During this holiday season, many of us cannot gather together with family and friends due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Some of us will be spending time alone, missing those we’ve either lost or who are far away.
Holidays have always been a family affair, and it made me think about musicians who are family; brothers and sisters, parents and cousins who have brought us so much soulful family magic over the years. This #BlackMusicSunday, join me in celebrating one of my favorite musical families: the Staples Singers and the woman who has carried their message forward: Mavis Staples. I want to also thank the family of readers and music lovers who have sustained and participated in this series since it started in April of 2020, as we move into 2021.
When I first decided to write about Black music families for today’s story, my original list got longer and longer. It included The Clark Sisters, The Winans, Bernice and Toshi Reagon, Leon and Eric Bibb, the Marsalis family, the Jones brothers (Thad, Elvin and Hank), the Heath brothers (Albert “Tootie” Heath, Percy and Jimmy), the O’Farrill Family Band, The Marleys, The Chambers Brothers, The Neville Brothers, The Isley Brothers, The Jackson 5 aka The Jacksons, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sister Sledge, The Pointer Sisters, Sly and the Family Stone, the Braxtons, The Gap Band, and DeBarge (to name just a few). I realized there was no way to feature or cover them all in one story.
I wound up deciding to focus on the Staple Singers since they spanned so many decades from their founding in 1948, covering multiple genres from gospel to R&B to protest music. They also recorded songs that celebrate the holiday season.
Back in 1962 they recorded a Christmas album, which was reissued in 2007.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The Staple Singers were best known for their ’70s Stax hits like “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” but in fact the Chicago quartet’s recording career dates back to the ’50s on the Vee-Jay and Riverside labels. Their fifth effort was a Christmas album titled The 25th Day of December, which the All Music Guide calls “the group’s finest ’60s collection.” The long-out-of-print album will be available once again this holiday season on Riverside Records through Concord Music Group.
Reissued for the first time, the album contains 12 holiday and spiritual classics including “Joy To The World,” “Silent Night” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Included also is the Staples’ treatment of the Rev. Thomas Dorsey’s “The Savior Is Born.” The album delves deep into traditional spirituals such as “The Virgin Mary Had One Son,” “Wasn’t That a Mighty Day” and “Last Month of the Year” and includes an original by group founder Roebuck “Pops” Staples titled “There Was a Star.” Orrin Keepnews, one of Riverside’s two founders, produced the album, which found the Staples’ harmonies at their purest and most exciting.
The simple, powerful vocals that call upon gospel and blues roots are a must-listen. It amazes me that this album was lost for so many years.
Their “Who took the Merry out of Christmas” is one of my favorite Christmas tunes, which many of you may not have heard. It was released as a single on Stax Records in 1970.
Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas
(People all over the world forgot about merry)
Too busy fighting wars
Trying to make it to Mars
Searching for light and can’t seem to find the right star
(Searching for light and can’t seem to find the right star)Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas
(People all over the world forgot about merry)
Too busy buying toys
Learning ’bout Santa’s joy
Making believe He was just another baby boy
(Making believe He was just another baby boy)Let’s Put The Merry Back In Christmas (We Wish You A Merry Christmas)
Come on everyone (Let’s have a Happy New Year)
Let’s Put The Merry Back In Christmas (We Wish You A Merry Christmas)
Come on and join the fun
Let’s Have a Happy (Have a Happy) Let’s Have a Happy New Year
Fifty years have passed since the Staples recorded it, so I was elated to see this recent choral zoom performance from the Soul & Gospel Choir “UpTight” in Hoorn, The Netherlands, who “rehearsed it only online” due to COVID-19.
The Staples legacy continues in global spaces.
Roebuck “Pops” Staples was born December 25, 1914, in Winona, Mississippi. Growing up on the same plantation as bluesman Charley Patton, Staples drew from both the gospel and blues traditions to forge a sound that transcends their stylistic divide. As a child in his Mississippi Delta community, Staples listened to a cappella singers in church and sang religious songs at home with family and neighbors. As a teenager, he took up the guitar, inspired by blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Patton, and Barbecue Bob. In later years, his style would be influenced by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, two Delta blues musicians who relocated to Chicago and amplified their sound.
Though he admired and to some extent emulated blues players, Staples developed a guitar style to accompany religious music and sang with a local gospel group, the Golden Trumpets. Staples and his wife, Oceola, moved their family to Chicago in 1936. There he worked in meatpacking, steel, and construction, but also continued his work in gospel music. He joined the Trumpet Jubilees and heard the gospel music of pioneers Thomas A. Dorsey and Sallie Martin. In 1948, he formed the Staple Singers with daughters Cleotha and Mavis and son Pervis. They sang at home and in local churches. Of those early years, Staples has said, “We just wanted to have music in the house, that’s all.”
Here’s a short biographical program on The Staples from Jubilee showcase.
Produced and hosted by Sid Ordower, Jubilee Showcase aired on ABC’s Chicago affiliate television station, WLS Channel 7, from 1963 to 1984, and won an Emmy Award for a Pioneering Project in television.
Mavis Staples is wonderful to listen to when she talks about her family and the Staples commitment to social justice.
Mavis Staples gives a fascinating recount of her decades-long career, including when she toured with her family’s legendary gospel group, The Staple Singers, in this interview with Melissa Block of NPR. The interview took place on January 23, 2020, at the 32nd annual Folk Alliance International Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.
For those of you who are guitar players or fans, this brief look at the legendary career of Pops Staples is a must see.
A mini-documentary from the Special Edition DVD of “Mavis!”, a film about Mavis Staples and The Staple Singers directed by Jessica Edwards.
My holiday gift to myself was to watch the full documentary, reviewed here by Nick Allen:
Its 80 minutes proving worthy of decades worth of music, “Mavis!” examines the different elements behind the Staple Singers’ sound, from their roots of gospel to the importance they had with Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement to their explosion into mainstream with “I’ll Take You There.” The doc’s core concerns how the family band was the rare enterprise able to evolve with different genres of music, moving from gospel shows to folk fests to Soul Train performances, all while staying true to their sound, and keeping the gray-haired patriarch Pops as their lead singer and guitarist. The Staple Singers are a very rare case even by today’s standards, Mavis’ incredible lead voice notwithstanding. When this documentary starts interviewing her, sometimes in the back of a car, she is 75 years old, and has been touring for 60 years. Mavis is by all definitions a rock star, but this is not a regular rock star documentary.
Strange as it may sound, “Mavis!” is refreshing for actually being about the music, not solely the record sales or famous folk who can be name-dropped during such a saga. Yes, there are great nuggets in here involving Mavis’ young romance with Bob Dylan, a funny Curtis Mayfield zinger and some intergalactic studio footage with Prince in 1988. But it’s most exciting when “Mavis!” invests time into the mechanics of their music. The greatest picture is provided from finite examinations into aspects like Pops’ finger-picked guitar-playing, which scandalously mixed blues with gospel, or when the doc explores the often unspoken strategy behind a winning “gospel” performance (the saying goes, “if you ain’t shout at the people, you ain’t done shit,” according to music historian Anthony Heilbut). As they provide this rich background to these songs and their movements, such figures (including the likes of Chuck D and Bonnie Raitt) enliven the doc’s intellectual atmosphere.
Through archival footage and recordings, interviews with friends and family, and recent behind-the-scenes video of the singer both onstage and off, Mavis! chronicles the 60-plus-year odyssey of Mavis Staples, a native of Chicago who got her start in music singing with her siblings — two sisters, Cleotha and Yvonne, and a brother, Pervis — along with their father, “Pops,” at the local church. Highlighted by Mavis’ raw and powerful lead vocals, Pops’ smooth baritone and tremolo-guitar accompaniment, and sublime four-part harmonies, the group gained momentum in local gospel-music circles; by the mid-‘50s they’d been signed by Vee-Jay Records, recording the first gospel song to sell a million copies while forging a novel, visionary sound that fused two musical genres: blues and gospel.
As the civil-rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, the Staple Singers became a mainstay at rallies led by Dr. Martin Luther King, whose favorite song was the group’s “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad).” The group also attracted the attention of rising musicians like Bob Dylan, who bonded with the group at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and was admittedly enamored of its young lead singer. Pops particularly empathized with the message of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (“How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man?”), and decided to record the song with the Staple Singers. It was the first time that a group covered a Dylan song.
Signed by Al Bell at Stax Records, who wanted to “lift them higher,” the group expanded their repertoire to include secular music, adding backup musicians from the formidable Stax stable to fill out their soul sound. The result was the 1972 album Be Attitude: Respect Yourself, which spawned the hit singles “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” and catapulted the Staples into music superstardom. Other hits followed, including “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me” and “Let’s Do It Again,” the latter of which was written by soul legend Curtis Mayfield. Mavis also recorded several successful solo albums, encouraged by Bell and with the help of guitarist/producer Steve Cropper.
I had forgotten that Mavis Staples sang this holiday ditty in the 1989 film, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Sadly, we have lost members of the family as time has taken its toll on the group.
I’m closing with the Staples Singers upbeat prayer for a future world, “Ain’t no smilin’ faces / Lyin’ to the races.” Their classic hit “I’ll Take You There” charted number one in 1972. Here they are performing it at the 15th Annual Grammy Awards in 1973.
Here’s hoping that prayer will one day become a reality.
See you in the comments section for more Black family music.