It’s simultaneously accurate and a little misleading to call “I’ll Take You There” a biography of Mavis Staples. Yes, the book traces the life and impressively long career of the godmother of the musical genre where gospel, R&B and folk meet. But it focuses almost as much on the members of her family’s influential group, the Staple Singers , and their transformation from modest church crooners into successful pop stars whose sound echoed the black pride that blossomed during the civil rights era. Greg Kot understands that you can’t tell the story of Mavis without telling the story of the Staples.
That story wends its way through top 40 hits and recording sessions at Muscle Shoals, appearances at Wattstax and friendships with Martin Luther King, Jr.
But even when the Stapleses had become irrefutable somebodies — making upwards of $60,000 a year when the average family income in this country was $6,000 — they were still frequently treated like nobodies. On the road, Pops Staples — the family patriarch as well as member, manager and chief architect of the Staple Singers — often had a hard time finding hotels willing to accept their money. In 1964, the family was even taken into police custody near Memphis after a scuffle with a gas station attendant who lobbed the n-word at Pops, then attempted to frame him for a robbery. But once they arrived at the station, the Staples discovered they had a fan in the police captain. Occasionally, fame did have its privileges.
Kot, the Chicago Tribune’s music critic for more than two decades, relates story after story like this one, digging into the history of Pops and his talented offspring. Writing with the cooperation of Mavis Staples and her family, Kot takes full advantage of that access as well as his apparent skills as an interviewer capable of coaxing candor from his subjects.
“The Newport Folk Festival was our first kiss, I’ll tell you that,” Mavis Staples confides at one point. “I haven’t told anybody that.” It’s a significant confession considering that she is talking about Bob Dylan, who was her boyfriend back in the 1960s. Though Dylan had other romantic relationships at the time, he asked Staples to marry him, a proposal she turned down. “To this day, I could kick myself, because we were really in love,” she says. “It was my first love, and it was the one I lost.”
While the marriage never happened, the music of both artists certainly commingled in the ’60s air. As the book points out, like Dylan, the Staple Singers were capturing what was blowin’ in the wind — although from an African American perspective. With spiritually infused tracks like “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad),” which was directly inspired by the Little Rock Nine (who desegregated that city’s public schools), and concerts that, as Kot writes, “were, in effect, extensions of [Martin Luther] King’s rallies,” they were making message music that slowly inched them further from their gospel roots and closer to the mainstream. In 1972, with the No. 1 smash that gives this book its title — “I’ll Take You There” — they had become a crossover act with a knack for delivering funky pop-psalms.
Kot covers all of the Staple Singers’ efforts, as well as Mavis’s emergence as a solo artist, with reverence for Pops’s influential, tremolo-style guitar work and Mavis’s husky, hearty voice. But being a critic, he’s also not afraid to mention missteps. He notes that “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” a big Staple Singers hit in 1973, is essentially a musical knock-off of “I’ll Take You There” with “perfunctory” lyrics.
Overall, the book’s tone is honest but respectful. Kot does not hesitate to mention that the happily married Pops Staples had an eye for the ladies. Nor does he ignore the sad 1973 suicide of Cynthia Staples, the youngest of the four siblings and the only one left out of the family business. But he doesn’t linger too long on these matters, either, opting to continue the compelling march through the Staples discography and into Mavis Staples’s reemergence as an artist following her father’s death in 2000.
Ultimately, Kot depicts the endurance of Mavis Staples and her family’s music as an inspiration, a saga that takes us, like the song that inspired this book’s name, to a place where ain’t nobody crying.
Chaney is a culture writer whose work appears in The Washington Post, Vulture, the Dissolve and other outlets.
I’LL TAKE YOU THERE
Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers,
and the March Up Freedom’s Highway
By Greg Kot
Scribner. 308 pp. $26