Fri February 21, 2014
Book Review: 'I'll Take You There' By Greg Kot
It is telling that album that finally did launch Mavis Staples' solo career was called Have A Little Faith.
Though most certainly it was a reference to her long career and deep roots in gospel, it was also about Mavis finally having a little faith in herself - belief enough to more comfortably step outside the warm embrace of the family she had performed with since she was a child, and assert her own presence and talent.
It was a belief strong enough that she was willing to sink some $40,000 of her own money into the project and then shop it around to labels. Alligator Records, better known for its 'houserocking blues' style, went for it. And finally, after so many years (and several abortive attempts), she began to be recognized for the unique and powerful talent that she was. In a series of albums that followed (now on the Anti- label), she won critical acclaim, a Grammy, and a host of high profile appearances.
Not that Mavis was a stranger to performing, and even stardom. She had been singing since she was a child. Her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, did the same from an early age as well, as he growing up in Mississippi. Blues was an early influence, along with gospel, and it would be one reason the Staples' sound was so different from both. Moving to Chicago (as so many African-Americans did during the Great Migration), he found work in the city's notorious stock yards and steel mills. But he continued to sing, and one day, fed up with the cavalier attitude of the gospel group he was with, he came home, gathered his children - son Pervis, and daughters Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis - and began to sing with them.
They started in local churches and gradually became stars on the gospel circuit, propelled by their brilliant recording of "Uncloudy Day." The family's distinctive sound - a mix of gospel and blues, unique family harmonies, and Pop's unearthly and deeply influential guitar - was unlike anything or anyone else.
Over time, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and a willingness to continue to modernize their sound and develop their own broader "message music," the Staples would become soul stars with a series of now classic recordings, including "Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There," and "If You're Ready," that they recorded on the legendary Stax label.
But like many artists of that era, changing times and tastes eventually left the Staples behind, relegated to the oldies circuit. Mavis made some attempts at solo projects - including while still at Stax and later two done with Prince - but nothing really took until Faith.
Greg Kot (rock critic with the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the radio rock talk show, Sound Opinions) chronicles this and more in his new book. He also touches on the stream of history (Chicago, African-American, the Civil Rights Movement, gospel music) that the Staples' lives and music flowed through, and the personal challenges (a failed marriage for Mavis, the death of the youngest of the siblings, and more) that shaped them.
But perhaps the key word there is 'touches.' I'll Take You There at times reads more like a newspaper feature piece than the kind of in-depth, wide-ranging study the Staples surely deserve. Robert Gordon's recent book about Stax, Respect Yourself (which takes its title from that Staples' hit on the label) provides an excellent template for the kind of deep exploration of the relationship of a particular music and artist to the place it comes from and the historical and political circumstances it is rooted in.
That said, I'll Take You There is an engaging read, propelled along by the story, sincerity and vivacity of the this remarkable musical family. And like Mavis Staples' success, it was long overdue.
Two feature pieces by Chris Heim from the Chicago Tribune that offer more about the history and the music of the Staple Singers: