The Staple Singers were truly a family. Originally composed of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples – “our name is Staples but we dropped the final “s” because it was a little bit of a mouthful” – and his son, Pervis, and daughters, Cleotha and Mavis, their only change has been to draft in another sister, Yvonne, when Pervis left to form his own management company in Chicago, where he controlled the career of Volt’s successful girl trio, The Emotions.
The Staple Singers’ reputation as gospel heavyweights was sealed well before they joined Stax in 1968, but it was the album Be Altitude (1972) that broke the family into the charts.
Pops Staples was born in Winona, Mississippi, on 28 December 1915. As a boy, Roebuck was always singing.
In those days, he would know each and every Blues song of the time and, along with his battered guitar, would perform them all at local dance parties. Pops would always be the solo singer in his local church and his natural ambition was to fuse his musical interest with his love for his God.
This he succeeded in doing in 1931 when he joined the local spiritual group, The Golden Trumpet. Two years later, Roebuck married his wife, Oceola, and two years later, they moved north to Chicago during the depression.
On arriving in the windy city, Pops combined his job – “any job I could get in those hard days” – with his musical and religious loves and he sang for two years with The Trumpet Jubilees.
Whilst still living in Drew, Mississippi, the Staples had two children, Cleotha and Pervis. “Those first years in Chicago were hard,” relates Pops. “We had the two children and it was hard to make a living. I’d work as much as I could but I never gave up my beliefs and I always prayed and sang and played my guitar.”
Yvonne was born in 1939 with Mavis one year after and it was then that The Staple Singers were really born. They’d sing around the house with Pops supplying musical backing via his guitar.
In his mind, he knew what he wanted and he kept it firmly in his head whilst he worked – whether it be in the stockyard or the car wash, the construction pit or the steelyard, some of the many jobs that Pops turned his hand to.
It was in 1951 that the idea really began to come to life. The family sang at their local Baptist church and the response was so encouraging that they received a standing ovation and this set Pops to thinking about doing this type of thing more often.
In 1955, the family first recorded. It was for the local Chicago company, United Records and the record in question was Sit Down Servant. However, they moved almost immediately across the city to the more active Vee Jay label, where they first achieved chart recognition, with Cloudy Day.
They stayed with Vee Jay for four years, moving to Riverside in 1960 and then on to Epic in 1961. Their stay with Epic was the most significant to date since it brought them into a completely different bracket as entertainers. No longer were they singing to a small community within their country, they were now singing their message to everybody.
The lyric line of Roebuck’s songs started to wander slightly from the conventional path of gospel music and, although the message was one of goodwill to all men at all times, he became aware of the broadening of his own horizons.
It was in this era that he penned Why Am I Treated So Bad, later a hit for Cannonball Adderley and the Sweet Inspirations.
It was also during this period that The Staple Singers began to record other writers material – notably their first real taste of success, which came via Stephen Stills‘ For What It’s Worth, which was produced by Larry Williams.
It was also the time that Mavis began to come into prominence as lead voice with Pops concentrating more on the musical side of things and his first love, songwriting. After seven very happy years, the Staples signed with Stax Records.
Despite making some great recordings with Steve Cropper – notably the classic Long Walk to DC – success on record didn’t come. Two albums were made and released and whilst sales were healthy, they didn’t do all that they knew they were capable of.
Pervis left the touring group to stay home and concentrate on his own management company and Yvonne came into the quartet on a regular basis. At the same time, Al Bell decided to take over production and things started to liven up, culminating in a Gold Disc award for Respect Yourself.
One of the Staples’ high spots in ’71 was their visit to Africa for the Soul To Soul all-night concert, held in Ghana to celebrate their fourteenth year of independence.
“It was promoted really by Atlantic Records and was something of a ‘Woodstock‘. It was my first time in Africa and I was really happy to be going there. From the minute I landed there I felt at home, at ease. It’s so good to be able to meet your own people and they made us all feel so welcome. At home, I’ve always woken up in the morning at 4 a.m. and got up and spent the early hours doing nothing at all but during the stay there I stayed asleep till 10 a.m. I think that the lack of violence was the thing that hit me most. The people there didn’t really know our music beforehand although Wilson Pickett, who headlined the show, was as well known and had had a lot of successful records.” That was how Pops related his impressions of Soul To Soul.
During their stay with Stax, the Staples recorded as separate entities as well as together. Pops, for example, recorded an album of guitar and vocals with Steve Cropper and Albert King as well as cutting some solo sides, one of which was released under the name of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples – Black Boy and Donny Hathaway’s Tryin’ Times, with Pops producing himself.
Mavis was extremely successful as a solo artist with two albums making the R&B albums chart in the States and being accepted as Soul classics. Steve Cropper produced the first album with Don Davis producing the second, Only For The Lonely, at Muscle Shoals.
Her success was further substantiated within the singles market via I Have Learned To Do Without You, Since I Fell For You and A House Is Not A Home.
Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples