Yvonne Staples, a longtime member of the Staple Singers who enjoyed a series of funky gospel-inflected hits in the 1970s, died on Tuesday at age 80. The cause of death was colon cancer, according to The New York Times.
Staples was born in 1937 in Chicago to Oceola and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. She sang in church as a child along with her siblings. “Pops” Staples initially formed the family band with Cleotha, Pervis and Mavis in 1948, and they began recording in 1953.
Yvonne stepped in for Pervis to sing baritone when he was drafted for the Vietnam War. The first Staple Singers’ album featuring her as a full-time member of the group was 1971’s The Staple Swingers, one of many LPs the ensemble recorded for the famous southern soul label Stax.
She joined the family group at a pivotal moment. After a long career on the gospel circuit – Martin Luther King Jr. was a notable fan of the Staple Singers’ gospel work – the group pivoted towards a mainstream R&B audience. They scored 10 top 10 R&B hits over the course of the 1970s, including now canonical singles like “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again,” the latter produced by the great soul singer Curtis Mayfield.
After the Staple Singers’ burst of hits in the 1970s, R&B’s mainstream began to move away from their gospel-funk sound, embracing disco’s four-on-the-floor beat and the mechanized rhythms and exciting textures provided by new drum machines and synthesizers. But the Staple Singers continued to record throughout the 1980s, albeit with less commercial success.
The group was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, shortly before “Pops” Staples died in 2000. The Staple Singers also took home a lifetime achievement honor at the 2005 Grammy Awards. Yvonne’s older sister Cleotha died in 2013.
In recent years, Yvonne’s younger sister Mavis has built an impressive second career as a solo act, recording acclaimed albums with the likes of Ry Cooder and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. According to The New York Times, Yvonne also accompanied her sister on the road for several years, singing background vocals and serving as a road manager.
“She had no desire to be a front singer,” Bill Carpenter, a family friend, told The New York Times, “even though people in the family told her she had a great voice.”
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