It’s said by many that the family that prays together stays together. There can be no more conclusive evidence of this than the Staple Singers. Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis, Pops and (later) Yvonne prayed together long before they sang together for the first time in the early 1950s and were still together and performing as a family unit over 50 years later.
For the first 10 years of their career, the Staples recorded exclusively for the gospel market. Broadening their horizons in the early 1960s brought the songs of Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Stephen Stills into their repertoire. This led to a greater appreciation of their work. They recorded extensively for Riverside and Epic, gradually raising their profile outside of the gospel circuit.
The Staples were the last act to sign to Stax during the label’s “blue” period, and the first to record in the “yellow” era following the end of company’s affiliation with Atlantic Records. Their great early Stax singles were produced by Steve Cropper but didn’t catch on at radio, where they were still perceived as a folk-gospel act. In 1970, responsibility for their sessions was assumed by Stax president Al Bell. Their chart fortunes changed almost immediately via a run of hits that started with ‘Heavy Makes You Happy’ and reached a commercial peak with the reggae-influenced chart-topper ‘I’ll Take You There’, a career highpoint.
In the wake of that massive success, the Staples became Stax’s biggest group of the 1970s. While they never had another hit as big as that one, they came pretty close with several of their immediate follow-ups – all recorded at one two-week session in Muscle Shoals in 1972, which provided enough masters to keep the Staples in hits until the dying days of the crumbling Stax empire in 1975.
After Stax fell apart, the group moved to Curtom and Warner Brothers where the hits kept coming. They were still charting in the mid-80s, their recordings for the Private I label keeping them relevant and extending their hit run into its third decade.
Sadly Pops and Cleotha Staples are no longer with us, but Mavis has moved into the American musical pantheon in recent years. Their great Stax recordings continue to be a vital component of the Ace catalogue. For those who want to know what they did before and after Stax, we also have available a fine 2CD career overview which goes back to the early 50s and includes the first recordings the group ever made.
By Tony Rounce