The song was there amid the highs and lows of the top 40, tucked among "Kung Fu Fighting," "Me and Mrs. Jones," "Maggie May," and countless other 70s one-offs, novelties and classics. The Staple Singers’ "I’ll Take You There" was in the air, like oxygen. Years after I first heard it in my parents’ kitchen on a transistor radio, it always seemed to be part of my life – I would find myself humming the bass line while waiting for an elevator or muttering "Ain’t no smiling faces" as I walked down a downtown Chicago street at rush hour. A few decades later, after hearing the song dozens if not hundreds of times, it dawned on me: There are only about five lines of verse in the entire song, spanning more than 4 minutes. The rest is just a magic act between the band (the Muscle Shoals rhythm section) and Mavis Staples, backed by her family.
In interviewing the people in the studio when "I’ll Take You There" was recorded, they all still sound in awe of what happened that day.
"The ‘I’ll Take You There’ session rates as high as any we ever did," guitarist Jimmie Johnson told me, an amazing assertion when one considers that the Muscle Shoals guys had worked with many of the greats: the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon and on and on.
"She was living that song," says producer Al Bell, who was watching the whole thing go down from the control room. "Every note they were playing, like she was willing it to happen."
A few years after "I’ll Take You There" hit, there was the Band’s Last Waltz. The Staples performed "The Weight" and walked away with the movie. Maybe it was the way Martin Scorsese’s camera circled the family and the Band as they mingled their voices, the proud grins of sisters Cleotha and Yvonne as they glanced over at their father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, as he sang his lines about Luke waiting on the judgment day. Or the way Mavis just took it to church in the last minute, enfolded by harmonies, bowing her head and exhaling her one-word review of the performance: "Beautiful."
The Staples shaped the gospel boom of the 50s; helped put Bob Dylan on the map by covering his songs; framed the civil rights soundtrack at the side of their close friend and spiritual guide, Martin Luther King Jr.; defined the message and protest music era; and sold millions of albums and singles while recording with Stax in Memphis during the 70s. Then Pops and Mavis reinvented themselves as Grammy-winning solo artists. Connect all the dots and you have a picture not only of music’s evolution in the last half-century but also of the trials and triumphs of the African-American community.
When Mavis Staples began her comeback in 2004 a few years after Pops’ death, she willed herself back into the public conversation. As Mavis Staples turns 75 years old this year, it’s time to ask: How many artists have sustained their brilliance over six decades the way she has?
That there had never been an in-depth book about the family’s accomplishments made it imperative that someone write one while Pops Staples’ children were still here to tell it. Mavis and her family cooperated fully with I’ll Take You There by opening their homes and archives to me. Mavis sat down for the most extensive series of interviews she’d ever given, spanning several years and dozens of hours. She also tracked down a memoir that Pops had written shortly before his death but never had published. It proved to be a treasure trove of information about his life on a Mississippi sharecroppers' farm in the 1920s and 30s – and not just any farm, but the famed Dockery Farm, the cradle of the blues, where he learned to play guitar by watching Charley Patton play.
Pops was a musical visionary – “you play gospel in a blues key,” Duke Ellington once told him – and a one-of-a-kind guitar player. His sound and the group’s harmonies influenced Dylan, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, John Fogerty, the Band, Jeff Tweedy, Prince and countless other artists, who testify to their brilliance in the book.
The country singer Marty Stuart said it best about the group’s one-of-a-kind music. The Mississippi native was back home driving the back roads with a Staple Singers cassette playing. "I pulled over in the middle of this cotton field – it was pitch black in the Delta – and turned the car lights off, until all you heard was [the Staple Singers’ version of] ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ and ‘Uncloudy Day.’ It was so spooky. It was almost too much for the heart to take, and beautiful. It was like the ghosts coming down from heaven. It scared me, and it moved me."
It is the relationship between Pops and his children, particularly Mavis, that steers the narrative. But it’s the Staple Singers music that brings the ghosts down from heaven.
On Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 1 pm, at the Rock Hall's Library and Archives located at 2809 Woodland Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, author Greg Kot will present on and do a short reading from his most recent book, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway. Register now!
Greg Kot has been the music critic at the Chicago Tribune since 1990. Kot is cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio program "Sound Opinions" and the author of several books, including Wilco: Learning How to Die and. Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. He lives in Chicago.