The Staple Singers, early 1970s

The Staple Singers’ place in music history was set in stone more than 40 years ago with two of soul’s greatest singles, “Respect Yourself” and the even more powerful, “I’ll Take You There.”

But the family group – patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, lead singer Mavis and siblings Pervis, Cleotha and Yvonne - had been, by then, a major force in American music, culture and politics for more than a decade. Their downhome Mississippi-rooted gospel helped put the cross in “crossover,” taking the group from success in the sacred field to headlining status at the Newport Folk Festival and a frontline position in the battle for civil rights alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King. Their rural roots even caught the ear of Roebuck’s fellow Mississippian, the self-styled King of Hillbilly Rock, Marty Stuart, who performed and recorded with the Staples and who, along with GRAMMY-winning producer/guitarists T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller, helps keep the Pops Staples guitar sound alive today as one of the keystones of Americana.

Staples Singers, early 1970s. Courtesy photo archive, Delta Haze Corporation

Roebuck Staples was born Dec. 28, 1914 in Sunflower County, Miss., raised one of 14 children on Will Dockery’s plantation. His most vivid childhood musical memory was Delta blues great Charley Patton performing at Dockery’s general store.

“He used to sit out there on the grocery store and play and entertain all of the people on a Saturday. Everybody’d go up to the big store when he’d play,” Staples told me a few years before he died. He picked up what he could from Patton and from a neighbor closer to his own age, Chester Burnett, the future Howlin' Wolf. Learning from them as well as the Staples family phonograph, stocked with 78s by Blind Lemon Jefferson and other early country bluesmen, Roebuck soon became an accomplished guitarist.

But the rambling bluesman’s life was not for him. He married at 18, giving up blues for gospel music. He and his wife Osceola soon had a daughter, Cleotha, and the young family decided they wanted a better life than plantation sharecropping. In 1935, they followed the well-worn path to Chicago, where Roebuck worked in the stockyards.

On weekends, he performed with local gospel groups like the Trumpet Jubilees. But he and Osceola were busy raising their own group, and Cleotha soon had a younger brother, Pervis, and three little sisters, Yvonne, Mavis and Cynthia. “At night, after we finished our homework, rather than turn the radio on, Pop picked up the guitar and we’d all sit on the floor in a circle and he’d give us our (harmony) parts,” Mavis said in a Commercial Appeal interview.

Promotional portrait of the Staple Singers, late 1950s
Vee Jay Records promo, late 1950s
Courtesy photo archive, Delta Haze Corporation

In 1951, those after-dinner sessions paid off, as The Staple Singers played their first concert in a small Chicago church, netting $17.50. Gospel was at its commercial peak, powered by superstars like Mahalia Jackson and quartets such as The Soul Stirrers, which would launch Clarksdale singer Sam Cooke.

Mavis on the Singers’ Early Years

By 1956, The Staple Singers were signed to Chicago’s Vee Jay Records, and had their first hit with “Uncloudy Day.” That set the template for Staples classics to come, opening with Pops’ trademark vibrato-drenched guitar sound, a technique he recalled first hearing from Chicago’s Crooms Brothers.

“I said, ‘This is soul. This is deep. This is something I really feel.’”

Mavis on Freedom Songs

That feeling was mutual, and universal. The Staple Singers sounded like no other group, led by Mavis’ husky, sensual lead voice, contrasting with Pops’ lighter, reedy vocals, buoyed by the rich vocal harmonies of the other siblings.

They left Vee Jay in 1960, recording for the jazz/folk label Riverside, followed by a lengthy stint with major label Epic Records, a Columbia subsidiary.

Their music remained profoundly spiritual, but they were singing for social justice, working with Rev. King, who would often request Pops’ song, “Why (Am I Treated So Bad?).” The Staples anthem to the movement, “Freedom Highway,” was revived in the 21st century by The North Mississippi All Stars.

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If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)

But it was when the Staples returned to Memphis that the group found its ideal combination of gospel, soul and social conscience. They signed to Stax Records in 1967, and over the next eight years, the label took full advantage of their many talents. Pops’ unique sound earned an invitation to play sessions with Aretha Franklin, which he turned down because it wasn’t gospel (that’s Joe South playing Staples-style guitar on “Chain of Fools”). But Pops did record Jammed Together, a guitar summit with Albert King and Steve Cropper. Mavis had a secular deal with Stax, making excellent, if commercially unsuccessful, solo records, including her Cropper-produced debut.

pops-stax

Pops (right) meets with Jim Stewart (middle)and Al Bell (left) of Stax Records. Deanie Parker Collection, Center For Southern Folklore Archives

The Staples Singers perform in Ghana, 1971
Staples Singers, Ghana, 1971. Courtesy photo archive, Delta Haze Corporation

The Staple Singers scored a major crossover hit in 1971 with Pops’ positive message song, “Respect Yourself,” landing at No. 2 on the R&B charts, No. 12 pop.

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Respect Yourself

Mavis, Bonnie “Mack” Rice, and the Rev. JessieJackson, Jr. discuss the significance of “Respect Yourself”

The next year, they were No. 1 on both pop and R&B with “I’ll Take You There.”

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I’ll Take You There

With that song, written by Stax executive Al Bell, The Staple Singers brought it all together - gospel’s comforting tone combined with a promise of equality and social justice here on earth, and all tied up in a killer Memphis groove. It topped the charts again in 1991, remade by BeBe and CeCe Winans with Mavis guesting. In 1999, The original was inducted into The GRAMMY Hall of Fame.

After Stax closed, the Staples were signed to Curtis Mayfield’s’ Curtom Records, topping the charts in 1975 with “Let’s Do It Again,” the title song of that year’s hit movie starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier.

In 1984, the Staples were back on the charts with a cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” and Mavis signed with Prince’s Paisley Park label, singing the title song of his 1990 film Graffiti Bridge and making several fine solo recordings, including the 1995 album The Voice.

She continues creating state-of-the art, socially-conscious soul, including 2006’s superb We’ll Never Turn Back, her collaboration with Ry Cooder, another Pops-inspired guitarist.

Mavis Staple

Mavis Staple. Photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Mavis on the significance of Wattstax

The Staple Singers, Wattstax 1971. Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Pops showcased his sound on two final solo albums, 1992’s Peace to the Neighborhood and 1994’s GRAMMY-winning Father, Father. Pops Staples died in 2000.

He’d seen the world completely transformed from when he left Sunflower County in 1935, a time when he had to bow his head and step off the sidewalk for any white person, even a child. Today, the town of Drew, near Dockery’s plantation, holds an annual Pops Staples Day featuring a music festival in Pops Staples Park.

Al Bell on what makes the Staples so special

“It’s amazing the changes that have been made,” Pops said not long before his death. “I go down there and I’m treated like a man.”

Staple Singers, 1979
Staples Singers, 1979. Courtesy photo archive, Delta Haze Corporation

With their Mississippi-based, Memphis-infused music, The Staple Singers didn’t just make hits, they made the world a better place.

Staple Singers decorative symbol

What Others are Saying

  1. OMG!!!! that was the most deep and soul rich music there was I as a little girl and the Staple Singers, Al Green Minnie Ripperton, I could go on and on, but all of the richness resonated through my household constantly. LOve it LoVe it!!!! thanks for keeping the memories alive about some beautiful who made beautiful USMIC! LOVE PEACE AND HAPPINESS!!!!

    Lori Cooper
  2. I loved their 1971 album that I came across way back then.
    It made a lasting impression on me and I never forgot it. Beatiful soulful music. They were really good!

    John Onewo

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