The Staple Singerswere an American gospel, soul and R&B singing group. Roebuck “Pops” Staples (1914–2000), the patriarch of the family, formed the group with his children Cleotha (1934–2013), Pervis (b. 1935), and Mavis (b. 1939). Yvonne (b. 1936) replaced her brother when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and again in 1970. They are best known for their 1970s hits “Respect Yourself”, “I’ll Take You There”, “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)”, and “Let’s Do It Again”, which with one exception (“I’ll Take You There”) peaked on the Hot 100 within a week from Christmas Day.
While the family surname is “Staples”, the group used the singular form for its name, “The Staple Singers”.
Roebuck moved from Mississippi to Chicago after his marriage, and worked in steel mills and meat packing plants while his family of four children grew up. The family began appearing in Chicago-area churches in 1948. Their first public singing appearance was at the Mount Zion Church, Chicago, where Roebuck’s brother, the Rev. Chester Staples, was pastor. They signed their first professional contract in 1952. During their early career they recorded in an acoustic gospel-folk style with various labels: United Records, Vee-Jay Records (their “Uncloudy Day” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” were best sellers), Checker Records, Riverside Records, and then Epic Records in 1965. “Uncloudy Day” was an early influence on Bob Dylan, who said of it in 2015, “It was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard… I’d think about them even at my school desk…Mavis looked to be about the same age as me in her picture (on the cover of “Uncloudy Day”)…Her singing just knocked me out…And Mavis was a great singer—deep and mysterious. And even at the young age, I felt that life itself was a mystery.”
It was on Epic that the Staple Singers developed a style more accessible to mainstream audiences, with “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” and “For What It’s Worth” (Stephen Stills) in 1967. In 1968, the Staple Singers signed to Stax Records and released two albums with Steve Cropper—Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over, Pervis returning for these. After Cropper left Stax, Al Bell produced their recordings, conducting the rhythm sessions at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and cutting the overdubs himself at Memphis’ Ardent Studios, moving in a more funk and soul direction.
The first Stax hit was “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)” in early 1971. Their late 1971 recording of “Respect Yourself”, written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Both sold over one million copies, and were each awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. The song’s theme of self-empowerment had universal appeal, released in the period immediately following the intense American civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1972 “I’ll Take You There” topped both Billboard charts. In 1973 “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” reached No. 9 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the R&B chart.
After Stax’s 1975 bankruptcy, the foursome signed to Curtis Mayfield’s label, Curtom Records, and released “Let’s Do It Again”, produced by Mayfield; the song became their second No. 1 pop hit in the US and the album was also successful. In 1976 they collaborated with The Band for their film The Last Waltz, performing on the song “The Weight” (which The Staple Singers had previously covered on their first Stax album). However, they were not able to regain their momentum, releasing only occasional minor hits. Their 1984 album Turning Point featured their final Top 40 hit, a cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” (which also reached the Top 5 on the Dance chart). In 1994, they again performed the song “The Weight” with country music artist Marty Stuart for MCA Nashville’s Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation, somewhat re-establishing an audience. The song “Respect Yourself” was used by Spike Lee in the soundtrack to his movie Crooklyn, made in 1994.
In 1999, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Pops Staples died of complications from a concussion suffered in December 2000. In 2005, the group was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Mavis Staples has continued to carry on the family tradition and continues to add her vocal talents to both the projects of other artists and her own solo ventures. Mavis appeared at Glastonbury in 2015, and her 2016 album Livin’ on a High Note includes a simple acoustic version of a sermon of the late Martin Luther King, whom she knew, in the track MLK Song. Cleotha Staples died in Chicago on February 21, 2013, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for over a decade.