Cleotha Staples, the eldest sibling in the influential gospel group the Staple Singers, died Feb. 21 at her home in Chicago. She was 78 and had Alzheimer’s disease, said Bill Carpenter, a family friend and music publicist.
The family’s music career had its roots with Roebuck “Pops” Staples, a manual laborer who strummed a $10 guitar while teaching his children gospel songs to keep them entertained in the evenings. After the family sang in church one Sunday morning in 1948 and received a particularly generous offering basket, the Staple Singers were born.
Two decades later, the group became unlikely hit makers for the Stax label, the home of southern music stars such as Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs.
The Staple Singers had a string of Top 40 hits with the Stax label in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The song “I’ll Take You There” spent a week at No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1972 and four weeks at the top of the R&B chart.
Cleotha Staples, known as “Cleedi,” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with her family in 1999 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys in 2005.
She was born April 11, 1934, in Drew, Miss., the first child of Pops and Oceola Staples. Two years later, the family moved to Chicago, where Pops Staples held a variety of jobs, and Oceola worked at a hotel. Four younger children were born in Chicago — Pervis, Yvonne, Mavis and Cynthia.
The Staple Singers became one of the biggest gospel groups of the era with songs such as “On My Way to Heaven,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Uncloudy Day.”
Pops and Mavis Staples primarily took the lead on the group’s vocals, but a 1969 recording of duets featured Cleotha’s voice on the song “It’s Too Late,” a bluesy ballad about a lost love.
The family also became active in the civil rights movement after hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a sermon in Montgomery, Ala., in 1962. They went on to perform at events at King’s request.
During that period, the family began recording protest songs, such as “Freedom Highway” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”