The Staple Singers
|Origin||Chicago, Illinois, United States|
|Past members||Roebuck "Pops" Staples|
The Staple Singers were an American gospel, soul, and R&B singing group. Roebuck "Pops" Staples (December 28, 1914 – December 19, 2000), the patriarch of the family, formed the group with his children Cleotha (April 11, 1934 – February 21, 2013), Pervis (November 18, 1935 – May 6, 2021), and Mavis (b. 1939). Yvonne (October 23, 1937 – April 10, 2018) replaced her brother when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and again in 1970. They are best known for their 1970s hits "Respect Yourself", "I'll Take You There", "If You're Ready (Come Go with Me)", and "Let's Do It Again". While the family name is Staples, the group used "Staple" commercially.
First child to Roebuck "Pops" Staples and his wife Oceola Staples, Cleotha was born in Drew, Mississippi, in 1934. Two years later, Roebuck moved his family from Mississippi to Chicago. Roebuck and Oceola's children, son Pervis and daughters, Mavis and Yvonne, were born in Chicago. Roebuck worked in steel mills and meatpacking plants while his family of four children grew up. The family began appearing in Chicago-area churches in 1948. Their first public singing appearance was at the Mount Zion Church, Chicago, where Roebuck's brother, the Rev. Chester Staples, was pastor.
They signed their first professional contract in 1952. During their early career, they recorded in an acoustic gospel-folk style with various labels: United Records, Vee-Jay Records (their "Uncloudy Day" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" were best sellers), Checker Records, Riverside Records, and then Epic Records in 1965. "Uncloudy Day" was an early influence on Bob Dylan, who said of it in 2015, "It was the most mysterious thing I'd ever heard... I'd think about them even at my school desk...Mavis looked to be about the same age as me in her picture (on the cover of "Uncloudy Day")...Her singing just knocked me out...And Mavis was a great singer—deep and mysterious. And even at the young age, I felt that life itself was a mystery."
The Staples' move to Epic had a run of albums, including the live in-church Freedom Highway album produced by Billy Sherrill; the title track of which was a civil rights movement protest song penned by Pops Staples. It was on Epic that the Staple Singers developed a style more accessible to mainstream audiences, with "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)" and "For What It's Worth" (Stephen Stills) in 1967. In 1968, the Staple Singers signed to Stax Records and released two albums with Steve Cropper—Soul Folk in Action and We'll Get Over, Pervis returning for them. After Cropper left Stax, Al Bell produced their recordings, conducting the rhythm sessions at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and cutting the overdubs himself with engineer/musician Terry Manning at Memphis's Ardent Studios, moving in a more funk and soul direction.
"For most of this decade, Roebuck Staples—born December 28, 1914, about One Year & two weeks after Frank Sinatra—has been the oldest performer with direct access to the hit parade by some twenty-five years, so here's your chance to mind your elders. It's Mavis's lowdown, occasionally undefined growl that dominates, of course; you should hear how secular she gets with an O.V. Wright blues that got buried on The Staple Swingers. But Pops's unassuming moralism sets the tone and his guitar assures the flow."
—The Best of the Staples Singers review in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981)
The Staple Singers' first Stax hit was "Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)" in early 1971. Their late 1971 recording of "Respect Yourself", written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, peaked at number two on the Billboard R&B chart and number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Both hits sold over one million copies and were each awarded a gold disc by the Recording Industry Association of America. 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, "I'll Take You There" topped both Billboard charts. In 1973, "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" reached number 9 on the Hot 100 and number one on the R&B chart.
After Stax's 1975 bankruptcy, The Staple Singers signed to Curtis Mayfield's label, Curtom Records, and released "Let's Do It Again", produced by Mayfield; the song became their second number-one pop hit in the U.S., and the album was also successful. In 1976, they collaborated with The Band for their film The Last Waltz, performing on the song "The Weight" (which The Staple Singers had previously covered on their first Stax album). However, they were not able to regain their momentum, releasing only occasional minor hits. The 1984 album Turning Point featured a cover of the Talking Heads' "Slippery People", which reached the Top 5 on the Dance chart. In 1994, they again performed the song "The Weight" with country music artist Marty Stuart for MCA Nashville's Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation, somewhat re-establishing an audience. The song "Respect Yourself" was used by Spike Lee in the soundtrack to his movie Crooklyn, made in 1994.
Pops Staples died of complications from a concussion suffered in December 2000. Cleotha Staples died in Chicago on February 21, 2013, at the age of 78, after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for over a decade. Mavis Staples has continued to carry on the family tradition and continues to add her vocal talents to both the projects of other artists and her own solo ventures. She appeared at Glastonbury in 2015 and 2019, and her 2016 album Livin' on a High Note includes a simple acoustic version of a Martin Luther King sermon in the track "MLK Song". Yvonne Staples died on April 10, 2018, at the age of 80. Pervis Staples died suddenly in his home in Dolton, Illinois, on May 6, 2021, at the age of 85.
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.
The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2018. They were also honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Drew, Mississippi. In 2005, the group was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
|Year||Title||Peak chart positions||Record label|
|1971||The Staple Swingers||117||9||—||Stax|
|1972||Be Altitude: Respect Yourself||19||3||72|
|1973||Be What You Are||102||13||—|
|1974||City in the Sky||125||13||—|
|1975||Let's Do It Again||20||1||87||Curtom|
|1976||Pass It On||155||20||—||Warner Bros.|
|1978||Unlock Your Mind||—||34||—|
|1984||Turning Point||—||43||—||Private I|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart or were not released.|
|Year||Title||Peak chart positions|
|1967||"Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)"||95||—||—||—||—|
|"For What It's Worth"||66||—||—||—||—|
|1970||"Love Is Plentiful"||—||31||—||—||—|
|1971||"Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)"||27||6||—||60||—|
|"You've Got to Earn It"||97||11||—||—||—|
|1972||"I'll Take You There"||1||1||—||21||20|
|1973||"Oh La De Da"||33||4||—||—||—|
|"Be What You Are"||66||18||—||—||—|
|"If You're Ready (Come Go with Me)"||9||1||—||79||34|
|1974||"Touch a Hand, Make a Friend"||23||3||—||33||—|
|"City in the Sky"||79||4||—||—||—|
|"My Main Man"||76||18||—||—||—|
|1975||"Let's Do It Again"||1||1||97||7||—|
|"Love Me, Love Me, Love Me"||—||11||—||—||—|
|1977||"Sweeter Than the Sweet"||—||52||—||—||—|
|"See a Little Further (Than My Bed)"||—||77||—||—||—|
|1978||"I Honestly Love You"||—||68||—||—||—|
|"Unlock Your Mind"||—||16||—||—||—|
|1984||"H-A-T-E (Don't Live Here Anymore)"||—||46||—||—||—|
|"This Is Our Night"||—||50||—||—||—|
|1985||"Are You Ready?"||—||39||—||—||—|
|"Nobody Can Make It on Their Own"||—||89||—||—||—|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart or were not released.|