First published – on August 26, 2020
Family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples was born near Winona in Minnesota. In the early 1920s his family moved to Will Dockery’s plantation near Drew in Mississippi, where Roebuck was introduced to Delta blues. Charley Patton inspired him to learn the guitar. In his teenage years Roebuck started singing with gospel groups. In 1936, now married to Oceola, he moved to Chicago, where he continued to perform, as a member of the gospel quartet The Trumpet Jubilees. By 1939 Roebuck and Oceola had four children: Cleotha (b. 1934), Pervis (b. 1935), Yvonne (b. 1937) and Mavis (b. 1939).
In 1948, the family made their first public singing appearance at the Mount Zion Church, Chicago, where Roebuck’s brother, the Rev. Chester Staples, was pastor. They signed their first professional contract in 1952, recording first for local label United Records and then moving to Vee-Jay Records, which had a significant Gospel section. Roebuck and Mavis shared the lead vocal duties, with harmonies from Pervis and Cleotha (Yvonne replaced Pervis when he was called up for national service and later). The style was traditional, with acoustic guitar amplified with a lot of reverb. It was a country blues version of Gospel. “Don’t Drive Me Away”, “This May Be The Last Time”, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Uncloudy Day” are typical of their Vee-Jay songs. The last of these tracks especially brought them to national attention for the first time in 1956, reinforced when the album “Uncloudy Day” was released in 1959. The refrain of “This May Be The Last Time” certainly inspired the Rolling Stones!
The first Vee-Jay Gospel album
The group moved from Vee-Jay to Checker, Riverside and then Epic, where they released several tracks that adopted a more folk-based style. In 1965 they released an album of Gospel songs called “Freedom Highway”, produced by Billy Sherrill. The important opening track, written by Roebuck Staples, took them into new territory. It is a protest song that relates the death of a 14-year-old African American boy called Emmett Till , who was lynched at the Tallahatchie River, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. His killers were acquitted. Till became an icon of the civil rights movement and the work of the Staple Singers took on an added resonance. Two of their Epic singles broke into the charts in 1967, “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” (a favourite of Dr Martin Luther King) and “For What It’s Worth” (a Stephen Stills song).
In 1968, the Staples signed with Memphis-based Stax Records. Their first two albums, “Soul Folk in Action” and “We’ll Get Over”, were produced by Steve Cropper and backed by Booker T. & the MGs. Both albums still have elements of the earlier folk/gospel style, but now Cropper added the Memphis horns and strings to the mix. The Staple Singers took the decision to move from gospel into the mainstream, choosing to record songs that would still have a “message” but which would appeal to a much broader audience.
Soul Folk in Action
“Soul Folk in Action” featured songs by resident Stax song-writers William Bell, Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks and Steve Cropper, plus other well-known musicians. Bravely, they even included a cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, which had recently topped the chart, in the year following Otis’ death.
“We’ll Get Over” starts with Mavis Staples in full Aretha Franklin mode on the opening track. There is a strong Gospel feel to several of the tracks, including “When Will We Be Paid” and “God Bless the Children”, but overall these two albums show the group widening their repertoire and their appeal very effectively.
In 1970 things changed. Steve Cropper left Stax and Pervis left the group. Sister Yvonne took over from Pervis, and Al Bell replaced Steve Cropper as producer. Bell’s first decision was to switch the centre of operations to Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama. He took the Staple Singers to Muscle Shoals Sound Studios to work with famous Rhythm Section that had left Rick Hall at FAME to set up their own recording facility, adding the Memphis horns as before. Final production work was carried out by Bell and Terry Manning at Ardent Studios in Memphis.
The first album master-minded by Bell was “The Staple Swingers”, released in 1971, which entered the Soul Albums chart, reaching number nine. Three singles were taken from the album, “Love Is Plentiful”, “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)” and “You’ve Got to Earn It”, which all charted on the R&B Singles chart. Their popularity was growing!
The follow-up album, “Be Altitude: Respect Yourself”, finally sealed their break-through, reaching number three on the R&B Albums chart and number nineteen on the Pop chart. Again, three singles from the album broke into the national charts: “Respect Yourself” (number nine Pop and number two R&B), “I’ll Take You There” (number one on both charts) and “This World” (thirty-eight Pop and six R&B). The style is now much more funky, with a dance beat. “I’ll Take You There” adds some reggae too, with the inspiration coming from Al Bell, who wrote the song.
There were two further albums on Stax, “Be What You Are” (1973) and “City in the Sky” (1974), which both charted to number thirteen on the R&B Albums chart. Four singles reached the top four of the R&B Singles chart, with the most successful “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” spending three weeks at number one on the Hot Soul Singles chart in 1973. Everything looked set fair, but in 1975 Stax ran into financial difficulties and closed its operations. The Staple Singers had some big decisions to make: Where to go?, Who to work with? and What to sing? It didn’t take long to decide.
In 1975 they went back to Chicago and signed for Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. They started working on a song called “Let’s Do It Again”, written by Curtis Mayfield, which was to feature on a film soundtrack. Before the end of the year, the album was number one on the R&B Albums chart and the single was top of the Pop and R&B charts. Roebuck “Pops” Staples celebrated his 61st birthday in style!
This was the pinnacle of their long and varied career, in terms of chart success. In 1976 they changed labels again, moving to Warner Bros. Three albums were released between 1976 and 1978, with some minor success. Then a final album, “Turning Point”, on Private I records in 1984. Between 1976 and 1985 they released thirteen singles, all of which entered the R&B chart, and there the group’s releases end.
In 1999, The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2005, the group was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2018 they were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. While at Stax Records they were awarded two gold discs by the RIAA for “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)” and “Respect Yourself”, for sales of one million copies.
“Pops” died in 2000. Cleotha died in February 2013 after a decade with Alzheimer’s disease. Yvonne died of colon cancer at her home in Chicago in April 2018 at the age of 80. Mavis Staples has continued to carry on the family tradition as a solo artist. She appeared at Glastonbury in 2015. Her faith and commitment to the civil rights movement is as strong as ever; her 2016 album, “Livin’ on a High Note”, includes a simple acoustic version of a Martin Luther King sermon in the track “MLK Song”.
The 2015 documentary film “Mavis!” recounts the history of The Staple Singers and follows Mavis Staples’ solo career after Pops Staples’ death. Directed by Jessica Edwards, the film premiered at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival and was broadcast by HBO in February 2016.
In 2015, Concord released a four-disc box set, “Faith and Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976”. In early 2020, another box set appeared, “Come Go with Me: The Stax Collection”. Between them, they showcase the best of the Staples Singers’ work, justifying their title as “God’s Greatest Hit-makers”.
Some people have challenged the Staple Singers’ decision to move to secular music. “Pops”‘ answer was pretty down-to-earth: “Ain’t nobody want to go to heaven more than me, but we got to live down here too.” They certainly brought a smile to a lot of people’s faces.