By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
February 18, 2014 8:47PM
Mavis Staples was barely a teenager when she first sang on record. Her voice was so heavy; most people thought she was a man.
“Someone said, ‘No, that’s a girl, and she’s about 12, 13.’ I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Jerry Butler, the R&B singer and now Cook County commissioner. “As I listened more, I realized how beautiful, organic, and unique it all felt, the way the vibrato of Mavis’ voice matched the vibrato [of her father’s] guitar.”
A vocalist who imbues churchly tremors in whatever she sings is herself in the midst of a revival, thanks to a series of comeback albums this past decade that placed her voice inside a simple sonic backdrop reminiscent of the one created by Roebuck “Pops” Staples, her father and mentor.
That unpredictable journey is documented in “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staples Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway” (Scribner), a moving biography of the singer by Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot. Even though the cover image is of the daughter, the story also is one of her father, starting with his earliest days as a sharecropper on Dockery Plantation in Winona, Miss.
With the use of an unpublished memoir by Pops as source material, Kot traces the improbable story of a young man who arrived in Chicago in 1936 with just the clothes on his back and went on to create a musical template that reverberated such mystery and joy, and family harmonies, that it influenced everyone from The Band to Prince.
Roebuck’s other brother was named Sears, Kot notes, which suggest the importance Chicago had on everything down South. Here was opportunity, but through hard labor; a chance for transformation, but only through ingenuity. Roebuck exemplified both qualities; he worked punishing jobs, including in the stockyards. He also coached his family of young singers — brother Pervis, sisters Yvonne and Cleotha, and Mavis — in a family group that he ushered first through South Side churches, and then through the gospel circuit through Southern states, and eventually the world.
A prevailing theme of this story is that the Staples family did not quite fit into any musical genre or movement, but continued to refresh its sound as time marched forward. “The ages of the singers — two teenagers and a conspicuous preteen flanked by a dapper, guitar-playing gentleman with a caramel complexion and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair — didn’t quite match up with the sound. One might’ve expected something adolescent and exuberant. Instead, the Staples delivered music amid the concrete and steel of Chicago that was solemn, Southern, and rural,” Kot writes. Stories referencing the group’s early years are harsh — Pops punching a gas station attendant for a slur resulting in the family, children included, handcuffed outside their car. Then there is Bob Dylan, skinny, and smitten in these pages, professing his love for Mavis, only to get turned down.
Instead of a straightforward recounting, Kot shows why the exotic sound of Staples, and inevitably Mavis, endures. That’s the real story here. While it’s true that true believers like Ry Cooder bowed to the group’s sound — upon their first meeting, the guitarist-producer immediately plugs into Pops’ amp to strike a connection — this is ultimately an appreciation of how this music connected to the Civil Rights era and, just as those struggles never expired, the music itself continues to feel alive in the present day.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, Mavis, like many singers her age, was cast from the recording industry. At one point, she was so desperate for work, she sought work as a jingle singer. Time passed, and wiser producers like Cooder and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy helped her circle back to that place: the smoldering harmonies, that shaky guitar. Tweedy’s song, “You Are Not Alone,” reveals the continuing thread in Mavis’ career: There may be struggles, but the light is always on.