Pops Staples & The Staples Singers, Songwriter/Musician and Performers/Recording Artists

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Pops Staples & daughter Mavis

BrotherMen: They Were and Are Our Prophets and Griots, by Demetria Royals

Within in a lifetime of 85 years, BrotherMan Pops Staples reflected back to us with his music, a son and three daughters, our living evolving history.

We were blessed to have him in our presence for so long a time. He was born under the yoke of Jim Crow and segregation, one of fourteen children. He and his family spent hours in someone else's cotton fields, using their bodies to earn their bread.

But, to keep their spiritual life in the service of a higher power than any "boss man," every night after the dinner the family would gather on the porch and sing God's praises. Their music provided safety and a place of hope to a people who were living the experience of watching their dreams, and the dreams of their children, once again deferred.

Pops was also a part of the historical time in African American history when Black people considered the North as the Promise Land (now this "Northern Oasis" is referred to as "Up South"). But in the 1950s, it was known as a place of promise and hope, and Pops brought his family from the Mississippi Delta to the city of Chicago. He would find his hopes and grow into his promise, but not in the factories or meat packing industry, but right in his own growing family. We as a nation and a people would be blessed for three decades with his musical style combining gospel and blues, now known as "message music."

In the 1960s Pop would join the "movement" and work with such people as Martin Luther King and the SCLC, along with Sister Rosa Parks, Brother Bob Moses, Brother James Baldwin and Sister Ruby Doris Robinson Smith, among so many others. And Pops would continue to ask this question in song until he left us, "Why Am I Treated So Bad?"

This question has not been answered until this hour. His daughter Mavis recalls that he wrote that song as a response to watching nine African American children exercise their rights as U.S. citizens to attend a public school of their choice and having to be escorted by the National Guard in Little Rock, Arkansas, as they were spat on and jeered for their audacity to think that equal rights meant rights for them.

Yet Pops would not stop there, he would challenge "all peoples" to move through the racial nightmare which we as a country found ourselves living through, and to start to look not only for common ground, but higher ground.

In the 1970s, he and his family created a musical roadmap for us with such hits as "Reach Out, Touch a Hand," "I'll Take You There," "Respect Yourself" and "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)." His music provided guidance in that particular time in American history when we as a nation just might be able to finally honor the words of the founding fathers, "E Pluribus Unum" -- out of many, one.

Yet Pops, even as he dreamed, was also realistic as well as prophetic. So in the early 1980s, the songs of The Staple Singers would also warn us of what we as a people were about to endure, "watching leaves falling off the family tree," a lament that has come to pass, as we watch the acceptance of a permanent underclass, the growth of the prison industrial complex, families who are now being ravaged by drugs, police brutality, substandard health services and loss of living wage jobs.

In his last decade, the 1990s, he would prepare his report to the ancestors, in a work that would earn him his second Grammy. The work, Father, Father, is where he reported on what he saw in his lifetime, bore witness to, and had been a part of the struggle to change.

I am sure that the "sheros" and heroes such as Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and many others welcomed him to his long earned rest with the words, "Let Him In."

Artist Biography

This family, led by its patriarch, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, for 48 years until his death shortly before his 86th birthday in 2000, recorded such hits as "I'll Take You There," "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" and "Respect Yourself," as well as such spiritual anthems of the Civil Rights movement as "Why Am I Treated So Bad."

The Staple Singers have received seven gold and six platinum records and performed in the White House for three presidents: Clinton, Carter and Kennedy. They performed in the films "Watts Stax" and "Save the Children," among others, and Mr. Staples appeared as a solo performer in the film "Wag the Dog" in 1997.

At 81 years old, Pops Staples garnered a 1994 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for his solo album, "Father, Father." In 1999, The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Mr. Staples was named a 1998 National Heritage Fellow in the folk and traditional arts by the National Endowment for the Arts.

In July 1999, The Staple Singers performed in Brooklyn, New York as part of the free, outdoor "Rhythm and Blues" concert series. Although Mr. Staples was too ill to attend, the concert, with daughters Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne Staples, was filmed for BrotherMen. Led by Mavis, the group continues the musical tradition taught to them by their father.

As Michael Eric Dyson wrote in Vibe: "Mavis Staples -- whose sensuous, sweet-husky gospel alto is one of pop's most distinctive voices -- can blow away 95 percent of the competition just by showing up."

In an interview conducted following the concert, The Staple Singers share the story of their family's migration from Mississippi to Chicago and their beginnings in gospel, as well as their involvement with the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as performers and activists.

Additional archival interviews and performances with Pops Staples shortly before his death provide an emotional, political and social context as to the power that this music continues to exert within the Black community.


Selected Discography

"Down in Mississippi" (Traditional)
Performed by Roebuck "Pops" Staples
From the album "Peace to the Neighborhood" (Pointblank/Charisma)

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken"
Arrangement by Roebuck "Pops" Staples
Conrad Music (BMI)

"Why Am I Treated So Bad?"
By Roebuck "Pops" Staples
Pops Staples Music (BMI)
From the album "Father, Father" (Pointblank/Charisma)

"I'll Take You There"
By Alvertis Isbell
Irving Music (BMI)
Performed by the Staple Singers
From the album "The Best of the Staple Singers" (Stax)

"Touch a Hand, Make a Friend"
By Homer Banks, Carl Hampton & Raymond Earl Jackson
Irving Music (BMI)
Performed by the Staple Singers
From the album "The Best of the Staple Singers" (Stax)

"Respect Yourself"
By Luther Ingram & Mack Rice
Irving Music (BMI)
Performed by the Staple Singers
From the album "The Best of the Staple Singers" (Stax)

Related Links

National Heritage Fellowship Award: Bio and Music Clips
The Guardian: Obituary
Amazon: Essential Staples Singers CDs


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