Culture
1:00 pm
Sun January 19, 2014

'I'll Take You There': The Staple Singers' Rise From Church To Fame

Originally published on Sat January 18, 2014 5:36 pm

Today, the voices of Roebuck "Pops" Staples and his four children — Cleotha, Mavis, Pervis and Yvonne — are woven into America's DNA. As the Staple Singers, the family created a sound that was part blues, part gospel and part folk, breaking down musical walls and inspiring civil rights leaders.

Biographer Greg Kot wrote about the Staples family in his new book, I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom's Highway. He says that unique sound began with Pops Staples and the musical apprenticeship he dreamed up for his offspring.

"He had a cheap guitar — it only had four strings, it was like a secondhand, pawn shop guitar. But it was enough strings so that he could play a note and give each child their particular harmony part," Kot says. "There's something about being around people all your life, growing up with them, hearing them talk, hearing them sing off-key, hearing them yell at you. You know instantaneously where the phrase is going to drop, where the syllable is going to be, how certain words are going to be pronounced. You cannot replace that. And those harmonies lasted a lifetime."

But, Kot says, the success of the Staple Singers had as much to do with their differences as their similarities — especially when it came to taste.

"You have to understand, in this group you had several generations blending," he says. "Pops was a traditionalist, no doubt about it; he was a very staunch gospel man. But he was an open-minded guy, and part of it was, his children were listening to everything."

That open-mindedness would lead to relationships with Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan and many more. Kot spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about the family's journey from Chicago churches to the canon of American song, and about Mavis Staples' continued presence and relevance today. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN SCORNED")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) I've been buked, Lord, and I've been scorned. And I've been scorned.

RATH: The unmistakable voices of Roebuck "Pops" Staples and his four children - Cleotha, Mavis, Pervis and Yvonne. They were The Staple Singers, a group whose sound - mixing gospel, blues and soul - broke down musical walls and inspired civil rights leaders.

Greg Kot is the host of the public radio show "Sound Opinions," and he's written a new book about The Staples family and their music. It's called "I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom's Highway." He says the roots of The Staple Singers go back to Pops, born and raised amid the music of a Mississippi plantation.

GREG KOT: First of all, you take it back to Mississippi where Pops grew up. Pops Staples, Roebuck "Pops" Staples. So he had an apprenticeship, as it were, in blues and gospel music on Dockery Farm in Mississippi. You know, he carried on that tradition with his own children in Chicago.

And he had, like, a cheap guitar. It only had four strings on them. It was like a second-hand pawnshop guitar. But there was enough string so that he could play a note and give each child their particular harmony part. And those were the harmony parts that stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

RATH: It wasn't like we'd form a quartet, we want a tenor, you want a soprano. It's - these are the voices we have in the family, and that's the sound.

KOT: Yeah. There's something about being around people all your life - growing up with them, hearing them talk, hearing them just sing off-key, hearing them yell at you - you know instantaneously where the phrase is going to drop, where the syllable is going to be, where - how words - certain words are going to be pronounced. Being around each other, you cannot replace that. And those harmonies lasted with them a lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCLOUDY DAY")

SINGERS: (Singing) I got a home. I got a home beyond the sky. Well, well...

RATH: Let's talk about "Uncloudy Day," which is probably their - kind of their breakthrough, right?

KOT: Yeah. "Uncloudy Day" was the song that put them on the national map. They had already become sort of regional favorites at that point, but this was the one that made them a national phenomenon. And it was an old song. It was - it's a song that had been around since the 19th century. It was familiar to any African-American who had attended a church service by that point. I mean, it was so steeped in the vernacular, but nobody did it quite like The Staple Singers did it. It had sort of this almost ancient vibe about it, and it created a sort of wave of nostalgia: people feeling very nostalgic about where they had come from. And I think that was one of the reasons it became one of the biggest gospel songs ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCLOUDY DAY")

SINGERS: (Singing) Well, oh, they tell me of an unclouded day.

RATH: You write about how they ended up making that transition to really become an every man's group and have crossover with white audiences. And can you explain that, how they were embraced by this folk movement?

KOT: You have to understand, in this group, you had several generations going - blending. You know, Pops was a traditionalist, no doubt about it. He was a very staunch gospel man. But his sensibility, he was an open-minded guy. And part of it was his children were listening to everything.

You know, Pervis Staples was doing "Battle of the Bands" with Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls on Sunday afternoons, so there was a lot of influences sort of filtering in through the music. And I think Pervis, especially, was very much about, you know, pushing forward. He was an early friend of Bob Dylan, saying, you know, we've got to check this guy out. We should be singing some of this stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD RAIN")

SINGERS: (Singing) And it's a hard, and it's a hard. And it's a hard, it's a hard. Gonna fall.

KOT: And Pops being open-minded enough to start incorporating them into the group's own music, because I think he saw it as a way of, you know, we are not discriminatory in who we sing for or who appreciates our music. We want to be heard by as many people as possible. And he wanted to send out an empowering message to those people.

RATH: And that empowering message became really wrapped up along with the civil rights movement.

KOT: Yes. They were close friends with Martin Luther King Junior. Pops and Martin Luther King were friends. They were mutual admirers. He would say, Stap, when are you going to play my song? Hope you're going to play my song tonight. You know, he loved "Why Am I Treated So Bad?," a Staple Singers' classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY AM I TREATED SO BAD?")

SINGERS: (Singing) I'm going to walk out in the master's name. Things I do, they seem to be in vain.

KOT: And The Staple Singers were King's ambassadors in Chicago when he brought the movement north. He said, you know, you've got to come sing so that I can get this guy, Jesse Jackson, involved in the campaign for civil rights in Chicago. And, really, they were intimately tied with the civil rights movement throughout the '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY AM I TREATED SO BAD?")

SINGERS: (Singing) Woo. Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh. Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh. Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh...

RATH: And, you know, it was not too much longer after that - just later in the '60s - where it seemed for a brief time that time had kind of passed by The Staple Singers, like they had maybe kind of - that they had peaked. And then they have this - I don't know if it's a third act or a fourth act when a band has been around - the group has been around that long - but how did the Stax Records revitalization happen?

KOT: Al Bell, the president of Stax Records, had the group, instead of recording in Memphis with the Booker T. & the M.G.s rhythm section, had them try something in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Once The Staples hooked up with The Swampers in Muscles Shoals, something clicked.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL TAKE YOU THERE")

KOT: A great example would be, you know, "I'll Take You There."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL TAKE YOU THERE")

SINGERS: (Singing) I'll take you there. Ain't nobody crying. I'll take you there. No. Ain't nobody worrying. I'll take you there. Ain't no smiling faces. I'll take you there. Uh-huh.

KOT: It's almost a cliche. Everybody has heard that song countless of times, but they said - the guys in Muscle Shoals told me - that song basically had five lines of lyrics in it. And the rest was completely improvised on the floor of the studio.

RATH: Wow.

KOT: So that was Mavis Staples interacting in real-time with that rhythm section. That was the kind of bond these people had. And every one of them, they said to this day, the single greatest performance we have ever witnessed was Mavis Staples singing with us on that particular track. In gospel, you respond to the moment. You're in the moment. You have the Holy Ghost moment. The spirit walks into the room, and it changes you, everything. And that's what Mavis felt that day on the floor at Muscle Shoals, and it's really a transcendent piece of music.

RATH: It's so unique, it's so its own thing and its own sound the way you're talking about it. And you said that, you know, it's something that almost can't be duplicated. So how would you discuss the legacy, the influence of that sound?

KOT: Well, I think the key thing here to me is that Mavis Staples is one of the great performers of our time. Her investment in everything she sings is total. And that's apparent from the first note to the last. There's no phoning it in with Mavis Staples. You hear a song like "Uncloudy Day" or hear a song like "Respect Yourself," I mean, there is no doubt this person is in the moment. She believes, and that makes you believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT YOURSELF")

SINGERS: (Singing) If you're walking 'round thinking that the world owes you something 'cause you're here. You going out the world...

RATH: That's Greg Kot. He's the author of "I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom's Highway." He joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Greg, thank you.

KOT: My pleasure, Arun. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT YOURSELF")

SINGERS: (Singing) Put your hand on your mouth when you cough...

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Tomorrow, we'll look at a group working to establish a human settlement on Mars. Believe it or not, there's no shortage of applicants for those one-way tickets. That's tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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