When Roebuck “Pops” Staples was growing up on a plantation in Mississippi, he wanted to be a blues guitarist. He learned his technique by listening to musicians like Barbecue Bob, Big Bill Broonzy, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Chester Burnett, eventually known as Howlin’ Wolf, used to play at the plantation owner’s general store. But when 18-year-old Roebuck found religion and got married, he poured everything he knew about blues into his new focus on gospel music and family. That amalgam of styles paved the way for the Staple Singers, a group that would shape soul music for decades.
In 1936, after their first two children were born, Roebuck and his wife Oceola headed for Chicago. Pops worked in the stockyards and played gospel on the weekends. Soon he was performing with his kids Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne, and Mavis. Although she was the youngest, little Mavis sang the bass part with her already earthy voice. She was soon promoted to lead vocals.
The Staples signed with Chicago-based United Records in 1954 and then switched to Vee Jay Records two years later. The 10-inch shellac singles they cut for Vee Jay were collected in 1959 on the LP An Uncloudy Day.
“Let Me Ride,” credited to Pops, is a good example of their unique melding of gospel singing and blues guitar.
In the 1960s the Staples recorded briefly for Riverside Records, a folk label, before stepping up to the higher-profile Epic, owned by Columbia Records. As Rob Bowman put it in the Staples’ official essay for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives (they were inducted in 1999), during this period they “single-handedly invented the genre known as soul-folk.” Or, to borrow a deft line from the Memphis Music Hall of Fame website, the Staple Singers “put the cross in ‘cross-over’.”
While latching onto the folk revival movement, the family also aligned themselves with the sociopolitical wave that powered it. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Staples fan; his favorite was Pops singing “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” The admiration was mutual, and the Staples proudly marched with King and gave voice to his fight for civil rights. In 1965 they wrote “Freedom Highway” as an anthem for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in defense of voting rights. The song came to symbolize the whole civil rights movement.
But before they had found their footing as social-justice warriors, the Staple Singers worked to combine folk and gospel, as on the 1962 album Hammer and Nails. It’s worth noting the contribution of two session musicians here, both of whom had established their careers by playing with top-echelon jazz artists: drummer Gus Johnson and bassist Leonard Gaskin.
On “Do You Know Him?” you’ll hear more of a folk or country influence on the rhythm, a move away from the predominantly blues core of their 1950s recordings. For lack of a better term, this rhythm is a bit more square.
Despite their new endeavors, the Staples did not abandon their gospel roots. On “The Old Landmark,” a track from Swing Low Sweet Chariot (1966), a significant difference from “Do You Know Him” is the lack of drums. Just using Pops’ guitar as accompaniment has the effect of freeing up the singers’ phrasing.
What the Staples really needed at this point was a label that would not only allow them to use their various styles but would actively encourage further musical exploration and development. They found that label – a home, really – in Memphis’ Stax Records, which they joined in 1968. If you associate the flowering of soul music with the early 1970s, the Staple Singers signing with Stax Records is a big reason why.
The label trumpeted the group’s new genre on the cover of their first release: Soul Folk in Action came out in 1968. On “The Ghetto,” the fingerpicking style comes from folk; the organ comes from gospel and jazz; the chord progression comes from blues. The orchestration with strings and hi-hat and snare brings it into the accessible pop vein, an important aspect of the birth of soul music.
A crucial change happened in the early 1970s, when the Staples’ albums started to be produced in Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals studios, taking advantage of their fantastic in-house session musicians, particularly the brass players. Al Bell was their producer during this period, and he is largely responsible for making the Staple Singers into superstars. Bell even brought in a touch of reggae, which helped turn “I’ll Take You There” into a chart-topper.
Mavis Staples called their Stax music “message songs,” a kind of soul with a pop vibe, and lyrics with an ethical core gleaned from both gospel and their civil rights days. The result was, apparently, just what the world was looking for. Songs like “Respect Yourself” were huge hits; Mack Rice and Luther Ingram wrote that one, but it was the Staples who delivered it to the masses.
Besides its hits, the 1972 album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself also included the lesser-known song “This Old Town (People in This Town).” It churns out a rhythmic rumble while imagining the peace and happiness of a town with no racial or other social problems.
While the Staples were at Stax, their other hits included “Oh La De Da,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me),” and “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend.” But the ride couldn’t last forever. Stax was forced into bankruptcy in 1975. Although it would be reconstituted as part of Fantasy Records within a couple of years, the Staples were left without a label.
They ended up on Curtis Mayfield’s label, Curtom Records. They had already worked with Mayfield on the soundtrack he composed for the 1975 movie Let’s Do It Again, starring Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. About half the tracks are instrumental only; “I Want to Thank You” features the Staples (which they soon took as their official name, dropping “Singers”):
For Unlock Your Mind in 1978 they moved to Warner Brothers. But the Staples continued to be stylistic chameleons, retaining the freewheeling style and funky bass they adopted from their time with Mayfield, combined with the horn section and the organ from the Stax years, and a new style of orchestration (notice the flutes especially) that reflects popular taste in the late 1970s.
You can hear all these elements on the title track.
In their long tenure as soul’s biggest innovators, the Staples never stopped trying new and surprising things. In 1984, near the end of their time together, they had a hit with their cover of a Talking Heads song, “Slippery People.”
By that time, Mavis Staples had a long-established solo career, which she’d started at Stax in the early 1970s, where she focused on secular music separate from her family’s gospel repertoire. In the 1990’s she signed with Prince’s label, Paisley Park, and continued making her own albums.
Mavis is now the only one left. Pops Staples died in 2000 at the age of 85; Cleotha died in 2013, Yvonne in 2018, and Pervis in 2021.
Happily, there are still some Staples treasures in the vault. In May of 2022, Anti-Epitaph released Carry Me Home, a live recording with Mavis Staples, Levon Helm, and a host of fine support players, recorded in 2011 at one of Helm’s so-called Midnight Rambles at his farm in Woodstock. Yvonne was in attendance, singing backup for her little sister. The brilliantly-produced album is a joy from start to finish. So, let’s end this Staples celebration with a joyful noise:
Header image of the Staple Singers from the Omnivore Recordings website.