Today we honor and celebrate a talented family whose distinctive approach to “Message Music” helped form the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. The Staple Singers comprised father, singer, and guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his daughters, lead vocalist Mavis Staples and vocalist Cleotha Staples, with siblings Pervis and Yvonne joining as vocalists off and on through the years. Blending southern blues, traditional gospel, early rock era R&B, and protest folk, their powerful harmonies drove a message of tolerance, diversity, strength, and progress.
Roebuck Staples was born the youngest son of sharecroppers in Mississippi. He learned to play guitar listening to the blues greats in the region and played in a few joints in his youth. In the early 30s he moved to Chicago to seek out a better life for his family, gradually moving them all north. His interest in music continued moving into gospel singing. Soon the whole family was joining in. Their unique, instinctive harmonies, supported by Pops’ eerie, tremolo-drenched guitar work, gave them a sound that stood out even in Chicago’s talented gospel community.
The original core quartet (all but Yvonne) began playing gigs at a number of local churches and eventually landed a recording contract. For a while Pops continued to work a regular job, but as the Staple Singers began to tour he eventually committed to music full time. The group found themselves in an interesting musical position. Pops wanted to avoid pop love songs and dark blues themes, focusing on joy, hope, and inspiration. Unlike other Gospel acts, they incorporated some original material and a variety of songs that fit their message. Unlike acts like local friend Sam Cooke, who fully embraced pop and soul and made successful career transitions, their adherence to their own vision kept their audience somewhat small.
Touring mostly the south in the 1950s was a tricky business for an African-American family. They had difficulty finding food and lodging in many places, relying heavily on an unofficial network of homes and boardinghouses that supported the Gospel community. Driving a large Cadillac through the rural south brought them plenty of grief from local law enforcement including a brief stint in jail because of the significant amount of money — their legitimate wages — found in the trunk of their car. These experiences honed their desire to empower the black community and to provide messages of hope and strength.
They became enmeshed in the growing civil rights movement, often performing in locations where black activists were speaking. Their Message Music merged perfectly with the push for equality and their personal experiences informed performances that were as passionate as the preachers’ and activists’ speeches. Pops became close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Staples often adjusted their touring schedule to accompany his appearances.
While becoming a critical part of the movement, they began breaking down musical barriers as well. Already deeply connected to the soul and R&B communities — they were friends with singers Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin and many others as well as their families — their sound began expanding. They performed at the Newport Folk Festival, launching a long career of participating in folk events. They befriended Bob Dylan and the Band and their music informed the Rolling Stones’ early hit The Last Time. Pops’ guitar work was so famous that producer Jerry Wexler insisted that Joe South emulate it for his great guitar intro to Aretha Franklin’s smash Chain of Fools.
The Staples were famous and successful but limited in audience. Labels weren’t sure how to promote them — not just gospel but not fully folk, pop, or soul. They finally found their breakthrough, signing with Stax and recording at the famous Muscle Shoals studio. The blend of their Message Music with the earthy sound of the Shoals musicians — a bunch of young white men inspired by the rich musical culture around them — and caught fire. They began a string of hits that included the classic Respect Yourself and their signature song, the #1 pop and R&B hit I’ll Take You There. For awhile the Staple Singers were musical royalty, staying true to their Message Music and pushing for continued progress in civil rights.
By the late 70s, changing musical tastes and a long career of performing resulted in a gradual reduction in Staples’ material. Pops was in his 60s and Mavis became interested in a solo career. They re-emerged in the 90s, with musicians like Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt championing their pivotal roles in music and activism. Pops recorded two acclaimed solo albums, winning a Grammy award in his 80s. He died in 2000 at the age of 85.
Mavis continues to record and perform today. She has grown comfortable with her role as a musical elder with an important message. Given the horrible racism that has surfaced in recent years, she wonders what happened to all the work the Staples and their contemporaries did. Activism is as important now as then, she observes.
It makes me think of my father’s song Why Am I Treated So Bad? I’m sixtey-seven years old and I was here the first time around and now I’m still here and it’s still not fixed. I’m here to let you all know that I’m still not pleased. … It’s the 21st Century. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We don’t teach enough black history in the schools. But I’m the history — I’ll be the history. The kids need to know.
Fifty years into an impressive career, the Staples family still has something to say. And it certainly still matters.