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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 441

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These are the graves of the Staple Singers.

Roebuck “Pops” Staples was born in Winona, Mississippi in 1914. He grew up with the blues, but switched to gospel in the 1930s. He married Oceola in 1935 and moved north to Chicago. While Oceola never much sang with the family band, or at least not to my knowledge, the children sure did. Pops was working in meatpacking while doing music on the side. In 1948, the family band began to play in local churches. They signed their first contract in 1952. All four children would grow up in music–Cleotha, Pervis, Mavis, and Yvonne. They initially recorded in a folk-gospel style through the early 1960s, but in the late 1960s and especially the 1970s, the band took on a more modern sound that made it one of the pioneering groups of modern music. The great country producer Billy Sherrill produced their legendary Freedom Highway album in 1965; today it is available in a 2-disc package recorded live in a church of the freedom songs of the day. Everyone should own this masterpiece of music. They were recording for Epic by this time and while their roots were always in the church, they also started recording secular songs that were really outstanding. That only expanded when they switched to Stax in 1968.

It was at Stax that the band’s most iconic hits came–“Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)” in 1971, “Respect Yourself” later that same year, “I’ll Take You There” in 1972, “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) in 1973. Stax went belly-up in 1975 and they signed with Curtis Mayfield’s label, Curtom Records. They were part of the The Last Waltz, the great Scorsese documentary about the end of The Band, and of course The Staple Singers had recorded a great version of “The Weight.” But music was changing and they became less popular as the 1980s approached. They had a minor hit in 1984 with a cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” They kept performing though, now as icons more than hitmakers.

In 1999, the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Pops died in 2000 after he hit his head during a fall. Cleotha died in 2013 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. I visited this grave over a year ago and in the meantime, Yvonne died. Pervis and Mavis still live. Of course, Mavis is still making great music, an icon of our musical past and present. She’s still really great and I’m bummed that I’ve never seen her play live.

The Staple Singers are buried (or will be buried) at Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

Let’s listen to some Staple Singers.

If you would like this series to cover more icons of black music, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Aretha Franklin is in Detroit and Ray Charles is in Inglewood, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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