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Father of Most Successful Gospel GroupCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Pops Staples led his family gospel group from church into the pop charts, and established The Staple Singers as the best known gospel group of their era, while simultaneously expanding their repertoire in response to changing times and musical tastes.
He was born into a poor family in Mississippi, and left school early to pick cotton. He picked up his early musical education in the church, and he sang with a gospel group, the Golden Trumpets, but also indulged a love of the secular sound of the blues (he cited Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson as among his favourites), and played locally as a solo blues singer and guitarist at dances and picnics.
He moved north to Chicago in 1936, with his wife, Oceola Staples, and their young family. He joined another gospel group in the city, the Trumpet Jubilees, and encouraged his children to sing at home. In 1947 the family began to sing in church as The Staple Singers, with Pops and Oceola joined by their son, Pervis, and two of their daughters, Cleotha and Mavis, who was only 7 years old at the time, and sang bass in the group, but later became its lead singer.
They continued to build a reputation in Chicago, and began their recording career in 1953 for a local label, United Records, although the group resisted the record companys demands that they record non-gospel material. Their first hit arrived after switching to Vee-Jay Records in 1955, with the gospel song Uncloudy Day, which Pops Staples later observed sold like rock and roll without compromising their spiritual or religious convictions.
It sparked a series of successful singles in the late 50s, including versions of Stand By Me (later made famous by Ben E. King) and This Could Be The Last Time, covered by The Rolling Stones, albeit with different lyrics. They recorded a number of albums for the jazz label Riverside in the early-60s, and signed to Epic Records, a major pop label, in 1967.
The groups music changed tack in the late 60s in direct response to the musical, social and religious upheavals in American society, replacing their older, Southern-style spiritualism with a more contemporary feel. Songs like Why? (Am I Treated So Bad) carried a strong social message, and also took the band into the pop charts, an ironic reversal of their refusal to sing rock and roll a decade earlier. Pervis left the group for military service in 1970, and his place in the group was taken by his sister, Yvonne.
The combination of their strong, soulful vocals and the funky rhythm and blues accompaniments which they had adopted proved commercially successfully, and the social and political message conveyed in many of their songs struck a chord with the times. They signed to the leading soul music label of the day, the Memphis-based Stax/Volt, in 1968, where they were backed by Booker T and the MGs, and scored further major hits in the early 70s with songs like Respect Yourself, Ill Take You There, and Lets Do It Again, taken from the soundtrack for the film of that name starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, and released on Curtis Mayfields Curtom label in 1975.
The band remained a popular draw throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but Pops Staples also branched out as a solo singer (as did Mavis Staples), and did a little acting. He was nominated for a Grammy award for his solo album Peace to the Neighbourhood in 1992, and went one better by winning a Grammy for its successor, Father Father, in 1994.
He died after suffering concussion in a fall at his home. Oceola Staples predeceased him, but he is survived by his children, Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne, and Mavis.