Born Roebuck Staples, December 2, 1914, in Winona, MS; children: Cleotha, Yvonne, Mavis, Purvis. Addresses: Pointblank/Charisma Records America, Inc., 1790 Broadway, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10019.
Since his earliest days as a blues musician in rural Mississippi, Pops Staples has used music to bring people together. Although he has enjoyed critical accolades and popular success, he has never lost sight of his most important goal--as he told Guitar Player' s Jas Obrecht, "to sing a song that says together we stand and divided we fall." As guitar soloist, singer, and leader of one of the most successful and influential groups in the history of gospel and soul, Staples has enjoyed career enough for several men; yet he has remained vital as a recording and performing artist even as he approaches his 80th year.
By the early 1990s, legions of younger musicians claimed Staples as an inspiration. When he began preparing to record his second solo album, recording stars and fans such as Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Ry Cooder all offered to lend a hand. The result was a heartfelt and utterly contemporary statement on the problems of race relations in America, an issue of enduring importance to Staples.
Born in Winona, Mississippi, in 1914, Staples heard some of the country's greatest blues players, including Charley Patton, Dick Bankston, and Howlin' Wolf, when they performed near his home. He bought his first acoustic guitar when he was 15. Although Staples came from a devoutly religious family, one that considered blues playing "sinful," he practiced the style diligently and was soon in demand as a guitarist at house parties and other social functions. This contact with the rich vernacular music of his childhood was woven deeply into his musical personality and would be heard throughout his career, even when he was performing in a strictly religious setting.
Besides developing his talents as an instrumentalist, Staples also began to earn a reputation around his hometown as a member of a gospel group called the Golden Trumpets. Yet the prospect of raising a family in the Depression-era South was a gloomy one, and Staples, now newly married, decided to try his luck in Chicago. He arrived there with his wife in 1935 with only $12 in his pocket and was forced to put his music aside to provide for his children. As he told Obrecht, "My wife was havin' children so fast, I worked about 12 years before I even picked up a guitar again. My wife and I--we did it ourselves--she worked at night and I worked in the day."
As his children became more able to look after themselves, Staples felt the call of a musical career once again, and in 1947 he bought his first electric guitar. In his spare time he began teaching the youngsters to perform songs like "If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again" and "Do Not Pass Me By" in harmony by assigning each of them a note of a chord he played on his instrument. It was through this informal singing in the home that the Staples Singers--Pops, Cleo, Mavis, and Purvis--was formed.
During the late 1940s the Staples Singers began to find some local exposure in Chicago; then, in 1956, they began their long recording career with a series of discs for the city's United and Vee Jay labels, with Pops's passionate guitar playing as their only accompaniment. They also began to perform at several area churches. Initially, there was considerable resistance to the presence of Pops's blues-drenched guitar at religious services. But once the ministers witnessed the utter conviction with which the group performed, they softened their stance. "We weren't trying to pull off no stunts for money," Staples explained to Musician' s Obrecht. "We were singing because we love God's word and we love God. The ministers could see that, and they let us come in with the guitar. That was a new thing--the guitar!"
With best-selling records such as "Uncloudy Day," "Stand by Me," and "Swing Low," the Staples Singers became one of the country's most popular gospel ensembles. And with the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the group joined many well-known performers, including Aretha Franklin and her family, in supporting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call for social change.
In 1968 the Staples Singers signed with the Memphis-based Stax label and developed more of a contemporary soul sound. It was for Stax that the group recorded its most enduring hits, including "Respect Yourself," "Heavy Makes You Happy," and, in 1972, "I'll Take You There," which reached Number One on the pop singles charts that year (and which was sampled almost two decades later to great effect by the rap duo Salt-N-Pepa in their smash "Let's Talk About Sex"). In 1975 the group recorded "Let's Do It Again" for the soundtrack of the Bill Cosby/Sidney Poitier film of the same name; this became their second Number One hit.
The mid-1980s found the Staples Singers touring widely and appearing on radio and television--and Pops Staples beginning to explore the possibility of a solo career. He performed a solo version of "Nobody's Fault But Mine" on a telecast of the 1985 Grammy Awards, and in 1987 released his first solo album, Pops Staples, on IAM/A&M Records.
Staples also began developing an interest in acting. He had a small role as a voodoo practitioner in David Byrne's 1985 film True Stories, and in 1990 starred in both the Chicago and San Francisco stage productions of A Gospel at Colonus. That year Staples also appeared in a Minneapolis production of Something New for the Holidays.
As the 1990s began to unfold, Staples showed little sign of slowing down. He toured extensively as a solo artist in 1991, and that year also found him attending the dedication of Pops Staples Park in Drew, Mississippi. In February of 1992, The Staples Singers traveled to New York to accept a Pioneer Award from The Rhythm and Blues Foundation. During the trip the group found time to record two songs with jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln. After the release of Peace to the Neighborhood, his star-studded second solo album, Staples made plans to tour extensively in the U.S. and Europe, both as a solo act and with his family. He also recorded a duet with pop folksinger Michelle Shocked, thereby carrying his abiding message of hope and unity to a generation of younger listeners.
Staples died on December 19, 2000, in Dalton, Illinois, at age 85. He had recently suffered a concussion in a fall near his home.
by Jeffrey Taylor
Pops Staples's Career
Began playing guitar c. 1929; sang with gospel group the Golden Trumpets; formed group the Staples Singers with daughters Mavis and Cleotha and son Purvis (later replaced by daughter Yvonne), 1947; Staples Singers joined Dr. Martin Luther King's crusade for civil rights, early 1960s; with group, recorded "I'll Take You There," 1972; began solo career, 1985; released Pops Staples, IAM/A&M, 1987; toured U.S. and Europe as solo act and with Staples Singers. Appeared in film True Stories, 1985, and in stage productions A Gospel at Colonus and Something New for the Holidays, both 1990.
Pops Staples's Awards
(With Staples Singers) Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, 1992.
- Selective Works
- With the Staples Singers Uncloudy Day Vee Jay, 1961.
- Hammers and Nails Riverside, 1962.
- Amen Epic, 1965.
- Why? Epic, 1966.
- Soul Folk in Action Stax, 1968.
- The Staples Swingers Stax, 1970.
- Bealtitude: Respect Yourself Stax, 1972.
- Be What You Are Stax, 1973.
- Let's Do It Again Curtom, 1975.
- This Time Around Stax, 1981.
- The Best of the Staples Singers Stax, 1986.
- Freedom Highway Columbia, 1991.
- (Contributors, with Marty Stuart) "The Weight," Rhythm, Country & Blues MCA, 1994.
- Solo albums Pops Staples IAM/A&M, 1987.
- Peace to the Neighborhood Pointblank/Charisma, 1992.
- Shaw, Arnold, Black Popular Music in America, Schirmer, 1986.
- Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Simon & Schuster, reissued, Limelight, 1992.
- Periodicals Entertainment Weekly, July 10, 1992.
- Guitar Player, September 1992.
- Metro Times (Detroit), September 16, 1992.
- Rolling Stone, August 20, 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Pointblank/Charisma Records America, Inc., 1992.