When Mavis Staples was a skinny little 8-year-old visiting her God-fearing grandmother in Mississippi, she sang the blues classic Since I Fell for You in a school talent show, to a round of applause. When she got home, she recounts, "Grandma says, 'Oh, you singin' the blues, huh? You go out there and get me some switches.' "
Mavis got a whipping that day for singing sinful music, but the same year, 1948, her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, sat her and her three older siblings down in their Chicago living room. "Pops hunched over his $7 guitar and plucked a series of notes, assigning one to each of his children." Those notes would become the foundation of their career as the "first family of gospel music," and more.
Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot tells the story of the Staples family in I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom's Highway. It's a lively, engaging family biography, written with the Stapleses' cooperation and filled with vivid portraits, celebrity cameos and descriptions of music so evocative I kept wishing the book had come with a set of CDs.
Mavis, the fourth of five Staples children and now 74, is the book's focal point but, even though she has seen the most success as a solo artist, her personal and professional life has always been intertwined with those of the rest of the family.
In many ways theirs is a classic American story. Roebuck Staples was born in 1914 in a tiny town in Mississippi, grandson of a slave and 13th of 14 children of sharecroppers. He was working the farm from early childhood, singing sacred music in churches and at home — and learning to play blues guitar well enough to make a princely $5 a night entertaining at parties (although he kept his own sinful music secret from his strict father). At 18, Pops married 16-year-old Oceola Ware. Within a couple of years, daughter Cleotha and son Pervis were born, and by 1936, Pops saved up the $12 bus fare to Chicago and became part of the historic Great Migration of Southern blacks to other parts of the nation.
Daughters Yvonne, Mavis and Cynthia were born there, after Pops made enough money working in slaughterhouses to bring Oceola and the other kids north. The children grew up in the "Dirty Thirties" of Chicago's South Side, where they went to school with Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls, and Mahalia Jackson, one of Mavis' mentors, lived right around the corner.
From that musical hotbed of a neighborhood, the Staple Singers emerged, with "pocket-size dynamo" Mavis front and center. Her strong, deep contralto voice, inherited from her mother and maternal grandmother, stunned listeners when they heard it coming from the child's mouth. (After the group's records became popular, one man berated her after a concert because he'd lost a bet that she was a grown man, not a girl.)
They started out singing in local churches, but by the time Mavis graduated from high school they were on the road full time, making records and performing around the country. For a long time, Pops insisted they avoid all secular music. But their fame soon expanded beyond the gospel circuit — by the early 1960s, their avid fans included such luminaries as Bob Dylan, whom they got to know when they performed at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Indeed, Dylan wanted to marry Mavis, and she tells Kot that Dylan was her "first love, and it was the one I lost."
Gradually, more secular forms of music would make their way into the Staple Singers' repertoire. But their first move away from strictly traditional gospel was toward the political, as the family was deeply affected by the civil rights movement. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders and other activists, black musicians of many genres were writing and performing music that supported the movement, from Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come and Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready to Charles Mingus' Fables of Faubus. Pops Staples wrote Freedom Highway after watching TV coverage of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, Why? (Am I Treated So Bad) as an "ode to the Little Rock Nine."
And, as many other gospel groups did, the Staple Singers served as an opening act for King at many of his appearances. As Pops said, "If he can preach it, we can sing it." Kot quotes a Newsweek article from 1964: "History has never known a protest movement so rich in song as the civil rights movement. … Nor a movement in which songs are as important."
The Staple Singers broke barriers with their music, earning gold and platinum records in the 1960s and '70s for hits that crossed racial lines and influencing countless other musicians. The influence flowed both ways as the Staple Singers expanded their style — the Rolling Stones cadged their arrangement of the gospel standard This May Be the Last Time, the Staple Singers recorded Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth and the Band's The Weight. (Members of the Band were thrilled — they had based many of their harmonies on the Stapleses' singing style — and the two groups performed the song together in the 1978 documentary The Last Waltz.) The family shared bills with rock stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Traffic and Janis Joplin. In 1969, working with the legendary Steve Cropper at Stax Records, Mavis made her first, mostly secular solo album — complete with Since I Fell for You.
Kot chronicles the family's long careers: They made a country album with Marty Stuart and were sampled by rappers Ice Cube and Salt-N-Pepa, they won their first Grammy in 1995 for Father, Father, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
Pervis left the group amicably in 1969. Pops died in 2000, and Cleotha suffered from Alzheimer's disease for years before dying in 2013. But Mavis, managed by Yvonne, sings on. In 2010 she brought down the house at Lollapalooza, and in 2011 she won her own Grammy for her album You Are Not Alone, produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a longtime fan.
"I feel the Lord has kept me around for this reason," she said in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "I was here the first time around and now I'm still here, and it's still not fixed. … We can't let Dr. King have shed his blood and died for us trying to get our justice. We can't allow that."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.