The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers was one of the hottest, hit-makingest bands ever to record at Stax Records. Consisting of the family patriarch, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and his children Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne, and Mavis, the group, collectively, began in blues, went on to gospel fame, became one of America’s premier soul music groups, and were known for the messages in their folk music, rock, and more.
Born in 1915 in Winoma, Mississippi, Pops was the baby of a large brood. He grew up on the blues of Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, and Barbecue Bob Hicks, among others, and taught himself to play blues guitar. However, he joined the Golden Trumpets gospel quartet in 1931 and moved away from secular
blues music. In 1934, he married and had his first child Cleotha. Then, they moved to Chicago in 1935 to make a better living. In Chicago, Staples sang at local churches with his brother Rev. Chester Staples.
"I was a Christian man," Staples once said. "I figured blues wasn't the right field for me. My family was a real religious family. There were 14 of us. In the evening, when we used to get through working in the fields picking cotton, we didn't have no amusement but to sing to ourselves. We didn't have no radio, no television, nothing like that. That's the way my family got started singing. I took it from my father's family and brought it to Chicago with my own family. I knew how to get harmony and I taught each one. I'd hit the guitar string where they were supposed to sing and they caught on."
Staples assembled his kids and they made their first recording of "Sit Down Servant” for Chicago's United Records in 1953 and had a local radio show on WTAQ in the Wedgewood Tower. The record caught the attention of Chicago's Vee Jay Records, which signed them to a national recording contract. In 1956, they scoed one of the first gospel million-sellers with Staples' composition “Uncloudy Day,”" which has been recorded by scores of performers since. They scored further Southern quartet-styled hits with “Too Close,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and “This May Be the Last Time,” which was covered by the Rolling Stones. They recorded for the label through 1962, when they moved over to Riverside Records and then to Epic Records. There they recorded more folk-styled gospel and protest music such as Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth" which became their first pop hit.
After meeting Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham and seeing him speak, Staples told his family: “If he can preach this, we can sing it.” The Staple Singers moved to include protest songs in their gospel repertoire. While watching the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock on television, Staples was inspired to write their protest classic “Why Am I Treated So Bad.”
1968, the Staple Singers signed to Stax Records and released two albums with Steve Cropper and Booker T & the MG's — Soul Folk in Action and We'll Get Over. By 1970, Al Bell had become producer, and with Engineer Terry Manning, the family began recording at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and Memphis' Ardent Studios, moving in a more funk and soul direction.
The first Stax hit was “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom).” Their 1971 recording of "Respect Yourself,” written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, peaked at number 2 on the R&B charts and was a number 12 pop hit as well. The song's theme of self-empowerment had universal appeal, released in the period immediately following the intense American civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1972, the group had a huge No. 1 hit in the United States with "I'll Take You There". It topped both pop and R&B charts. "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" would become another big hit, reaching number 9 pop and number 1 on the R&B chart in 1973.
After Stax was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975, the Staple Singers, who had previously been criticized by the church community because of their success in the pop market, really caught the wrath of the church when they cut Curtis Mayfield's sensuous "Let's Do It Again" tune for a Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier movie of the same name. The double platinum single was the biggest selling single in the history of Warner Brothers Records up to that time. While at Warner Brothers, Staples helped jazz guitarist George Benson get a recording contract with the label.
As the disco movement took over in the late 1970s, the Staples recorded for Warner Brothers, Private I and 20th Century Fox with no major hits. There was a glimmer of a comeback when they released the dance track “Slippery People” in 1984. The song, a cover of a Talking Heads original, was a Top 20 R&B hit and a club smash. Their last album as a family was 1985's eponymous album that was a collaboration with the Talking Heads' David Byrne.
During the eighties and nineties, the group performed together while Mavis recorded solo for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and others. Pops Staples made two acclaimed solo cds for Virgin records' Pointblank label.
In 1992 the Staples received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation's Pioneer Award.
In 1994 Staples received his only Grammy award for his CD “Father Father” and he was honored along with Bill Cosby and Florence Henderson for being a positive parental role model at the National Parents' Day Awards at the U.S. Capitol. In 1999 the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Lauryn Hill. During his acceptance speech Staple received a standing ovation from celebrities such as Danny Devito, Eric Clapton and Natalie Cole when he thanked the Hall of Fame and said, “Always hold on to your dreams and whatever you do don't give up! See what I've done after all these years.” Pops died the following year from complications after a concussion. – Stax Museum and Bill Carpenter