I’ll Take You There, by Greg Kot—music critic at the Chicago Tribune and author of several books, including one on the band Wilco—charts the career of the Staple Singers.
This family group recorded gospel, soul and funk, impressing three of the century’s most important pop musicians along the way: Elvis, Dylan and Prince. While the Staples preached respect in their songs, they didn’t really get it from music’s mainstream, and they didn’t hold on to it for long after a brief spurt of interest in the ‘70s. Kot’s effort appears to be the first book about Pops Staples and his children.
Roebuck “Pops” Staples, born 1914 in Winona Mississippi, was a seventh son, and one of 14 children. His father worked as a sharecropper on a plantation. After a chance encounter with the famous bluesman Charley Patton—whom the critic Robert Palmer once called “an American Archetype”—Pops decided he had to learn the guitar.
Staples started playing plantation parties at 16. He also sang in the church choir. Purists often place blues and gospel in opposition, but Pops saw them as complements, with “more similarities than differences,” according to Kot. The elder Staple noted that, “A Christian should sing God’s praises, but there are some things that some people call a sin that I don’t see as such. Singing the blues is telling a story, and it’s telling a true story.”
This view would come under fire throughout his lifetime.
He moved to Chicago in 1936 with his family and started working at the Union Stock Yard. (Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Johnnie Taylor, all future stars, lived near the Staples family.) In Chicago, Pops and his kids sang in churches, and they brought something new to town.
“The Staple Singers had a different sound from any other group at the time,” says Leroy Crume, who played guitar for the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, where Cooke got his start. “When Pop came on the scene, he brought this little gadget you put on an amplifier…Pop was the first one to have that little contraption on this guitar. People use to call it ‘Pop Staples and his nervous guitar.’ That set him apart from everybody.”
Soon they drove out of Chicago most weekends to sing gospel around the country, and they began picking up famous fans. At a show in 1957, Elvis Presley approached Mavis. “He knew our music real well,” she remembers, “and he told me loved the way Pops played his guitar.” Duke Ellington also admired the group’s approach, noting that they play “gospel in a blues key.”
In the ‘60s, the Staple Singers started to move away from pure gospel, to the consternation of that community. They met Bob Dylan at the Gospel Music Festival in 1962, and he influenced their directional change. (Dylan became close with Pervis, and he also proposed marriage to Mavis.) As Pervis puts it, “We saw this was a whole different market we could be a part of.”
The Staples recorded several Dylan covers, and started to sing songs with explicitly political messages, performing regularly for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Kot notes that it took the group a while to develop this new side: they “didn’t pull off those ambitions right away.” Other gospel singers suggested they sold out. One critic accused the family of “Uncle Tomming for the flower children.”
Whatever they played, the Staples didn’t break into the mainstream until they signed a deal with Al Bell at Stax—a label that knew how to handle gospel’s power. The group actually recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, partly because of a crowded Stax schedule and partly because Bell believed that “at Muscle Shoals, there was no ego involved.” These sessions led to the Be Altitude: Respect Yourself album and the relentless funk of “I’ll Take You There,” which reached number one on the hot 100 for one week. Still, to cross over, the Staples had to leave something behind: Pops didn’t play much guitar on the Muscle Shoals recordings.
The family hit #1 once more with 1975’s “Let’s Do It Again,” written and produced by Curtis Mayfield. But like many singers based in soul and gospel—including Mayfield—they struggled to keep up with disco’s beat and the new electronic textures that infiltrated R&B. Stax’s mid-70s implosion didn’t help. Prince sought out Mavis and signed her to his Paisley Park label in the late ‘80s (she can also be heard on three songs from Prince’s Grafitti Bridge album), but even his Purple Majesty’s stamp of approval didn’t get her much attention.
Unfortunately, it often takes white tastemakers to help black artists get due recognition. This happened with Pops—he won a Grammy in the ‘90s for Father Father, an album produced by the guitarist Ry Cooder.
It also happened with Mavis, whose solo career recently revived when Jeff Tweedy of Wilco produced two of her albums. One True Vine came out in 2013. Another, You Are Not Alone, also won a Grammy.
Kot’s book convinces us these awards were long overdue.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.