In their 38 years (as of 1986) of performing as a group, Chicago's Staple Singers have traveled a long, artistically-rich road from their beginnings as a gospel quartet through the folk-rock era into the mainstream of American popular music. Their "message music" years at Stax Records in Memphis between 1968 and 1974 were a transition period between sacred and secular and gave the group its biggest chart successes.
Roebuck "Pop" Staples was born on December 28, 1915 in Winona, Mississippi, where he grew up on hard times and the blues, his singing and guitar style influenced by country blues men Barbecue Bob and Big Bill Broonzy. But Roebuck soon found the Lord and, in 1931, joined a gospel jubilee quartet called the Golden Trumpets.
Roebuck, his wife Oceola, and their two children, Cleotha and Pervis, moved north to Chicago in 1936, where Yvonne and Mavis were born a few years later. Singing in a Southern quartet style usually performed by all-male, adult groups, the Staple Singers began appearing at local churches in 1948. Mavis, then age seven, handled the bass parts.
By 1954, Pops, Mavis, Cleo, and Pervis (Yvonne replaced him in 1970) landed a contract with Chicago's United label and cut a number called "Sit Down Servant." Pops' thin, winsome tenor shared the leads with Mavis' deep, throaty tones, as they have done ever since, though her unique contralto had not developed the emotional edge it was soon to have. The record failed to catch on, however, perhaps because Pops' down-home reverberating guitar, which would become a trademark of their style, was overshadowed by a rinky-tink piano.
The Staples' sound did click in a big way when their haunting 1957 Vee Jay recording of "Uncloudy Day" became a nationwide gospel hit. Others followed, including "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Help Me, Jesus," and "Swing Down Chariot (Let Me Ride)," establishing them as one of America's top gospel attractions.
They were signed to Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews' Riverside jazz label in 1962 when the folk music boom was in full force. The group was beginning to pick up college bookings, in addition to their religious dates. While at Riverside, they became the first black group to record material by an emerging songwriter named Bob Dylan.
Their following continued to expand when they moved to the Epic label, where they became identified with social protest songs like "Freedom Highway" and "Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)," both penned by Pops, and Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth."
By the time the Staples joined Stax in 1968, they were performing on bills with major rock acts at venues like Fillmore West and East. The first two Stax albums, produced in Memphis by guitar ace Steve Cropper, were still very much in the folk-rock and civil rights vein but also included imaginative covers of such pop hits of the day as Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and The Band's "The Weight."
Their third, The Staple Swingers, offererd a bold new direction of hip "message" songs that were neigher sacred nor entirely secular. It was produced in Muscle Shoals, Alabama by Stax's new executive vice president, Al Bell, as was their next, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.
Be Altitude broke the Staple Singers wide open in 1971. "Respect Yourself," written by Mack Rice and Luther Ingram, reached the Number Two position on Billboard's soul chart, while Bell's "I'll Take You there," with its infectious reggae-influenced groove, hit Number One soul and pop.
There were more hits at Stax, including "Oh La De Da," "If You're Ready (Come Go with Me)," and "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend," before they moved on to Warner Bros., where they scored with Curtis Mayfield's Let's Do It Again soundtrack. Finally adopting a secular image and changing their name to "The Staples," the group continued to record prolifically, but few of their sides matched the artistic brilliance and commercial success of thier classic Stax sessions.