At Dockery's Farm, Pops learned guitar from Charley Patton, one of the architects of the Delta blues. He also worked for just 10 cents a day, and so joined the massive northward migration of African Americans, arriving in Chicago in 1936 with his wife, Oceala, and children Pervis and Cleotha, followed a few years later by the births of Yvonne and Mavis. For years, while Pops worked at a meatpacking plant, he sang in a traditional gospel quartet, the Trumpet Jubilees, but he grew increasingly frustrated when group members failed to show up for rehearsals.
"Pops finally came home one night, got the guitar out of the closet and called us in the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle and started giving us our parts," Staples recalls. She was 8 years old. Two years later, the Staple Singers made their debut in a Chicago church.
Mavis Staples and family in the 1973 documentary "Wattstax," above. Mavis (far left) with father Roebuck "Pops" and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne at RFK Stadium in 1976.
"Our sound was so unique," she says in severe understatement. First there was Pops's throbbing, tremolo-laden electric guitar, instantly identifiable for its bluesy underpinning. And there was the meld of traditional quartet vocals and the more modern unison leads of jubilee-style gospel ensembles. The Staple Singers' first recording, "Sit Down Servant," was released on a small label in 1953. By 1956, they had a national hit, when Vee Jay released "Uncloudy Day." Mavis Staples notes it "sold like R&B," in great part because of her confoundingly adult vocals.
"I was a skinny little knock-kneed girl with a big voice that comes from my mother's side," she says, chuckling. "Deejays would announce, 'This is little 15-year-old Mavis singing' and people would say it's gotta either be a man or a big lady. People were betting that I was not a little girl."
The Staple Singers followed with the first of many recordings of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and other hits including "This May Be the Last Time" (covered, with different lyrics, by the Rolling Stones) and began traveling, but only on weekends because Mavis had to finish high school.
"I missed every Monday in school," she says with a laugh, "because all the gospel shows were on Sunday. When I'd get home, Pops always gave me a little more lunch money because I was the lead singer."
Early on, she learned an important lesson, one that still resonates in her singing, which is notable for its subtlety and restraint, for inner fire rather than pointless ornamentation.
"We came to New York for a show and I saw kids my age and they were jumping around and singing at the top of their voices, and it looked like they were having so much fun," Staples recalls. "Well, when we got up to sing, I did that, too. Pops got me back in that dressing room and said, 'Mavis, what is wrong with you?' And he told me, 'You don't need no gimmick, you don't need to clown, you don't need to sing at the top of your voice.'
"He said, 'Be sincere in what you're doing and sing from your heart, because what comes from the heart reaches the heart.' He said, 'Make the message plain because you want to give people something, and if you get up there hollering and screaming, they ain't gonna remember nothin' you said, or hear anything you said.' Pops taught me the way to sing."
Having established themselves on the gospel circuit, the Staple Singers began to expand their following in the early '60s when they were embraced as part of the folk and blues revival while also becoming crucial to the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Staples recalls the family's first encounter with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., after a Saturday night concert in Montgomery, Ala., in 1963.
After church the next day, Pops told his children, " 'I really like this man's message and I think if he can preach it, we can sing it,' '' Staples recalls. "And we began writing songs. The first one was 'March Up Freedom's Highway' for the march from Selma to Montgomery. It felt like we were supposed to be there, like we were supposed to be singing these songs."
There would be others, including "Washington We're Watching You" and "It's a Long Walk to D.C." ("But I've got my marchin' shoes on," Staples sings, something she often does to underscore a memory). "Why Am I Treated So Bad" was written after watching television coverage of the black students known as the Little Rock Nine, who were denied entry to Central High School. It would become one of King's favorites.
Bobby and Mavis
On his 1962 debut album, Bob Dylan had a version of the Staple Singers' "Dying Man's Prayer," the 1927 Blind Lemon Jefferson blues also known as "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." In 1964, the Staple Singers became the first black group to cover Dylan when "Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" appeared on "This Little Light."
"We met Dylan right here in New York," Staples notes. "We came here to do a television show for Westinghouse and somebody introduced him to us, and he said, 'I know the Staple Singers.' And I said, 'How do you know us?' and he said, 'I've been listening to the Staple Singers since I was 12 years old!' "