Roebuck "Pops" Staples, who led his family vocal group, the Staple Singers, from gospel music into the forefront of socially conscious rhythm & blues and to the top of the pop music charts, died Tuesday in Chicago. He was 84.
Staples suffered a concussion recently in a fall near his home in suburban Dolton. He would have turned 85 on Dec. 28.
The Staple Singers' biggest hits, including "Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There," "If You're Ready [Come Go With Me]" and "Let's Do It Again," represented collaborations with some of R&B's leading figures, and were marked by a distinctive mix of blues and gospel strains that reflected the elder Staples' background.
He was born in Winona, Miss., and in his teenage years he saw legendary blues musicians such as Charley Patton perform. He also was a churchgoer, and he began playing guitar and singing with a gospel group called the Four Trumpets.
In the mid-1930s Staples and his wife, Oceola, moved to Chicago, where he became a member of the Trumpet Jubilees. In the late 1940s he teamed up with his children--Pervis, Cleotha, Yvonne and 7-year-old Mavis--in a group that began singing at the city's churches. They made their first recordings in the 1950s for the United and Vee Jay labels.
In 1962, inspired by the preaching of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Staples turned to secular music with a positive social message. Among their 1960s recording for Epic was a version of Stephen Stills' Buffalo Springfield hit "For What It's Worth."
"We just kept on singing and praying, and we let our music carry the message," Staples said later. "When people realized that our music still had the message of love, our audience grew--old people came back, and new people kept coming."
The Staple Singers found their greatest success in the 1970s, after they had moved to Memphis' legendary Stax Records, where they worked first with guitarist-producer Steve Cropper and then producer Al Bell, who oversaw "Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There" and "If You're Ready [Come Go With Me]."
When Stax subsequently declined as a musical force, the Staples hooked up with an old Chicago friend, Curtis Mayfield, who used them on the soundtrack of the Sidney Poitier- Bill Cosby comedy "Let's Do It Again," for his Curtom label.
The title song, which reached No. 1 in 1975, was the Staples' last chart hit, but they continued on an unusually eclectic course. They had an R&B hit with a version of Talking Heads' "Slippery People," and Pops Staples played a voodoo doctor in David Byrne's 1986 movie "True Stories." He also appeared as himself in the 1997 film "Wag the Dog."
Staples recorded three solo albums in the 1990s, recruiting such collaborators as Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt. His 1994 album, "Father Father," won the Grammy for best contemporary blues album.
Staples is survived by his children, Cleotha, Yvonne, Pervis and Mavis. His wife, Oceola, died in 1987.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun