Black and white promo photo of The Staple Singers
Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

The Staple Singers

1999
Category:
Performers
Members:
  • Roebuck Staples
  • Cleotha Staples
  • Mavis Staples
  • Pervis Staples
  • Yvonne Staples

The Staple Singers delivered music with a message.

The Staples’ evolved from gospel music to soulful pop, delivering hits in both genres. The family group’s music was a vehicle for social activism, positive change and love.

Biography

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The Staple Singers have been called “God’s greatest hitmakers.”

Steeped in the music of the church, this singing family from Mississippi crossed into the pop mainstream without compromising their gospel roots. Fronted by patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the Staple Singers have left an imprint of soulful voices, social activism, religious conviction and danceable “message music” across the decades since the release of “Uncloudy Day” in 1956. The clan’s musical signatures have been Pops Staples’ gospel-based songwriting and bluesy guitar, Mavis Staples’ rich, raspy vocals and the supple, ringing harmonies of Cleotha and Yvonne Staples. All three women are the daughters of Pops and Oceola Staples. Until 1969, son Pervis also belonged to the group, which was configured as a quartet for more than half a century, with Pops and Mavis joined by Cleotha, Yvonne and/or Pervis.

By force of conviction and the rollicking rhythm & blues underpinnings of their music, the gospel-based Staples cracked the Top 40 eight times from 1971 to 1975. Two singles reached Number One: the funky, inspirational “I’ll Take You There,” which was the highlight of their tenure on Stax Records, and “Let’s Do It Again,” a film-soundtrack song recorded for Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. Beyond these watermarks, the Staple Singers have enjoyed a lengthy history that dates back to the late Forties.

Pops Staples was born in 1915 in Winona, Mississippi. He took up guitar at an early age and soon became very adept at playing the blues. By 1937 he was playing with the Golden Trumpets, a spiritual group based in Mississippi. In 1941 he and his wife, Oceola, moved north to Chicago. There Pops played in another group, the Trumpet Jubilees. Then, after having three daughters and a son, the Staples formed a family gospel group and began singing in churches around the upper Midwest. They became regulars on a Sunday radio show and cut their first single, "These Are They"/"Faith and Grace," for Pops’ label Royal Records in 1953.

Another record for a local label ("Won’t You Sit Down,” on United) led to a contract with the Chicago-based Vee-Jay Records. The Staple Singers stayed at Vee-Jay from 1956 to 1962, a tenure that included their breakthrough single, “Uncloudy Day.”

Moving to the New York-based Riverside label, the Staple Singers adopted a more folk-oriented sound, recording contemporary, message-oriented songs by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Their late-Sixties tenure on Epic Records found them moving further in this direction, as the Staples recorded protest songs (Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth") and inspirational material ("Marching Up Jesus’ Highway") in a folk-gospel style.

In 1968 the Staple Singers signed with the Memphis-based Stax label. Their first two albums for Stax, Soul Folk in Action (1968) and We’ll Get Over (1970), were produced by Steve Cropper and featured Booker T. and the MG’s as the back-up band. Those albums featured such “message” songs as “Long Walk to D.C.” and “When Will We Be Paid.” Then in 1970 Pervis Staples left the group, and he was replaced by his sister Yvonne. More significantly, Al Bell became the group’s producer, and the Staple Singers’ message-oriented material moved to a funkier setting.

The Staple Singers’ run of Top 40 hits began in 1971 with “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom).” That song reached Number Twenty-Seven on the pop chart and Number Six on the R&B chart. The group’s next two singles for Stax—“Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”—both went gold. “Respect Yourself” reached Number Twelve on the pop chart and Number Two on the R&B chart. A new height was reached when “I’ll Take You There” topped both the pop and R&B charts. In regards to their crossover from pure gospel to folk and soul-flavored material—a source of controversy within the religious community—Pops Staples explained to Essence magazine: “We’ve always tried to make affirmative, happy music that makes a positive point. Our aim is to get across a message while we’re entertaining people.” Overall, the group scored twelve hits while at Stax.

After the demise of Stax, the Staples moved to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1974. The label change resulted in the Staple Singers’ second Number One hit, “Let’s Do It Again,” a disco-era favorite. Another single, “New Orleans,” reached Number Twelve on the R&B chart. Both songs were from the film Let’s Do It Again (1975).

Moving on to Warner Bros., where they remained till the end of the decade, the group shortened its name to the Staples. (As a side note, guitarist George Benson—who played in the Staples’ band—launched a successful solo career with Pops Staples’ help at Warner Bros.) While at Warner Bros., the group scored two R&B hits, 1976’s “Love Me, Love Me, Love Me” and 1978’s “Unlock Your Mind.” In 1976 the Staples also collaborated with the Band, performing “The Weight” in The Last Waltz (1978). The Staples’ final hit came in 1984, when they covered the Talking Heads’ song “Slippery People.” 

At Stax, Mavis and Pops Staples had recorded solo albums, and they continued to do so for Warner Bros. and other labels. In 1987 Prince signed Mavis Staples to his Paisley Park label and produced, played on and wrote much of the material for two memorable solo discs, Time Waits for No One (1989) and The Voice (1993). In 1994 Pops Staples’ Father Father won a Grammy for the Best Contemporary Blues Album.

More recently, Mavis has been collaborating with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. He produced her 2010 solo album, You Are Not Alone. That album won a Grammy in 2011 for Best Americana Album. It was Mavis’ first Grammy award. Tweedy also produced her 2013 album, One True Vine. Mavis has also received honorary doctorates from the Berklee College of Music and from Columbia College in Chicago.

Pops Staples died in 2000 as a result of a concussion, and Cleotha Staples died in 2013 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for about a decade.

The Staple Singers received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2005.

Inductees: Cleotha Staples (vocals; born April 11, 1934, died February 21, 2013), Mavis Staples (vocals; born July 10, 1939), Pervis Staples (vocals; born November 6, 1935), Roebuck "Pops" Staples (vocals, guitar; born December 28, 1914, died December 19, 2000); Yvonne Staples (vocals; born October 23, 1938, died April 10, 2018)

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"Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There" performance 1999

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The Staple Singers' Gospel Crossover Success

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