– I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and The March Up Freedom’s Highway (By Greg Kot)
The new book I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and The March Up Freedom’s Highway captures with heart and humor the trials and successes of the gospel and blues singing family, The Staple Singers. Written by Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, this biography delves into the influence the Staples family had on some of the biggest names in music during the ’60s and ’70s—including Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield—and later Mavis Staples’ own successful solo career.
The book begins with Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, the patriarch of the Staples’ family, and his early life as a plantation worker in the Mississippi Delta. Roebuck’s father, mother and 13 siblings were sharecroppers, never earning enough money to pay off their debt in the Jim Crow South. The only relief from the back-breaking work was the time blacks spent in church, out in the fields or in their homes singing. Safe from the “glare of white scrutiny,” it was here that blacks could relax and be themselves.
Raised in a deeply religious family, gospel music was the way the Staples family could express and share their woes and happiness. Music united the deeply devout, as members of the community gathered to share stories and troubles and watch out for each other. Pops loved gospel music, but was also deeply influenced by the blues. His father, however, only allowed spiritual music in their home, and only barely tolerated it when Roebuck earned enough money to buy himself a guitar. Teaching himself to play, he saw music as the way out of plantation life. At the age of 18 and after a year of saving, Pops bought a $12 ticket to Chicago and moved with his 16-year-old wife, Oceola Ware.
Roebuck and Oceola would raise one son and four daughters in Chicago—Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne, Mavis and, later on, Cynthia. Cleotha, Pervis and 9-year-old Mavis, along with Pops, would eventually become The Staple Singers. Yvonne would help manage the band and would serve as a stand-in, though she herself never felt comfortable in the spotlight. At this time, Chicago was a hot bed for up-and-coming musicians in the gospel and blues world, and the Staples family was part of a community that included young musicians Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and John Carter, to name a few.
The Staple Singers, whose career spanned over 40 years, straddled the genres of folk, gospel, blues and Americana so entirely that for much of their tenure, no one knew how to classify them. They began strictly gospel, and while their musical style developed with the times, lyrically they stayed spiritual and inspirational. “Uncloudy Day” was the first commercial hit, setting them off on longer tours and playing with bigger names. Kot’s interviews with musicians, producers, promoters and managers of their time note often throughout the book how The Staple Singers had a reputation for their humbleness, a quality that made them approachable. Pops would remind his children often that they were no better or no worse than anyone else, and so they were as authentic on stage as they were off of it.
The Staple Singers began to get noticed for their unique ‘untrained’ sound and Pops’ ‘nervous guitar’ and their reputation for being consistent and moving performers. Crossing paths along the way with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary would be hugely influential on the Staple Singers. Dylan was a huge admirer of the family group, and Pops’ world would open to the folk generation—he saw their lyrics the same way he saw spiritual verse and blues—as stories.
Mavis, along with her father, was a standout. While her father created a style of guitar playing that would influence the music world for decades to come, Mavis Staples’ voice would be forever etched in the memory of those that heard her sing. Her low contralto voice was so deep that as a teenager she would get made fun of by kids at her school. Some people whom had heard her but had never seen her were surprised when the petite and thin Mavis took the stage. She had a voice that would move people to tears and make them jump up from their seats.
The Staple Singers would provide a soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, becoming a strong supporter and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. While support was difficult for King to garner in the South, he faced different challenges in the North. In Chicago, The Staple Singers could draw a crowd, and so they would perform at King’s events. The spiritual songs they sang and wrote served often as a metaphor for the civil rights struggle, lamenting the unfairness and racism they faced everyday. One of the most touching moments of the book is the recounting of the night the Staples family learned of King’s assassination, a night that would greatly influence their future work.
The book moves at a nice pace, an easy and moving read, while solidifying the influence The Staple Singers had on their contemporaries and the genres they worked within. The details about the Staples’ musical community are the most touching. Stories of their Chicago home are particularly interesting, as many famous musicians and friends of the family would stay over and enjoy Oceola’s home-cooked meals when ever they were passing through town. The stories about young Aretha Franklin hanging out in the basement with the girls, the intimate moments shared on tour in hotel rooms singing gospel songs into the early hours of the morning, pranks played between Pervis Staples and Sam Cooke, and Bob Dylan’s marriage proposal to Mavis Staples—these intimate moments tie together a rich musical history that was as much about community and freedom as it was about music and connection. Historically, it serves a chronicle of just how influential The Staple Singers were for so many musicians that would become some of the most revered artists of our time.