Noted for his soft singing style and complementary, tremolo-laden guitar, Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his family band, the Staple Singers, changed the pop music landscape by fusing Mississippi blues and gospel with lyrics of uplift and identity. The youngest of fourteen children, Staples was born on a cotton plantation near Kilmichael on 28 December 1914 and raised near Drew. His introduction to music came through the church, and permutations of gospel music remained the dominant force throughout his recording career. He left school in the eighth grade to pick cotton, and local musicians including the legendary Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson soon introduced him to the blues. Staples’s early solo guitar work reflected both gospel and blues influences. In addition, he performed spirituals with gospel groups such as the Golden Trumpets and the Four Trumpets.
In 1934 Staples, his wife, Osceola, and their daughter, Cleotha, relocated to Chicago, where he worked in the stockyards as packer and killer. During World War II he found work in steel mills. During this era, he sang with gospel groups such as the Trumpet Jubilees, though he did not touch a guitar for twelve years. The family grew, and with Osceola Staples working evening shifts, Pops spent time teaching their children to sing. These lessons resulted in the creation of the Staple Singers, which included Pops; daughters Mavis, Cleotha, and Yvonne; and son Pervis.
The group began singing at churches and on gospel radio in Chicago and around the Midwest and recorded for Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records from 1956 to 1962. Their first major single, “Uncloudy Day,” hit the charts in 1959. During the 1960s the Staple Singers began to fuse their gospel leanings with the message-type folk songs associated with the civil rights movement, resulting in music that resonated with sounds of the church yet was also connected to the popular counterculture and social movements.
The Staple Singers’ move to Memphis-based Stax Records in the late 1960s resulted in their most famous recordings. Their gospel and message-oriented songs were partnered with the label’s soul and funk aesthetic, resulting in hits such as “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)” and “Respect Yourself.” Released in 1972, “I’ll Take You There” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and catapulted the band and its mission of black identity and uplift before mainstream audiences. Particular to their sound was the meeting of Pops’s gentle singing style with Mavis’s raspy soul vocals, and their chart success sustained through a second No. 1, “Let’s Do It Again,” released on Curtis Mayfield’s Custom label in 1975. The band continued to record albums through 1991. Pops and Mavis Staples performed on “The Weight” in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 documentary, The Last Waltz, and recorded successful solo albums. Pops’s Father Father marked a return to his Mississippi blues and gospel roots and earned him a 1995 Grammy Award. In 1999 the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Pops Staples died on 19 December 2000.
- Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, eds., All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues (2003)
- National Endowment for the Arts website, http://arts.endow.gov