St. Louis on the Air
4:38 pm
Tue January 28, 2014

New Mavis Staples Bio Gives Unprecedented Insight Into The Singer And Her Family

A discussion with music critic Greg Kot about his new biography of singer Mavis Staples examining her career and the role she played in the civil rights movement.
Mavis Staples performing at the Chicago Blues Fest in 2012.
Credit Adam Bielawski / via Wikimedia Commons

Despite a musical career that has spanned decades and provided inspiration for the civil rights movement, until recently the only information available about the Staple Singers was from interviews, articles and songs.

A new biography by Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot changes all that by providing the back story of the musical family in book form for the first time. With a nod to two hit songs, the book is titled “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway.”

Kot will be at the St. Louis County Library Monday, February 3 to promote the book.

“I consider Mavis and her family a national treasure and to me it was kind of amazing that a book had never been written about them, and I thought it was about time,” Kot said. “I found out later that Mavis was somewhat reluctant to have her biography told or entrusted to a writer. But I think she had a sense of, you know, if I’m not going to do it now, when am I going do it.”

From the time the Staple Singers first began touring the gospel circuit in the 1950s, the family stood out from the crowd.

“The combination of that blues guitar with the gospel harmonies, it was not a common sound in the 50s,” Kot said.

Then in the 1960s, Pops Staples became friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the family began performing before King’s speeches, especially when King was in Chicago, where the Staples family lived.

The Staple Singers performing on Soul Train in 1974.
Credit via Wikimedia Commons

“And then you have the huge hits with Stax Records in the 70s, ‘I’ll Take You There,’ ‘Respect Yourself.’ And then, finally, you have the fourth or fifth act here in the last ten years where Mavis Staples has transformed herself into a powerful solo act,” Kot said.

Kot wrote the book after 40 plus hours of interviews with Mavis Staples, conversations with her sister Yvonne and brother Pervis, browsing family archives and reading an unpublished memoir written by Pops Staples.

In addition to a history of the family, the book tells the story behind Mavis Staples’ relationships with Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin.

Bob Dylan proposed to Mavis Staples in 1963, before the two ever began a romantic relationship. A year later she married Chicago mortician Spencer Leak, in part because she didn’t feel she could marry across racial lines.

Gospel great Mahalia Jackson lived in the same Chicago neighborhood as the Staples family, and became a mentor to Mavis from an early age.

Mavis relationship with Aretha Franklin was not so harmonious, however. Being the same age created more of a rival dynamic.

“Frankly there was a little jealousy there from Aretha,” Kot said. “They were two of the greatest singers of our generation but they didn’t always get along.”

While the book tells the story of the Staple Singers in words, Kot hopes it inspires people to uncover more of their music as well.

“People should hear this music,” Kot said. “Hopefully the book will inspire them to go back and go beyond some of the obvious stuff that they’ve heard from the Staple Singers.”

He recommended starting with their early recordings with Vee-Jay in the 1950s and going on from there.

Related Event

St. Louis County Library, Maryville University and Left Bank Books Present Greg Kot
Monday, February 3, 2014
7:00 p.m.
St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh
For more information, call 314-994-3300 or visit the St. Louis County Library website.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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