Author Greg Kot on His New Book, a Biography of the Staple Singers
How did Pops get that guitar sound, the tremolo sound? He was doing it before Bo Diddley.
That was just a style that he picked up. When he brought the tremolo into the equation, everyone talked about what a stunning development that was. He didn't play like a traditional electric guitarist; he created more of an atmosphere, as opposed to playing chords. The B.B. King style was: Sing a line, respond with the guitar. With Pops, it was this atmospheric, droning, eerie style. And that was revolutionary. The effect dovetailed nicely with the voices, being a very stately, slightly mournful sound that seemed to be coming from a deep, dark past. It wasn't this uptempo, hand-clapping, "Let's go to meet Jesus, it's going to be a beautiful day" kind of sound.
The early recordings are kind of trancelike.
It does sound very progressive, not dated at all. That resonated with the audience. They became stars right away. It was Mavis that really turned them into a potent live act. Not only her ability to sing, but bringing that across to the audience. They would feel her sincerity and passion, her willingness to take the message to the audience. They were probably the single biggest gospel group in the early 1960s.
It was interesting to read how competitive the gospel circuit was at the time.
It was cutthroat. The singers were tough on each other. Mahalia Jackson didn't like competition; she didn't like anyone threatening her status as the Queen of Gospel. She never felt that way with Mavis; she was young enough that she didn't see her as a threat. Mahalia was more than willing to help them out. It was a tough, tough circuit. That's one of the reasons Pops was so willing early on to branch out. He knew that the Staple Singers weren't these big gospel singers, but that they were doing something different and worthwhile. He was willing to experiment a little bit. From the beginning, Pops was bringing this tremoloed blues guitar underneath the gospel harmonies that he learned in Mississippi with his family. Their later step into folk music was a matter of the content being something they could sing with sincerity and passion. They were the first group outside the folk movement to cover Bob Dylan's songs.
And, of course, there's the revelation that Dylan and Mavis had a fling.
Mavis actually talked to me about that ten years ago. I don't think the story was ever fleshed out before, so it was good to get to the chronology of what actually happened. To this day, I definitely feel that Dylan still has something going on for Mavis. You listen to the way he performs when he's in Mavis' company, and he's a different guy, a lot looser and giddier. Someone who's still a little head over heels.
It's interesting that in the early days they were so willing go to to Mississippi, go to places other groups wouldn't go, and risk serious harm. Were they ever scared doing that?
It meant a lot to Southerners, especially black Southerners, that they would perform at the height of the civil rights era. They were literally putting their life at risk playing some of these towns. Not so much the towns themselves, but the drives between the towns. But they were determined, because they knew their audience was there, and I don't think they felt scared. Pops was sort of fearless. He came from that area, and his children spent their summers there because he couldn't afford shoes for all of them. He just thought it was his territory, too. There were moments that they did feel they got away with something, but the people who saw them never forgot.
The group seems to lose steam quickly in the 1970s after the Wattstax festival and "Let's Do It Again." To what to you attribute that?
The trends changed, obviously. The disco era came in. I don't think disco was all that bad, but a lot of acts tried to conform to it, trying to make disco records for fear of being irrelevant. Well, guess what: You are irrelevant anyway since you made bad records. Secondly, Pops stopped writing. During the Stax era, when Al Bell took over, Al started bringing songs to them. He had the cream-of-crop of the songwriting elite writing for them. But Pops had been very involved in how the songs were put together, and he stopped doing that. He dried up as a creative force. That was a tough combination to overcome. They made a bunch of bad records, and Mavis pretty much says so now. It effectively ended their career. For ten years, they were not on the map musically. It took Prince calling Mavis to get them back on track.
At one point in the 1970s, Mavis was reduced to looking for local radio DJ gigs or commercial voiceovers. Did they make money off their recordings or publishing?
They started to, but those Stax bankruptcy proceedings really put a crimp in things for a long time. The royalty checks weren't flowing anymore. That started to open once the bankruptcy got cleared. I know that they got significant money starting with the series of box sets that came out on Stax in the early 1990s. Ever since, it's been pretty good. Even though they didn't get a writing credit on "I'll Take You There," which is still sort of a sin, they saw quite a bit of recording royalties come in after the song was used in a commercial. So things did turn around in the 1990s, but there was a long time when they were in limbo.
What are Pervis and Yvonne doing now?
Pervis is effectively retired. He had a heart attack about two years ago. He's living in the old house of his parents in Dalton, IL. It's a nice house and he's living a comfortable life, kind of the bachelor life. He's got a ton of kids and grandkids. Pervis definitely had a way with the ladies, even after he left the group. Yvonne lived in the apartment building next door to Mavis and still does. The sisters have been very close for a long time. Yvonne is still Mavis' closest friend in a lot of ways, very much an advisor. And she sings onstage and travels with Mavis wherever she goes.