[24 March 2014]
Mavis Staples’ remarkable life in music is certainly worthy of a major biography. She sang with her father and siblings in the Staple Singers for nearly 30 years. They had big gospel hits in the ‘50s, and soul hits in the ‘70s, influencing generations of artists across the board. For her own part, she has performed and/or been associated with stars across a range of genres and generations few living performers, if any, can match. Not too many folks running around today can claim both Sam Cooke and Prince.
Greg Kot’s crisp, straightforward I’ll Take You There, named for the Staples’ massive 1971 hit, seems at first to be exactly that sort of bio. But as it unfolds, it’s really the biography of a musical family, centering on not one but two life stories: Mavis’, and that of her biggest influence.
That would be dear ol’ dad, Roebuck “Pops’ Staples.
His tale begins as a fairly typical one within the Great Migration, moving to Chicago from Mississippi in 1936. He worked long hours and hard jobs, brought his family up North over time, and slowly made his way in the city. He had also brought a gift for music with him; although that wasn’t a priority at first, it would eventually come in handy.
Roebuck’s mindset was always split between gospel and the blues. Not the tortured me-versus-the-devil angst of Robert Johnson lore, but rather a recognition that blues and gospel were two sides of the same coin. As a youth, he grew up hearing artists like Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson, whose music evoked a similar connection. Staples got good on the guitar, and picked up cash playing the blues at juke joints. But he also sang in his church choir and in a gospel quartet.
Up North, he’d set music aside to raise his family, then eventually became part of a gospel sextet. But as the group’s booking manager, he got tired of their lack of attentiveness to handling business. One night in 1948, after the rest of the group blew off a rehearsal, Staples came home, fished out a cheap guitar from the closet, and gathered his children around. Cleotha was 14, Pervis was 13, Yvonne was 11, Mavis was 9.
He taught his kids an arrangement of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” based on the blues chords he’d learned in Mississippi. He brought them to sing at the church where his brother was pastor, with a repertoire of exactly two songs. Their mix of blues knowingness and gospel faith was an immediate hit, and the Staples’ lives in music were officially off and running.
The Staple Singers, as they soon came to be known, became one of Chicago’s most popular gospel acts through concerts and a radio show. Mavis was particularly astonishing, with a deep, rich voice almost unfathomable from a tiny pre-teen girl. So impressive were her gifts that no less an authority figure than Mahalia Jackson, a fellow Chicagoan and the biggest star in gospel, took her under her wing. They would forge a lifelong bond, with Mavis giving Jackson’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech in 1997.
A record deal gone bad drove Roebuck to briefly go back to regular work, but in 1955 the group tried again, with Vee-Jay Records, one of the era’s leading labels for black gospel. This time, the results were much better. The Staples’ version of the traditional “Uncloudy Day” was a huge hit, and established the template for their six-year run at the label: Pops coaxing spooky sounds and chords from his electric guitar, and close, understated family harmonies on top, with Mavis singing lead.
The Staples’ music, and Pops’ philosophy, took a turn during the group’s mid-‘60s time at Riverside Records, a label known mostly for jazz but with occasional forays into folk and blues. First, the Riverside sessions featured rhythm sections, which Vee-Jay typically didn’t. Second, the lyrical focus expanded beyond straight-up gospel. Pops became influenced by the civil rights movement, and decided, “If Dr. King can preach it, we can sing it.” Around that time, Pervis started checking out a young folksinger named Bob Dylan, who just so happened to be a fan of the Staples himself. The Staples would record two early Dylan protest songs for Riverside, and Dylan and Mavis were sweet on each other for a little while.
A stint at Epic Records brought more of the same, as the group moved beyond the gospel circuit into coffeehouses and folk clubs, even opening for rock acts. But they didn’t hit the stratosphere until signing with Stax in 1968. This was in time for the label’s second act, headed by Al Bell, its former promotions man. Bell knew the Staples from his days as a deejay in Arkansas, and brought them on to help the label re-establish itself. This turned out to be a curious moment for them: the gospel mainstream didn’t follow them any more, but rockers like The Band and John Fogerty were big fans, and they’d managed a bit of a crossover appeal by mixing some universal messages about unity and freedom with their standard gospel fare. What they didn’t have was a presence in the contemporary black pop landscape.
That would change at Stax, but not at first. Sessions produced by Steve Cropper with the old Stax rhythm section weren’t all that successful, and two Mavis solo albums – decidedly secular in tone – went nowhere. Bell eventually hooked the group up with a most unlikely set of collaborators, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section that had already powered many a soul classic.
The pairing of apparent cultural opposites – the urban gospel singers and the southern longhair iconoclasts – clicked for two reasons. By now the Staples were comfortable with venturing beyond gospel’s tried-and-true, as long as Pops was comfortable with a song’s lyrical values. And the Muscle Shoals crew, like virtually every collaborator they’d previously worked with, came into the project already enthralled by the Staples’ music from the git-go. Their early-‘70s run of Muscle Shoals-produced hits, including “I’ll Take You There”, made them the avatars of happy, hopeful soul, music with a beat everyone could dance to and a message basic enough for anyone to appreciate.
In chronicling the Staple Singers’ rise to prominence, Kot consistently gives the sense that the kids were always deferential to Pops, even when Mavis cut her first solo albums and Pervis left the act to pursue music business ventures in Chicago (he was replaced by Yvonne, who had left the family business to work in Atlanta). So complete is the sense that Mavis’ story is, at least up to this point, a family story, her unhappy marriage to a Chicago funeral home scion is barely mentioned.
It’s not until after the group’s hit-making run ends in the mid-‘80s that Mavis’ story achieves separation from her family’s. Even then, Kot argues that Pops’ influence never left her.
Listen to any of Mavis’ solo albums since her 2004 comeback Have a Little Faith (Alligator). You’ll hear the same mix of gospel, blues, folk and soul, with a little rock here and there, that defined the Staple Singers in the ‘ 50s and ‘60s. You’ll hear music built around Mavis’ vocals, never much given to roof-raising and now all the richer for it, and a guitar evoking spare, spooky chords. And you’ll hear lyrics that speak to the here and now, just as the Staples did back in the day.
It’s not that Mavis couldn’t sing another way – something closer to either mainstream gospel or mainstream R&B – if she wanted to. But this is what she knows best, this is her comfort zone, and she’s fortunate to have had collaborators like Ry Cooder and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy – again, people intimately familiar with the Staples’ musical legacy – to help her do what she does.
One of the biggest takeaways from I’ll Take You There is Kot’s positioning of Pops as a major influence on guitar players for going on 60 years (and the Staples themselves as a cornerstone of modern American roots music). Kot quotes Cooder, Cropper and numerous other rockers singing Pops’ praises throughout the book. Kot even diverts from Mavis’ story to consider Pops’ brief, Grammy-winning go-round as a solo act in the ‘90s.
But maybe it’s not a diversion at all. Kot tells us that after Pops passed in 2000, Mavis had to be prodded into singing again by her sisters and longtime friends; it was at a tribute concert for Pops at a Chicago nightclub where Mavis shook off her gloom, and her comeback efforts began.
Mavis’ life story still has some chapters left, and as long as that happens, if the pattern Kot establishes here continues, Pops’ legacy will be extended a little longer, as well. It’s as if he discovered he couldn’t tell Mavis’ story, as noteworthy as it’s been in its own right, without extending the spotlight to her father and the family as a whole. One suspects that Mavis wouldn’t have it any other way.