For as long as you can remember, there’s always been someone in your corner.
A sibling watched out for you on the playground. A teacher took you aside for extra tutoring. A neighbor watched your home, so you’d be safe. Someone mentored you; someone fed you; someone put you on the right path.
For most kids, though, the first advocate was a parent. And in the new book “I’ll Take You There” by Greg Kot, you’ll see how one father’s push left a mark on his family and on music.
Born on a “cold Mississippi Delta” in 1915, Roebuck Staples knew enough to stay away from white folks. He also understood that his father’s sharecropping life wasn’t his own future. No, Roebuck was obsessed with the guitar at a time when guitarists could make good money. So, at age 21, he moved to Chicago where he took a series of jobs to care for the family he’d had by then.
Before long, there were four children to feed: a boy and three girls (later, a fourth). There wasn’t much money to go around, so the children sometimes spent school years with their grandmother in Mississippi — but when the family was together, Roebuck (now called Pops) taught his children to sing.
Singing was something the Staples kids did often. Their neighborhood friends included Lou Rawls, Johnnie Taylor and Sam Cooke; Muddy Waters, Nat “King” Cole and Duke Ellington also performed in the area, although Pops insisted that his family stick to gospel songs. By the late 1940s, churches on Chicago ’s South Side were delighted to host the Staple Singers, headed up by 8-year-old Mavis.
By 1953, Pops had recorded his family’s performance and was shopping for record labels. When Mavis graduated from high school in 1957, the family began touring. By the early 1960s, they’d performed many times in the South.
But the South wasn’t like it was when Pops left it during the Depression years, and neither was music. Folk songs “merged” with the civil rights movement by 1963. Pops Staple, impressed with Dr. King’s work, started writing and performing songs to reflect society then.
And thus, says Kot, “The Staple Singers were unabashedly freedom fighters.”
Though it focused a little too much on dates and discography, I was overall impressed here. “I’ll Take You There” is a darn good story.
Whisking readers over a span of nearly 100 years, author Greg Kot presents a roller-coaster ride of the highs and lows of one of gospel and soul’s most iconic families. What I loved the best about it was seeing other singers and another time through the eyes of Mavis Staples, who is Kot’s main interviewee. That brought me back to my parents’ living room, a scratchy LP and things I’d almost forgotten.
This is a great look at history, both musically and culturally, and though the dates-and-discography part can overwhelm, I think it’s worth reading. If you’re particularly a fan of soul, R&B or gospel, “I’ll Take You There” is a book you’ll want to corner.
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“I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway” by Greg Kot
c.2014, Scribner $26.00 / $29.99 Canada 309 pages