imprint a decade previous, he’d been behind the boards for, and contributed material to, both of her releases at the label, 1989’s Time Waits for No One and 1993’s The Voice.
Their affiliation was neither as long nor as commercially fruitful as one might have hoped, but when Staples moved on and pursued a more gospel-oriented approach later in the ’90s, there were no hard feelings. “Yesterday, I lost a dear friend — my son,” she told a concert crowd the day after his passing in 2016. “I’m talking about Prince. He was my angel.”
The affection was decidedly mutual. Giving its title a Prince spin, he covered “When Will We B Paid?” as the B-side of a digital single released in late 2000, using the Staples’ classic anthem to reopen questions that continue to linger years later. “We have worked this country from shore to shore / Our women cooked all your food and washed all your clothes / We picked all your cotton and laid the railroad steel / Worked our hands to the bone at your lumber mill,” laments the original version’s opening verse. “When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?”
While Prince’s take on the song took some liberties, its essential message remained the same, and proved a potent vehicle for the growing frustration he’d expressed over the previous decade — most often as a recording artist who felt cheated and hemmed in by the record industry. As an independent release that arrived during the dawn of digital distribution, “When Will We B Paid?” was destined to be heard by a small group of faithful fans, but it certainly meant something to Mavis and her father, Staple Singers patriarch Pops Staples; as she recalled in a 2017 New Yorker profile, she rushed the recording to Pops, who took incredulous pride in the recording.
“Oh, Lord, I miss Prince so much,” she told the magazine. “I can hardly listen to him yet without breaking down.”
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