Books: I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway (2014)

I’ll Take You There, Greg Kot’s new biography of Mavis Staples, explores the life and times of an ebullient contralto and former member of the Staple Singers who’s still belting out R&B and gospel at 74. Kot tells Mavis’ story through the framework of the Staples, and their ascent from singing in neighborhood churches to the top of the Billboard charts.

Kot, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, co-hosts the Sound Opinions radio show with music critic and author Jim DeRogatis. Kot’s other books include Wilco: Learning How to Die and Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. He had full cooperation of the Staples family when writing this book, and access to Roebuck “Pops” Staples’ unpublished memoir. He also interviewed many of the family’s friends and associates, including Steve Cropper, Bonnie Raitt, Al Bell, Jerry Butler and Jeff Tweedy.

Roebuck, the family patriarch, grew up in Winona, Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave. Despite his family’s admonishments to stay away from “the devil’s music,” Roebuck made good money playing blues guitar at house parties in Mississippi, inspired by the music of Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton. While Roebuck loved playing the blues, gospel was his first musical love: “The blues could pay the bills,” Kot writes, “but gospel spoke to his heart.”

Roebuck married his girlfriend Oceola in 1933. He moved to Chicago in three years later in search of higher-paying work and found a job at the stockyards. Oceola arrived in Chicago shortly thereafter, with their baby daughter Cleotha — nicknamed “Cleedi” — and son Pervis. The family settled on the South Side and welcomed two more daughters, Yvonne in 1936 and Mavis in 1939. The youngest Staples sister, Cynthia, was born in 1952 and committed suicide in 1973.

The Staples lived in Chicago’s so-called Dirty Thirties on Chicago, a neighborhood teeming with R&B talent. Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Johnnie Taylor and gospel queen Mahalia Jackson lived nearby. The children were immersed in gospel music, both at home and church, and Pops taught his children to sing as a group. They began performing at local churches in 1948 — and Mavis, with her distinctive, husky voice, became the star of the group. The eight-year-old was so tiny when they made their debut at Holy Trinity Baptist, a chair had to be used to lift her closer to the microphone.

After gaining popularity as gospel performers in Chicago, the group signed with a succession of record labels. In 1955, they had a breakthrough with the gospel classic “Uncloudy Day.” Many people who heard their recordings thought a man was singing the low parts, and were shocked when they saw a young girl singing. Some listeners even made bets as to whether a man or woman sang those low parts, settling them when the saw the group perform live.

When the Staples toured the southern U.S. on their own, they brought sandwiches and ate in the car, since many restaurants wouldn’t serve African-Americans. After a disagreement with a white clerk at a Memphis gas station, the family was arrested and falsely accused of beating the attendant. The police captain recognized them when they were brought in for booking, and they were cleared of charges.

Kot sprinkles the book with several funny anecdotes about those early tours. Mavis talked to a biker who liked their music and admired Pops’ guitar playing after one show. After the young man left, tourmate David Ruffin pointed out: “That’s the guy who sings ‘Blue Suede Shoes’!” The Staples kids had fun on tour, with Sam Cooke sneaking rum to them or Rufus Thomas playing practical jokes.

The Staples’ musical trajectory changed as they met and performed side by side with the folk singers of the early 1960s. In 1963, they appeared in a Westinghouse TV special with Bob Dylan, and performed at the Newport Folk Festival on the same bill with Dylan and Joan Baez. Dylan flirted with Mavis, even proposing marriage at one point. Of her affair with Dylan, Mavis says: “It was my first love, and it was the one I lost.”

Inspired by the continuing Civil Rights movement, Pops composed “Freedom Highway” about the Selma to Montgomery marches and “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” about the Little Rock Nine. [Stream it!: The Staple Singers' 'Freedom Highway.'] Both became rallying cries for the era. Pops arranged a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, and MLK and the family became friends. “If they can preach it, we can sing it,” Pops said.

Gospel purists accused the Staples of selling out to the new folk movement, but the band’s style fit in many genres. They played on a bill with the Temptations, Four Tops and other soul acts of the time. And the Staples “got a contact high” the first time they played San Francisco’s Fillmore. Later, when the group opened for Big Brother and the Holding Company, they joined Janis Joplin to sing “Down by the Riverside.”

The Staples’ home was a gathering place for all the black stars of the time as they made tour stops in Chicago. Redd Foxx, Nancy Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles were among those who’d stop by for Oceola’s tasty Southern cooking — or ask to have it delivered to their dressing room. Pervis left the group in 1969 to work with R&B group the Emotions, and Yvonne took his place. Now signed to Stax Records, the Staples recorded at Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama.

With the studio’s famous rhythm section backing them up, the Staple Singers had their first mainstream hit, “Heavy Makes You Happy.” The Muscle Shoals sessions later produced the mega-hits “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” Riding on the waves of radio airplay and TV appearances, the group performed at the Watts Neighborhood Festival, immortalized in the film Wattstax.

In 1976, they scored a No. 1 hit with “Let’s Do it Again.” [Stream it!: The Staple Singers' 'Let's Do It Again.'] Written by Curtis Mayfield for the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poiter movie of the same name, it became one of Warner Bros. Records’ fastest-selling singles. An unabashed ode to lovemaking, the song would have been an improbable choice for the Staple Singers songbook just a decade earlier. Beyond that, however, the Staples never replicated their chart success of the late 1960s and early ’70s. They scored a minor hit with a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” in 1984, and Mavis recorded for Prince’s Paisley Park Label.

The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, though tragedy struck thereafter. Pops passed away in 2000, and Cleedi died in 2013 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Mavis would eventually bounce back, enjoying a resurgence in popularity recently with the indie crowd, recording with Ry Cooder and with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and appearing at Bonnaroo in 2011.

All of that — the Staples’ music, joys and struggles — is conveyed vividly through Kot’s concise prose. I’ll Take You There is more than a music biography: It’s a 20th century American success story, and a long trip down Freedom’s Highway, as experienced by Mavis Staples and her family.

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Jade Blackmore

Jade Blackmore has written about classic rock, hard rock/metal and indie films for EarCandy Mag, Rock Confidential, Cinema Sentries, Perfect Sound Forever and Entertainment Today, among others. Her past day jobs in the entertainment industry included stints with Mix Magazine, Bourne Music and Boxoffice Magazine. She lives in Los Angeles. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.