Roebuck “Pops” Staples, one of the foremost figures in American gospel music as a singer, guitarist, and patriarch of the Staple Singers family group, was born on a farm near Winona on December 28, 1914. Staples began playing blues as a youngster in the Delta, but by the time he left for Chicago in 1936 he had embarked on a gospel singing career. He and the Staple Singers later enjoyed crossover success in the rhythm & blues and pop fields. Staples died on December 19, 2000.
Staples fused old-time religion and the blues with an activist commitment to peace, equality, and brotherhood to create inspirational “message songs” that transcended the traditional boundaries of gospel music. Under his guidance, the Staple Singers not only earned the title “the first family of gospel music,” but also developed followings among blues, soul, folk, rock, and jazz audiences. Staples traced his style back to the hymns and spirituals he learned from his grandfather and the blues he heard in Mississippi. Roebuck and his older brother Sears, the last two of fourteen Staples children, were named after the Chicago mail order company that numbered many rural African Americans among its millions of customers. Another Staples brother, David, played blues guitar before becoming a preacher, and a famous relative born years later was Oprah Winfrey, whose great-grandmother was Roebuck’s aunt, Ella Staples. The Staples lived around Mayfield and Kilmichael until they moved to Dr. Joseph David Swinney’s plantation west of Minter City (c. 1918) and then to Will Dockery's near Drew (c. 1923). Inspired by Delta blues kingpin Charley Patton, a Dockery resident, and Howlin’ Wolf, who often performed in Drew, Staples took up guitar and began frequenting local juke house parties, but also sang in church and at local gospel gatherings, sometimes with the Golden Trumpets in Carroll and Montgomery counties. Although he chose to stay on the gospel path, he remained a lifelong blues fan and was a friend to many blues singers, from Wolf and Muddy Waters to Albert and B. B. King.
Staples’ children Cleotha and Pervis were born at Dockery, followed by Yvonne, Mavis, and Cynthia after the family moved to Chicago. Staples put the guitar aside for several years while he worked as a laborer to support his brood, although he sang locally with the Trumpet Jubilees. Around 1948 he decided to put together a family group, and soon the Staple Singers were performing at area churches and gospel shows. Their 1956 recording of “Uncloudy Day” brought them widespread attention, both within and outside the gospel world. Among their many later hits, most of them featuring Mavis Staples’ powerful lead vocals, were “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,” and “Let’s Do It Again.” Pops Staples professed not to be a blues singer, but he did collaborate with guitarists Albert King and Steve Cropper on the Stax album Jammed Together, and he won a GRAMMY® in the Contemporary Blues category in 1994 for his final CD, Father Father. “It’s just my way of playing,” he explained. “I can’t get away from it – it’s gonna have a little touch of blues.” The Rhythm & Blues Foundation honored Staples with a Pioneer Award in 1992, and in 1998 he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
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