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The Staple Singers

Biography

The Staple Singers
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

First as gospel singers and then as a soul-pop group, the Staples family has maintained a strong following and had several pop and soul hits, usually fronted by Mavis Staples' breathy vocals. The Staples family goes back to Mississippi, where as a young man Roebuck Staples played guitar and sang in local choirs. In the mid-'30s, he and his wife, Oceola, traveled up the Mississippi River to Chicago in search of work, like many of their contemporaries. The Staples had three daughters and a son, each of whom sang from an early age. They put together a family gospel act (which, until the mid-'60s, included all but the youngest daughter, Yvonne) and by the mid-'50s were considered one of the finest vocal groups in the field. The group made its first recording in the early '50s, for Pop Staples' own label, "These Are They" b/w "Faith and Grace," which they sold at concerts. In 1953 they recorded for United, and three years later for Vee-Jay, both Chicago labels, without success. In the early '60s the Staples made their first pop (secular) recordings for Epic, but had no commercial success, although 1967's "Why" snuck onto the lower reaches of the pop chart, and a version of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" also charted later that year. Everything changed after they signed to Stax in 1968. Their new material continued to reflect the Staples' commitment to making secular music with a message, but not until 1972's gold Bealtitude: Respect Yourself did they make the approach commercial. The Staples' first secular hit was "Heavy Makes You Happy" (Number 27 pop, Number Six R&B); and their next two hits, "Respect Yourself" (Number 12 pop, Number Two R&B) and "I'll Take You There" (Number One pop and R&B), went gold. "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" was a Number One R&B hit in 1973. The Staples had succeeded in meshing Memphis soul shuffles with their own messages, and might have continued to release crossover hits were it not for Stax's mid-'70s decline and eventual closing.

Curtis Mayfield's Curtom label was their next home, and in 1974 the Staples had a Number One pop and R&B hit with his "Let's Do It Again" and a Number Four hit with "New Orleans," both from the film Let's Do It Again. Mayfield also produced two of Mavis' solo albums. A couple of years later, at Warner Bros., the group changed their name to "the Staples" and released two R&B Top 20 singles: "Love Me, Love Me, Love Me" (Number 11 R&B, 1976) and "Unlock Your Mind" (Number 16 R&B, 1978). None of their singles charted again until 1984, when three, including a cover of Talking Heads' "Slippery People," appeared. Their last R&B Top 40 single was a 1985 version of "Are You Ready?" The group appeared in 1971's Soul to Soul, a documentary of a concert in Ghana, and in Wattstax (1973), and The Last Waltz (1978). In 1999 the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Mavis Staples also recorded solo, but without comparable success, in part because her own career was frequently suspended due to group obligations. In 1987 Prince signed her to his Paisley Park label, for whom she recorded Time Waits for No One, which he coproduced with Al Bell (who had worked with the Staples at Stax). She opened for Prince on the overseas leg of his 1990 tour and appeared on his Graffiti Bridge album. In addition, she has appeared on records by a range of artists, including Aretha Franklin (One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism), John Mayall, Ray Charles, Kenny Loggins, and Marty Stuart. Pops, who also released solo albums, appears on Mavis' The Voice. His 1994 release Father, Father won that year's Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. He died in 2000, after falling in his home and suffering a concussion; he was 85.

This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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