I'll Take You There is really the biography of a musical family, centering on not one but two life stories: Mavis Staples’, and that of her biggest influence, dear ol' dad.
I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom's HighwayPublisher: Scribner
Length: 308 pages
Author: Greg Kot
Publication date: 2014-01
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.