The soul of Mavis Staples is rooted in a symphony of voices.
This year marks the centennial of the birth of her father, bandleader-guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples. He was born Dec. 28, 1914, the seventh of 14 children, on a Winona, Miss., farm near Drew in the heart of the Delta, just a few miles from the Dockery Farms (established 1895), where Pops first heard seminal bluesmen Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton.
When Pops was 11, he and his family would adjourn to the shaded front porch of their home after a long day’s work of picking cotton on their plantation. Then they would assemble arm in arm across the small veranda. They would begin to sing spirituals, swaying back and forth. From the distance, they looked like pendulums, moving to the rhythms of a new day. People came from all around to gather in their front yard.
This was the sound of freedom. This was how it looked.
Mavis quickly learned about the spiritual power of a family singing together. “I was just a kid when we started but as we grew, I knew this [singing] was home,” said Staples, who will perform April 18 at Symphony Center as part of the SCP Jazz Series. “Mommy and Daddy taught us the right way. They taught us to love one another. They taught us there were no big heads, everybody was the same. Stay humble. Low is the way. The way we grew up at home was what we took on the road.”
Growing up with a large family, Pops absorbed a lesson that he never forgot. It involved a handful of wood pencils. When each of his children, Mavis, Yvonne, Cleotha and Pervis, turned 11, he would wave the bunch of pencils at the child and say, “If you stick together like this, it will be hard to break you. But if you start bearin’ off to yourself, anybody can tear you apart.”
So the first song Pops taught his family, which he moved to Chicago in the mid-1903s, was the traditional hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Over the years, the family recorded it eight times, and Mavis sang it on her “Have a Little Faith” (2004) album for Chicago-based Alligator Records.
Family honor served as the foundation of the Staple Singers, America’s foremost gospel-folk-blues group. Apostles of truth, they took their message of compassion and peace to Asia, Africa and closer to home, the South during the height of the civil rights movement.
“The Staple Singers came from Daddy’s family on that front porch,” said Mavis, who will perform in a Symphony Center Presents Jazz concert April 18, on a bill with Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort. “The swaying. Cleotha’s voice in that minor tenor key. Yvonne. Daddy’s bluesy guitar.”
During a 1984 interview at his Calumet City home, Pops recalled those sessions. “Within 30 or 40 minutes, our whole yard was full of people singing. Whoa, and you talk about singing! People would break up into four different parts and sing gospel. Songs like ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘Everybody Will Be Happy Over There’ and ‘Steal Away Home to Jesus.’
“The spirit of that music hit me.”
Later in the same interview, Pops leaned back in a chair, closed his eyes and confessed, “I’d like it to be said when I’m gone that I contributed something to my country. Somewhere I hope somebody remembers the songs from the Staple Singers.” (Pops died Dec. 19, 2000, after a fall earlier that month in his home.)
The Staple Singers’ legacy is that of a hopeful breeze in hard times.
In 1935, Pops, wife Oceola (who died in 1987) and their 1-year-old daughter, Cleotha, moved to Chicago from Drew. Pops was looking for better work. His first job was in the stockyards, shoveling fertilizer and working the hog kill for 50 cents a week.
His three youngest children, Mavis, Yvonne and Pervis, were all born in Chicago. The family first sang together in 1948 at the church of Pops’ brother, the Rev. Charles Staples. Decades later, the Staple Singers broke down musical barriers with the group’s mid-’70s smash hits “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself” and “Heavy Makes You Happy,” made at Stax Records in Memphis. Pops always liked to remind people how Duke Ellington once told him that the Staple Singers “sang gospel music in the blues key.”
Mavis embarked on her solo career in 1969 with a self-titled solo album for Stax Records, produced by guitar great Steve Cropper, who guided Mavis through a scorching version of the Dionne Warwick hit “A House Is Not a Home.” For her later solo discs, Prince produced and played on her funk-soul records “Time Waits for No One” (1989) and “The Voice” (1993), and Ry Cooder produced her civil-rights themed release “We’ll Never Turn Back” (2007).
Jeff Tweedy, frontman of Chicago-based indie rock group Wilco, produced Mavis’ last two albums, “You Are Not Alone” (2010), which includes Pops’ traditional “Downward Road,” and “One True Vine” (2013), on which Mavis delivers a heartfelt version of Pops’ “I Like the Things About Me.”
She will perform songs from these albums at the SCP Jazz program, which will mark her fourth engagement at Symphony Center. She first appeared here in a January 1998 tribute to her mentor Mahalia Jackson, a memorable performance that featured Mavis accompanied only by an organist-pianist. Her bluesy range was in full force that night, filling the house with unbending faith.
When Mavis was a young girl, simply going to downtown Chicago from the South Side was a daunting experience. Pops would encourage her to stop at the Lyon & Healy music store, then at Jackson and Wabash (and now at 168 N. Ogden), to learn how to play guitar. “I had seen [the gospel swing singer from Cotton Plant, Ark.] Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” she said. “I didn’t know ladies played guitar. Pops bought me a little training guitar and tried to teach me. Had I been older, I would have gone down there [to Lyon & Healy], but I didn’t know how to go downtown.
“The first time I went downtown by myself, I was going to get a prom dress at Three Sisters [a women’s apparel retail chain]. Cleetie [Cleotha] told me how to take the El. I got to Three Sisters, picked out the dress, and on the way home I caught the wrong train. I was so far north, I didn’t know where I was. I started crying.”
A benevolent rider turned Mavis around and put her on a train back to her stop at 63rd Street, near the family’s home at 70th and South Park (now King Drive). She made it to her high-school prom. “What did I dance to?,” she recalled with a laugh. “James Brown. The Flamingos’ ‘I Only Have Eyes for You.’ Later I fell in love off of Charles Brown, he was singing ‘Angel Baby,’ and I look over at this guy and he’s looking at me, and we fell for each other. I already had a puppy love, Ben. He’s the one who took me to the prom, but this guy had these big pretty eyes. I’d go to the jukebox and always play ‘Angel Baby.’ Jukeboxes were in all the restaurants, and that’s the only way I could hear rhythm & blues. Pops wouldn’t let R&B in the house.”
Cleotha Staples died last year and Pervis is retired from the group. Yvonne sings standing alongside Mavis, just as Pops would have it. “There were times on the road where Yvonne, Cleetie and I were staying in the same room,” Mavis recalled. “That was good. We’d take our jacks and our knitting on the road. It got to the point where Cleetie and I were hogging the mirror too much for Yvonne. Yvonne was the one who would always go, ‘Daddy, I need my own room.’ So Pops got Yvonne her own room. Then when Yvonne got her own room, Cleetie and I wanted our own room. But Pops always kept us together. Even when we had three rooms, they were next to each other, and Pops was not far from us.”
Mavis Staples, who turns 75 on July 10, has not forgotten the lessons of her father. And she still wouldn’t mind learning how to play guitar. She used to match her voice to the key of Pops’ guitar. “I love the acoustic guitar,” she said. “If I could get someone to sit with me. My road manager Speedy brings his little guitar, and he’s learning. He’s in college. He said he’d show me some stuff. Or maybe I’ll go on down to Lyon & Healy …”
On her way to Symphony Center.
Dave Hoekstra, a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer, wrote and co-produced the WTTW-Channel 11 documentary “The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement,” nominated for a 2002 Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement for Documentary Program-Cultural Significance.