The Staples Singers are, probably, the best known Gospel family, recording spiritual and secular music, over the last 50 years.
he family began appearing in Chicago-area churches in 1948, and signed their first professional contract in 1952. During their early career they recorded in an acoustic gospel-folk style with various labels: United Records, Vee-Jay Records, Checker Records, Riverside Records, and then Epic Records in 1965. While the family surname is “Staples”, the group used the singular form for its name, resulting in the group’s name being “The Staple Singers”.
It was on Epic that the Staple Singers began moving into mainstream pop markets, with “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” and “For What It’s Worth” (Stephen Stills) in 1967. In 1968, the Staple Singers signed to Stax Records and released two albums with Steve Cropper and Booker T & the MG’s — Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over. By 1970, Al Bell had become producer, and with Engineer Terry Manning, the family began recording at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and Memphis’ Ardent Studios, moving in a more funk and soul direction.
The first Stax hit was “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)”. Their 1971 recording of “Respect Yourself“, written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, peaked at number 2 on the R&B charts and was a number 12 pop hit as well. The song’s theme of self-empowerment had universal appeal, released in the period immediately following the intense American civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1972, the group had a huge No. 1 hit in the United States with “I’ll Take You There“. It topped both pop and R&B charts. “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” would become another big hit, reaching number 9 pop and number 1 on the R&B chart in 1973.
Then, after Stax’s bankruptcy in 1975, they signed to Curtis Mayfield‘s label, Curtom Records, and released “Let’s Do It Again“, produced by Mayfield; the song became their second No. 1 pop hit in the US. In 1976, they collaborated with The Band on the song “The Weight” for their film The Last Waltz. However, they were not able to regain their momentum, releasing only occasional minor hits. Their 1984 album Turning Point featured their final Top 40 hit, a cover of Talking Heads‘ “Slippery People” (which also reached the Top 5 on the Dance chart). In 1994, they again performed the song “The Weight” with Country music artist Marty Stuart for MCA Nashville‘s Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation, somewhat re-establishing an audience. The song “Respect Yourself” was used by Spike Lee in the soundtrack to his movie Crooklyn, made in 1994.
In 1999, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Pops Staples died of complications from a concussion suffered in December 2000. In 2005, the group was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Mavis Staples has continued to carry on the family tradition and continues to add her vocal talents to both the projects of other artists and her own solo ventures.