In the spring of 1972, The Staple Singers were at the top of the charts and Mavis Staples’ rough-edged, deeply soulful voice was everywhere. The gospel-tinged “I’ll Take You There” hit number one just as school was letting out, and the joy of its playfully funky groove filled the warm, summery air with hope and optimism.
Though much of the pop music world had only discovered the Staple Singers a few months earlier when “Respect Yourself” flirted with the Top Ten (“If you don’t respect yourself, ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot”), the family had been singing together since the mid-1940s, when Mavis was just a little girl and her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, was playing gospel music in Chicago.
“I was about seven years old,” she told me recently. “Pops was singing with an all-male group. My mother worked nights, and Pops worked days, so he had to keep us at night. He would go to rehearsal with this group, the Trumpet Jubilees, and Aunt Katie would keep us. He’d come in and be disgusted that these guys wouldn’t show up for rehearsal. So about the third time he did that, he went straight to the closet and got this little guitar, called all of us into the living room---there were four of us; I was the baby---And he set us on the floor in a circle, and he began to give us parts to sing that he and his brothers and sisters used to sing down in Mississippi.
“That’s where our sound comes from. We had that delta twang.”
Though Pops died five years ago, Mavis Staples is still carrying on the family business, and still has the voice that moved millions back in the day. She’ll bring that voice and that sound to the American Theatre Friday night. It’s a voice first put on public display in the churches of her hometown:
“One night, Aunt Katie said, ‘You know, y’all sound pretty good. I believe I want y’all to sing at my church.’ We’d just been singing more or less to amuse ourselves; we weren’t singing for a career. We caught the streetcar that Sunday and went to Aunt Katue’s church. We sang this song and people clapped us back three times! We had to sing the same song three times ‘cause it was the only one that Pops had taught us all the way through.
“We learned some more songs and were singing around Chicago in these churches. VeeJay records heard us and offered Pops a contract. When we recorded our first record for them, I was fourteen. I was singing bass, and this particular song was ‘Uncloudy Day.’ We would get letters from everywhere to come and sing. And people would bet that I was not a little girl, my voice was so heavy. The kids would say, ‘you sound like a boy,’ and I’d get into a fight about it.
“We’d get to town, and we’d sing the song all the way down in harmony. Then my part would come and we would fool with the people. My brother would step up to the microphone like he was gonna sing it. But I was easin’ in to the microphone, and I started singing. And man, the places would just go wild!
“I was in high school and we were traveling. We’d sing on Sundays and drive to these places---New Orleans, Memphis. It got so I was missing every Monday in school. So Pops would tell my teachers to give me homework to take on the road with me. And I’d make it back to school every Tuesday with my homework.”
When Mavis graduated in 1957, her father quit his day job as a construction worker and the family singing group became a full-time gig. As the civil rights movement took off, the Staple Singers became an important component of the movement’s soundtrack.
“We went to Dr. King’s church one Sunday morning when we were in Montgomery,” she recalled. “After we heard his message and we got back to the hotel, Pops was so enthused with Dr. King, he said, ‘I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.’ So we began to write freedom songs, protest songs. ‘March Up Freedom’s Highway’ was the first one we wrote, for the march from Selma to Montgomery. After that was ‘it’s a long walk to DC, but I got my walking shoes on.’ We had one that was Dr. King’s favorite: ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad).’”
But it would be the “message songs” of the early ‘70s that would take the Staple Singers to a new level of popularity, earn them a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and gain them a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2005.
“We felt like the world was coming together,” she said, “things were getting better, all of the ‘colored’ signs were coming down, we could stay in hotels in the south. We made another transition and began to sing what we called ‘message songs,’ like ‘Respect Yourself,’ ‘I’ll Take You There,’ ‘Reach Out Touch a Hand, Make a Friend if You Can.’ That was when Pops said, if we get a rhythm section, those kids will hear that beat and they might hear what we’re saying.
“But when ‘I’ll Take You There’ hit, all of the church people went crazy. They wanted to put us out of church. They said the Staple Singers are singing the devil’s music!”
It was the same thing other gospel singers who crossed over to pop had heard before. Both Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls were former gospel singers who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Staples family, and both became popstars to the chagrin of some of their gospel fans.
“We all went to the same grammar school,” she remembered. “We lived on 33rd Street; we called it ‘the dirty thirty.’ My sister Cleedie used to sit behind Lou Rawls, because they would go in alphabetical order, R and then S.
“I remember when Sam sang his last gospel song down in Memphis, Tennessee. It was packed. And these little old ladies back then just wasn’t gonna have it. They said, ‘you get off the stage!’ And I saw Sam throw his hands up and walk off the stage. That was it.”
Listening to her superb CD from 2004, Have a Little Faith, it’s obvious that Mavis Staples has never really forsaken her gospel roots. It’s also clear that she hasn’t lost any of that magnificent voice. Friday night she’ll draw from the many phases of her career.
“I have the Staple Singers’ old band,” she said. “These guys have been playing with us over the years. I recently named them the ‘Staple Swingers.’ My sister Yvonne is singing background.”
It promises to be a memorable evening of old-school soul sung by one of the true greats.
copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.