It has become a bit of a cliche to say 50s artists like Ray Charles contributed to popular music by merging a gospel feel into rhythm and blues. It is a good example of a cliche that rings true. Yet not much is said about the accomplishment of Pops Stable and his children. While Ray was merging gospel and soul together, Pops was taking elements of the blues and blending them into gospel.
It is also unfortunate that most people know The Staple Singers for their hits in the 70s like "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself". These are great songs but I prefer the earlier gospel and folk sound of the Staple Singers. There were a few things that made this gospel group so good but sound so different. First there was Pops Staple's guitar with its generous amount of tremolo. It was right out of delta blues and it made their gospel sound unlike any other. Second, there was Pops' limited but intimate voice and his stirring narrations before and during the songs. Third, and maybe most importantly, there was the rich contralto voice of Mavis Staple, a deep, solid voice that rivaled both Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin for pure emotion.
Greg Kot has written a detailed and solid biography of the Staple Singers. In fact, I would say it is one of the most enjoyable biographies I've read in a long time. But it should be mentioned that, while Mavis gets her name in the title, it is a biography about all the Staples with emphasis of the patriarchal Pops. He starts with the birth of Roebuck "Pops" Staple. Roebuck's father was a sharecropper in the south. It is simply coincidence that I was reading this during the flap with Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty over his comments on gays and blacks. But if anyone want the truth about the era before civil rights when Robertson stated the "Blacks were happy" in the deep south, they should read the first 50 pages of this book. Roebuck related how it was and what black-white relations were really like at that time. Pops Stable was raised in the church but enjoyed hanging around blues men where he learn his distinct guitar style. The author follows Pops Stable and his family to Chicago where they formed the Staple Singers and became major gospel stars. But what I found fascinating is how Kot explains the shifts in the Staple's music from being gospel stars in the 50s to regulars on the 60s folk circuit to R& B stars with Stax Records in the 70s. Yet the sound remains unmistakable and loyal to the family's spiritual values. Pops for the most part stayed in his gospel roots and recorded song that were either spiritual or had an uplifting message. Whether it was a church song, a Dylan song like "Masters of War", The Band's The Weight.", or the definitely secular "Respect Yourself" there was always a message. The Staple Singers were not only great musicians but they made you feel good about...well..everything.
So whether it was gospel, folk or R&B, the author of this excellent biography has it covered. But he also hits the more gossipy parts; Pops' friendship with Martin Luther King, Mavis' love affair with Bob Dylan, and Pops' unusual business dealing that sometimes involved a pistol. Kot spends a lot of time on their 70s stint with Stax Records not only because that was where they made hits that made them an household name, but was also a difficult time for them due to issues with music moguls Al Bell and other people attempting to interfere with their signature sound. The author continues through Pops death in 2000 and Mavis' solo career in the 20000s. There is plenty of good info on early gospel scene and the author certainly knows the music.
I would recommend this book to anything who likes gospel, soul and R&B and wishes to learn about one of the most influential group in all three genres.