ON A SUNDAY in April 1965, the Staple Singers — Roebuck “Pops” Staples and three of his children: Mavis, Cleotha, and Pervis — performed for a large congregation at New Nazareth Church on Chicago’s South Side. It was something of a homecoming for the family, who by that time were already stars on the gospel circuit and were touring the country, even the dangerously divided Deep South, almost constantly. A white producer named Billy Sherrill (later one of the top hitmakers in country music) recorded that performance and released it as a live album, Freedom Highway, that would become one of the Staples’ best and most popular releases.
That show is notable for the debut of a new song called “Freedom Highway,” from which the album takes its title. It opens with a tangle of Pops’s bluesy guitar notes, spiky yet resonant in the sanctuary. With the entrance of a chugging rhythm section and some excitedly syncopated handclaps, the song launches into a rousing church-boogie groove that sounds almost too rambunctious for the setting. The vocals — half-shouted, half-sung — inject “Freedom Highway” with a sense of determined motion, as though the tempo is set not by the musicians themselves but by some outside force exhorting them onward. It might be God Himself, or it might be simply a shared sense of purpose. “Marching up freedom’s highway, marching each and every day!” the Staples sing in exuberant harmony, but one voice — that glorious baritone belonging to Mavis Staples — emerges to underscore the family’s fortitude: “Made up my mind, and I won’t turn around!”
What makes the performance so stirring, even to a listener in the Obama era, is its unbounded jubilation. The Staple Singers may have faced hostility and suspicion as African Americans, but their optimism would not be diminished. Like so many civil rights anthems, “Freedom Highway” helped to couch the movement within the church, to define freedom and equality as Christian virtues. Even as it reminded a seated congregation of their responsibilities outside the church, the song would remind marchers of the courage it would take to reach the end of their journey. “Keep on marching! Up freedom’s highway,” Pops preaches as the song reaches its conclusion and transitions fluidly into the next number in their set. Embedded in the lyrics and especially in the lively music is a sense of hope about the future: freedom is not some abstract idea far off in the future, but solid ground at the end of a gospel song.
This is the world Greg Kot depicts in his new book, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway:
In the New Nazareth Church concert, Pops connects the themes of gospel music and the civil rights movement more explicitly than ever before; it presents him not just as a musical innovator, but as a philosopher, preacher, and visionary, a melding of black church music and black popular music for a common cause. Church music was no longer just about making it through this world to get to the next one; it was also about living right now in the streets all African Americans shared.
“Freedom Highway” may provide only the subtitle to Kot’s book, but the idea of the song suffuses every chapter. It’s not explicitly a gospel song — there are no mentions of God or Christ, for example, nor any thoughts on scripture — yet it conflates the reward of freedom in America with the reward of a heavenly afterlife. Perhaps no group embodied that idea more than the Staple Singers, whose career spanned more than half a century from the late 1940s through the late 1990s — even longer if you count Mavis Staples’s recent albums, which stand among her best work. During the 1960s, they covered nearly every counterculture anthem of the era, including Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and played rallies with King and other civil rights leaders. In the 1970s, they took gospel even more mainstream by notching such hits as “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me).”
Pops, a native Mississippian who was one of so many African Americans who moved north to find better opportunities, started the Staple Singers in the 1940s after becoming disillusioned with other singing groups that didn’t take the job as seriously as he did. So he recruited three of his children and schooled them relentlessly in their South Side apartment: Pops played a guitar missing at least one string, and his children sat obediently at his feet taking instruction. As Kot sketches it, the scene is especially poignant, as they had no idea how their voices would alter the collective fate of so many African Americans.
At their first concert in 1948, eight-year-old Mavis was a standout, a small girl singing with an adult’s voice. As she explains to Kot, she had no idea of the impact her singing had on listeners: “People would come up crying and put money in my hand, and I didn’t understand. I thought I was hurting them.” During the family’s first concerts — and even after she had become a celebrity in her neighborhood — Mavis would sing toward the ceiling because she couldn’t bear to look at the congregation.
A small but feisty child who grew into an immensely self-possessed artist, Mavis emerges as the star of the Staple Singers, which makes her the dominant personality in Kot’s book. He quotes her interviews at length, allowing her to provide lively commentary on the family business and to air her many regrets: over her stalled romance with Bob Dylan, over the royalty disagreements that ended the Staples’ tenure at Stax, over the suicide of her sister Cynthia. As the book progresses, she marches on: after numerous attempts to launch a solo career, she finally found the right collaborators in the 2000s and brought civil rights anthems into the Obama era, first with We’ll Never Turn Back in 2007 and the live album, Hope at the Hideout, released on election day 2008 — a date that does not lack for significance within the civil rights movement. Kot pays less attention to her two most recent albums, 2010’s You Are Not Alone and 2013’s One True Vine, both of which were produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Hers is a remarkable revival.
Even so, Kot keeps his distance, stepping lightly around Mavis’s personal life. Late in the book, he explains that her crumbling marriage to an undertaker named Spencer Leak fueled her heart-rending performances on two solo albums for Stax Records, which included a strident cover of Otis Redding’s “Security” and a pained interpretation of the Bacharach/David tune “A House Is Not a Home.” “The performances are among the most personal of Mavis’s career and in many ways represent a breakthrough for her as a woman and a singer,” Kot observes. “[T]here’s not just sheer vocal power on display but also a knowingness and nuance that would have been beyond her only a few years before.” Obviously the relationship was a source of considerable pain for the singer, who never remarried, yet Kot barely even mentions Leak, much less his day-to-day life with Mavis, before that passage. As a result, what should be an emotional and creative turning point for her comes across as strangely perfunctory and anticlimactic.
If Mavis was the Staples’ star, then Pops was the family’s secret weapon: a singer, writer, and guitar player of great restraint and idiosyncrasy. As a bandleader, Kot writes, he was defined by “a balance of practicality and faith. The blues could pay the bills; gospel spoke to his heart. He didn’t see any disconnect as long as each was performed with sincerity.” That open-mindedness regarding secular versus sacred music allowed him and his family to expand on the midcentury gospel sound in surprising ways. Most notable was his guitar playing; while the instrument was not unusual in a church setting, most gospel artists, including Aretha Franklin, learned to sing along to a piano.
Pops’s guitar brought a very different sound — namely a sublime tremolo — and it defined the way his children approached a song, blended their voices, ad libbed the lyrics, and even comprehended the idea of sincerity. It set them apart from other gospel acts even as it inspired a generation of rock musicians, including John Fogerty and Robbie Robertson. “His style created an atmosphere that was immediately distinctive, a hypnotic swirl of reverberation, repetition, and riff,” writes Kot. “Chords were implied as much as articulated, notes were blurred, tones and overtones were carefully layered like the bricks Pops used to cement into places at his construction job.”
Theirs was a unique sound in Chicago, harking back to the Mississippi farmland and reminding many displaced African Americans of the rural homes they had left behind. “[T]he Staples delivered music amid the concrete and steel of Chicago that was solemn, Southern, and rural — ‘hillbilly,’ as gospel singer Donald Gay described it. To worshipers who still had the South in their DNA and their accents, this music was deeply nostalgic.”
While such gospel artists as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke bore considerable backlash from the church when they began performing secular music, the Staple Singers made a much more gradual transition, originally peppering their gospel albums with Dylan covers and counterculture anthems. As Kot notes, “The Staple Singers were a gospel group as far as Pops Staples was concerned, but his definition of ‘gospel’ had some play in it.” Dylan was a favorite source for socially conscious songs, but the family also teased out the spiritual messages in the Band’s “The Weight,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” None were written as gospel songs, but that’s exactly what they become when the Staples sing them. Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” released only months after his death, is a lovely reverie featuring his most restrained vocals. Mavis makes it sound politically and spiritually loaded, with lines like “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do” speaking directly to the experience of oppression and prejudice. In their version, the dock of the bay lies at the end of the freedom highway.
While they endured similar criticism from their churchgoing fans, the Staples nevertheless managed to bend secular music to their own concerns, finding and amplifying the moral messages in pop and folk tunes. In doing so, they crafted some of the most ebullient music of the 1970s, and Kot wisely points out the irony that they did so by journeying deep into Alabama, where old prejudices still lingered. In Muscle Shoals, they worked with producer and Stax president Al Bell as well as with Fame Studio’s legendary house band the Swampers, who had backed Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and many others. The Swampers were all white guys with long hair, which created some awkward moments when the Staples first arrived in Muscle Shoals, yet the fruits of their collaborations prove the advantages of an integrated society.
That music is defined by the Staples’ ecstatic harmonies, sophisticated genre-blurring arrangements, and a deep, relentless groove that sounds more triumphant than aggressive. One take of “I’ll Take You There” is rumored to ramble ecstatically for half an hour. That sense of celebration is key to conveying the songs’ messages; “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom),” “Love Is Plentiful,” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” counsel and caution without preaching or scolding. I’ll Take You There shows very clearly how these and other songs conveyed messages very similar to the Staples’ gospel numbers, except they allowed the family to reach bigger and much broader audiences around the world. While he describes the music in deftly evocative terms, Kot only tentatively delves into the songs’ lyrical content, derided by the critic Anthony Heilbut as “bubblegum.”
They were anything but. “I’ll Take You There,” for example, may contain only one verse, but that handful of lyrics address some knotty issues about race relations in America. Few lines in the 1972 song — or anywhere in the family’s catalog — weigh as heavily as “No more smiling faces / lying to the races.” As Peter Shapiro points out in his 2005 book Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, references to smiling faces abounded in early 1970s R&B, with hits like Sly & the Family Stone’s “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” and the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” revealing a dark duplicity behind the seemingly benign gesture. A smile could hide sinister motives, or as the Undisputed Truth sang, “Beware the handshake that hides a snake.”
Writes Shapiro: “Rarely had a popular African-American record […] been so direct about its protest. However, ‘I’ll Take You There’ […] was the least ambiguous of all the records that invoked the ‘smiling faces’ trope.” It seems unlikely that the Staple Singers would not have been aware of the implications of that line, yet “I’ll Take You There” derives its power not from the bleak implications of a smiling face, but from the exuberance with which Mavis dispels any cynicism whatsoever. She rambles and ad libs throughout the song, cajoling the Swampers to take solos and repeating the song’s promise until it’s impossible not to believe her. If Mavis promises a world where deceit and treachery are vanquished, she also knows that music is the best way to take us there.
In his capacity as a pop critic for the Chicago Tribune, Kot has covered the Staples for many years now, with close access to Mavis and her surviving siblings. Parts of I’ll Take You There are based on previous features he has written about the family, which may explain the uniformly short chapters and his matter-of-fact prose. Often this approach can lend urgency to a scene, as when Kot recounts the funeral of Pops’s mother or the recording sessions in Muscle Shoals, but just as often it reads more like a summary for a much longer and more in-depth account of the Staples’ lives and career. There is hardly a single paragraph that isn’t anchored to a lengthy quote from one of the musicians or someone in their circle, which suggests the literary equivalent of the talking-head format so prevalent in contemporary documentaries.
On the other hand, perhaps Kot’s deference to primary sources, as well as his sensitivity to the Staples’ private lives, reflects a particular strategy: The Staple Singers made music about the experience of overcoming oppressions; they sang about people — not just individuals, but whole races — finding and using their voices to determine their own fortunes. The biographer’s challenge is to avoid usurping those voices or interfering with their unique resonance, and in Kot’s book, the Staples speak for themselves. I’ll Take You There proves admirably generous to its subjects — albeit somewhat sparing toward the reader. The narrative may suffer somewhat, but it makes for a better story.
Stephen M. Deusner is a freelance writer currently based in Indiana.