Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Great Book for Music Fans. Greg Kot Captures the Passion of the Staple Singers in "I'll Take You There."

Life is a beautiful thing, of course, but it’s not always easy. Most lives have their ups and downs. We celebrate our successes and mourn our tragedies. Not all of us get the triumphant last arc that makes for a compelling memoir, but the Staple Singers got one. In I’ll Take You There: The Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway, music critic Greg Kot traces their lives from roots gospel to crossover success to modest oldies act and back to Grammy-winning credibility.

Born Roebuck Staples, Pops Staples family grew up sharecropping in Mississippi. Heading to Chicago (with a name like that, how could he not, and yes, his brother was named Sears) for a better life working the factories, he never forgot the music of his childhood. Raised in a church-going family, Pops dabbled in blues, but became born again in Chicago. Together with three of his kids, Mavis, Cleotha, and Pervis (with Yvonne taking over for Cleotha and then eventually for Pervis), they started singing gospel music in church. Folks considered their sound country, but by that they didn’t mean the contemporary music genre, but instead of the rural South.
There were a number of elements to their uniqueness, from Mavis’s deep voice to Cleedie’s soaring harmonies to Pops’ tremolo guitar. They’d cover the old standards and some new ones, and played to bigger and bigger audiences. To sum up their sound in their formative 1950s, it was Gospel music, but using the musical language of the blues.

Slowly they watched their friends like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin cross over to secular music. At first Pops wasn’t interested in crossover success, but his attitude changed by the protest movement. He decided that fighting for Civil Rights and acceptance was pretty much religion on earth.  And so they made the attempt to become stars on their own terms.

I’m not going to give you the whole story of their ups and downs; Greg Kot does it a hundred times better than me. And that’s not an understatement; I found I’ll Take You There compulsively readable. The Staples story is not your traditional up and down arc of show business, reaching a memoir-worthy plateau. That family had more than its share of breaks on the way up—it just seemed there wasn’t a record label who knew what to do with them, and when they did, like Stax, they fell into financial trouble.

I started following music aggressively in 1975, after most of their pop success in the early 70s, but I was as obsessed with the song "I’ll Take You There" as anyone. It really just can’t help but throw you into a hypnotic trance. Kot is gentle with their last pop hit, Curtis Mayfield’s "Let’s Do it Again," which was the second number one for the group. That was a racy number. But moving in that direction of sexy sex talking held no more crossover success for the band, and after their inability to ride the disco train, they had to rebuild their careers from the ground up. For Mavis, that meant begging for work, from singing gigs to an unsuccessful attempt at a Jheri Curl endorsement. For Cleotha, that meant a side gig as an insurance agent.

The Staple Singers story is one of trying to find success while being true to yourself. Pops was always looking of fair payment, and refused to open for the Rolling Stones when they offered the entire act $500 a night on a multi-million dollar tour. This was the kind of insult to injury the band would face; after all, the Rolling Stones had been strongly influenced by the Staple Singers arrangement for their rock and roll classic, "The Last Time." It turns out writing is heavily copyrighted, but arrangements are not, and since the song was a gospel standard, there was little Pops could do to get compensation.

I was also amused that Prince’s introduction to Mavis Staples was from hearing her sing backing vocals on Nona Hendryx’s song, “Baby Go Go.” This led to me listening to the song another three times (for those who remember that I made up record charts, that song hit #6 with me). Their collaboration led to two albums, the second of which, The Voice, is considered by Kot to be an underrated classic, with Prince having based the lyrics on a series of letters that Mavis Staples wrote to him. Once again, the Staples had bad timing, as Prince was cutting his ties to Paisley Park, the label he formed with Warner Brothers, and the album wasn't promoted.

In the end, both Pops and Mavis did find ways to return to their musical (if not Gospel) roots and find success, both earning Grammy awards later in their careers. But half the fun in Kot’s book is getting there—there are tons of details about recording the albums, gossip about Mavis’ rivalry with Aretha Franklin, and insights about how various influential people discovered the band. And boy did a lot of folks fall under their spell, from Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King, Jr., to Levon Helm, David Byrne, Ry Cooder, and Jeff Tweedy*.

Greg Kot really was the perfect person to write this book, particularly because he knows everything musical about Chicago, and the Staple Singers always stayed in Chicago, even after many studios decamped for elsewhere. Eventually a shared stomping ground led to the Grammy-winning Mavis Staples/Jeff Tweedy collaboration. One of the things I learned from I'll Take You There is that Mavis makes strong and lasting friendships. Boswellian Jannis (also quite knowledgeable about all things Chicago) told me that Staples sang at Tweedy's son's bar mitzvah. I confirmed this with a tweet.

So don't forget, we're hosting Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot to talk about I'll Take You There on Monday, January 27, 7 pm, at Boswell. My hat is off to the art director on this one--I love the jacket. And of course Brant Rumble was the editor. How could he not be?

While I was reading the book, I learned that our very good friend of Boswell, Martin Jack Rosenblum, passed away. We did a very nice joint event with Marty and Dave Luhrssen for their revised edition of Searching for Rock and Roll. We hosted another great event for Marty’s daughter, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, for her novel, Herself when She’s Missing. But mostly what I’ll miss is his presence in the store—his enthusiasm for books and music both, as well as his great kindness. Just a few minutes with Marty and my day would feel better.

Boy, would Marty have enjoyed this event. We will surely miss him.

*Greg Kot's first book was on Wilco.

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