Considering what a long, popular, and respected career the Staple Singers had, it's surprising that there was no comprehensive compilation prior to this 2004 release that spanned their gospel and soul eras, from the 1950s to the 1980s. You can count on the Ace group of labels to do these things right, however, and this two-CD, 44-song set is a very good summary of their career highlights, even if it inevitably can't include all of their outstanding performances. All of their big soul hits are here, naturally, but what makes this especially available is the presence of much material predating their hookup with Stax in the late '60s. The earliest recording goes all the way back to 1953, and the first half or so of disc one is all pre-Stax, with gospel sides from the mid-'50s through the mid-'60s for various labels, including "This May Be the Last Time" (which famously helped inspire the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time"), "Uncloudy Day," and their cover of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." Their transition from gospel to soul on Epic in the mid-'60s is also represented by a handful of sides, including Pop Staples' "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)" and their low-charting cover of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." And while their Stax era is understandably covered with far greater depth than any other, some relatively little-known worthy efforts from that period are here alongside the hits. There are, for instance, socially conscious "message songs" such as "The Ghetto," "Long Walk to DC," "When Will We Be Paid for the Work We Did," and "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas"; unreleased solo sides by Pop Staples and Mavis Staples; and a remix of their "Oh La De Da" single that removes the fake audience noise. A few post-Stax tracks with slicker production are here too (among them their huge 1975 hit "Let's Do It Again"), and while it could be argued that a few more pre-Stax numbers would have been more artistically satisfying, it does round off the documentation of this major group's work, augmented by a detailed history in the 28-page booklet.