Friday, August 20, 2010

Pops Staples Interview: Playing for Peace

The Staple Singers recorded some of the most transcendent gospel and inspired pop of the 20th century. With his gentle voice and sublime guitar style, Roebuck “Pops” Staples anchored the family quartet that featured, at various times, his son Pervis and his daughters Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis. Although the Staple Singers were based in Chicago, Pops’ Mississippi Delta roots influenced his music throughout his life.

Pops was born in 1914 in rural Winona, Mississippi, and at age eight moved to Will Dockery’s plantation in Sunflower County. As a child he worked the fields. “The first music that I listened to was a cappella singing in the churches,” Pops remembered. “I was always into gospel right from a boy on up. I got into blues stuff after the gospel when I got to be 12, 13 years old.” In his youth he watched legendary Charley Patton play in front of Dockery’s general store. His favorite local bluesman, though, was young Howlin’ Wolf, who’d stand in front of the depot and play for tips. Once he had his own guitar, Pops learned the local non-bottleneck blues styles. At 16 he joined the Golden Trumpets, a Methodist quartet. He married his grade school sweetheart, Oceola Ware, and the couple had their first child, Cleotha, in 1934, followed soon afterward by Pervis.

Seeking a better life for his family, Pops moved to Chicago in 1935 and found work in the stockyards. His wife and children joined him the following year. Pops became a member of the Baptist church – his brother Chester was a reverend – and began singing with the Chicago-based Trumpet Jubilees. His daughter Yvonne was born in 1938, followed by Mavis in 1939. For many years Pops was too busy raising his family to play guitar – in fact, he didn’t even own one. As Mavis recalled, “I was about seven when I first saw my father play guitar. He had gone to a pawn shop and paid $30 to $35 for it. It only had three strings on it, and he had to save enough money to buy three more. He played the three-string instrument as best he could, then called us kids into the room and gave us parts to sing along with what he played.” And thus was born the world-famous Staple Singers.

The Staple Singers, circa 1951: Pervis, Pops, Cleotha, and Mavis.

By the late 1940s, the original lineup – Pops, Pervis, Cleotha, and Mavis – was singing in churches. They launched their recording career in 1953 with the Royal single “These Are They”/“Faith and Grace,” which they sold at concerts. A friend took them over to United Records, where they did their first session to piano accompaniment. At a follow-up session in 1954, Pops’ guitar was front and center in the mix. In 1955 they jumped to the Vee Jay label, recording their classic “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray” at their first session. At their 1956 Vee Jay session, the Staple Singers recorded one of the best-selling gospel singles of the year, “Uncloudy Day.” Education came first in the Staples family, and after Mavis graduated from high school in 1957, Pops quit his day job to focus his energies on the group. He subsequently completed his own high school education.

Pops enjoyed a long friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, who inspired him to begin recording protest songs. The Staple Singers went on to record pop and soul songs for Riverside and Epic, but didn’t hit their commercial stride until signing with Stax in 1968. In a rare appearance outside of his family group, Pops recorded the bluesy Jammed Together album with Albert King and Steve Cropper in 1969. The Staple Singers struck gold in the early 1970s with a series of inspirational pop/soul singles – “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” (#1 in April ’72), and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” When Stax’s fortunes began to wane, they signed with Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1975 and scored two more Top-10 hits with “Let’s Do It Again” and “New Orleans.” The Staple Singers appeared in three notable 1970s concert films: Soul to Soul, Wattstax, and The Last Waltz. The group’s final appearance in the R&B charts came in 1984.

After Mavis left the group to go solo, Pops flirted with acting, appearing in the Talking Heads film True Stories. He also made the rounds of blues festivals, where he usually sang gospel songs. In 1992, he realized his long-held dream of recording a solo album. Featuring the Staple Singers, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Ry Cooder, Peace to the Neighborhood is nothing short of a masterpiece of love and hope. Soon after its release, I met with Pops in a San Francisco hotel room. It was May 11, 1992, and he was happy to talk about his life and music. Here, for the first time, is that conversation.

* * * *

On the new record, I hear a similarity between your music and Muddy Waters’, in that you both understand the power of keeping it simple.

Yes. In fact, that’s the best way to try to execute and explain yourself and what you’re trying to do to the people. I’m trying to play my music to something constructive and trying to get peace here between the United States and the people – what Chicago call the “melting pot,” all nationalities. I just can’t figure out why there’s a difference in people in the United States. Some have, and some have not. Some get the privilege, some don’t. I’m trying to sing songs that together we stand and divided we fall – that’s just not in the family, that’s in the whole United States. If we stick together, we will stand. If we don’t, I’m afraid somewhere down the line we gonna fall. It might be a long ways, but if you’re keeping one nationality down, you’re gonna be down there with ’em. The only way to get up is to carry the people along with you. If I’m down here and you’re up here, you gotta look back down here to try to bring me up. I don’t care who you are or how big you are – I think the onliest time you should look down on a person is when you’re lookin’ down to pick him up.

Everybody is somebody – it doesn’t make any difference whether you are the President or whether you’re a drunk walkin’ the streets, sleepin’ in the streets. Everybody is a human being. God love all of us the same. There ain’t big guys or little guys in the sight of God. So I would just like to try to get a song over for the people to listen. And the song’s trying to say don’t use cocaine, because it’s detrimental to your whole body and soul. It’s no good for you. That’s all, that’s all. I’m not trying to preach to nobody. I feel good. I live good, and I feel good. I’m 77 years old, and shoot, and I feel good because I don’t worry about nothin’. There’s no use to worryin’. So that’s my main emphasis – just try to help somebody along the way.

Throughout your career, going all the way back to the Vee Jay material, it seems your message has been that music is a healing force. Music can bring a person closer to what’s truly important.

Yes, yes. Right. I believe that it’s a healing to the soul. It’s a healing to the feeling of the people. Talkin’ to a lady the other day – she was riding down the freeway, and she was very depressed. Didn’t know why, didn’t know what to do. She was just depressed. And driving along playing the radio, one of the Staple Singers songs was put on. That song was sung through, and when it was finished, she said that it was like a load was lifted off her. She says, “Pops, that went on for the day!” That gave her all kinds of jubilee, made her feel good. And I feel good when people like that are gettin’ the message.

A little child come up to Mavis: “Mavis, you talk about you ‘take us there.’ Say, what y’all talkin’ about? Where y’all gonna take us to?” And Mavis say, “Well, what do you think?” She say, “Well, I don’t know, Mavis. I don’t know no place you can take us. The only place I know you can take us is to heaven.” So Mavis says, “That’s just what I’m talking about.” They listen, you know – they be listening. That’s what we talkin’ about – we gonna take you to heaven. Come on and go to heaven with us.

Respect yourself.

“Respect Yourself” – now, that’s my favorite! Respect yourself. If you don’t have no respect . . . When I was a boy, I had to respect my parents. Not only my parents, but my peers’ parents. Any older person, you would have respect for them. But now, we don’t have no respect for one another, nobody. That’s bad. But back in those days, it was a better world. We were living in places where we didn’t have to lock the doors, leave your guns and everything in the house, shotgun what you hunt with, pistol, whatever. Go out of town, wherever, leave your door unlocked. Come back and everything is the same. You can’t do that now. They won’t let ya.

Was it a more difficult time in terms of people having to work harder and having to face racial prejudice?

Well, yes. It’s always been that way. We worked hard. The black worked hard down there, the white did too. In farming, all of us work about the same, but the white farmer got different treatments than the black farmer. It always has been that we had a harder struggle than the white because they could get paid for some of their cuttin’ or their ginnin’. The black people had to wait until the end of the year before they got theirs, so that was tough. That’s why I left.

When you were young, was there a difference between spiritual music and gospel music?

Yes. Spirituals is a song like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Comin’ to Carry Me On,” and gospel music was brought out sometime in the late ’30s or ’40s, I believe. Songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by Rev. Dorsey – that was a gospel number. There’s a difference between spiritual and gospel.

Some people call Rev. Thomas Dorsey the “Father of Gospel Music” Do you think that’s fair?

I know it is! Whoo, ain’t no “think” – I know it is. Yeah, he’s it. Dr. Dorsey was away on a tour – I don’t know whether he was singing’ the blues then or what, because he was a bluesman too – and his family passed, his [child and] wife. And she was the backbone of him. He didn’t know what to do. And that’s when he wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It come off from that, and he been goin’ ever since then. He’s still livin’ – oh yes! He’s just layin’ there, a sick man, but he’s still livin’.

Is he still at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago?

Yes, yes. Still there. [Blogger’s note: Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey passed away on January 23, 1993.]

What year did you leave Mississippi?

’35. Got to Chicago, I had $12 in my pocket. Winter time. Nowhere to stay. But I did check up with my wife’s uncle, and I had a sister there. I went and stayed with her until I got a job.

Was there a church in Chicago where you played regularly?

You know, I’ve got to go by there and get a picture of the first church I ever sung at in Chicago, if it’s there. I doubt it’s there, though. It was just a small storefront church. I sung at Pilgrim Baptist Church, Canaan, Metropolitan, and Shiloh. Lot of churches are still there, but I want to see the first one.

Do you still play in church?

Yes, I play in church. We hardly play any shows in church, because churches don’t like to charge, but they like to use the Staple Singers because they can rent a hall and charge at the hall and raise benefits for the church.

I’ve read that you were one of the first people to bring the guitar into a Methodist ceremony.

I was the first artist with a singing group to take the guitar and go into church, which they didn’t allow. And they had faith and believed in Pops Staples and the Staple Singers. You know, we wasn’t trying to start something for money or nothing. We were just singing because we love God’s word and we love God. We were singing for the praises of God. And the ministers could see that. They let us come in with the guitar, and that started the whole ball rolling. The Soul Stirrers, Blind Boys, Nightingales, Swan Silvertones, all of them – we would come to Chicago to sing on radio. They got to their songs, and I was on one end of the studio and had a guitar, and that was fascinating to them. The next time around, everybody came to Chicago had guitar. Something new, see? They had sung themselves out, went all over the world, just singing a cappella. And that was a new thing – the guitar was new! Now, they got guitar, bass, drum, everything.

Pops holds the Les Paul heard on the Staple Singers’ classic Vee Jay records.

In the beginning, were you playing electric guitar in church?

No. Acoustic.

Was this in Mississippi or Chicago?

Chicago. I started playing blues down in Mississippi. I was playing blues on Saturday night in house parties. Didn’t have my heart in it, but I just knew how to play. Weren’t enough guitar players around to go to all these parties, so I was hired to play in that style. [At this point, I hand Pops an old photo of Charley Patton.]

Were you familiar with this fellow?

[Laughs.] We stayed on the same plantation. Sure enough. How old is this picture – do you know?

That’s about 1930.

Mm, mm, mm. Charley Patton used to be on the lower place at Dockery – I was in the upper. Last year I was down in Indianola, Mississippi. We put a tombstone there. That man been dead how long, about 50 years? And they just put on his tombstone. I went down and sung at the ceremony.

Did you see him play when you were young?

Saw him on the upper place, yeah. I didn’t know much about it – I was just a boy. And he – whoo! And from there, I seen Howlin’ Wolf. Howlin’ Wolf was a young man. And Dick Banks – Dick Banks never did make the records. And Bill Holloway, the guitar player. I said, “If I get to be a man, I’m gonna play a guitar.” So when I got to be about 12 years, I bought me a guitar and started to play.

Did you buy it from a catalog?

No, I bought it right out of a hardware. A Stella – cost five dollars. One of the best acoustic guitars I ever owned. I bought it in Drew, Mississippi, where I be on the 5th of June this year. They’ll name the park after me. We goin’ to celebrate there. So I bought that guitar there. Paid five dollars for it. Times was so hard, I bought it on time. Put fifty cents down, and I paid it off.

B.B. King told me that back then, guitarists used a pencil and string to make a capo.

Yes! [Laughs heartily.] Did you ever see that?


Yeah! That’s what we’d use for a capo. Piece of string to tie it down. Yep, that’s the way we’d do it, see. [Pops gets his Stratocaster to demonstrate.] Take the pencil, put it across like that [between two frets], take a string right around there [demonstrates how to wrap a string around both sides of the pencil], bear down on that tight. Tie the string, you got a capo.

Mr. King also said that worked when you broke a string – you could sometimes tie the string back together and put a pencil capo above the knot.

[Laughs.] See, that was the problem: We weren’t able to have strings if you break one. We had to piece it together and put a capo on it and just keep on usin’ the string.

Were those Black Diamond strings?

Yeah, Black Diamond.

Those things were like baling wire.

Yeah! Yeah.

When you saw Patton playing, was he by himself or with another guitarist?

Patton be by himself, more or less. And Howlin’ Wolf be by himself. I didn’t never see no one play with him. But Dick Banks, there was him and another guy, Bill. There was two guitar players.

Would they play at the train station?

Yes! That was good. Stand around, and people would just crowd up and throw money out there.

If a musician had a record out, would he have better luck?

I didn’t never experience seeing nobody had a record. [I hand Pops a photo of Robert Johnson.]

Did you ever encounter this musician?

Mm, mm. Never did. Now, I heard about him a lot. I never did see him, never did see him. Ah, boy. I heard so much of Robert. Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, Lonnie Johnson – of course I saw them.

I’ve always admired Son House.

Son House – I saw Son House! Oh, yes. He’s dead. I saw Son House in Boston. We played together. Ooh, Son House – he come up not so long ago. Yeah, not so long ago. He came in the ’70s.

He was a good slide player.

Yeah. I always wanted to play slide, but never did learn.

Why didn’t you?

Didn’t take the time. I played it pretty good, but the way they were playing it, you had to tune your guitar into E minor straight, and I never would change it. I played it one way all the time.

When did you get your first electric guitar?

In the ’40s.

Who was the first person you saw with an electric guitar? I heard Memphis Minnie was one of the first in Chicago.

I didn’t see her. Now, Big Bill – that’s about the first one I saw. Yeah.

Is it true he was a kindhearted guy?

Didn’t know too much about him. I just know he was good to musicians. I was quite young then too. I had just got married when I met Bill. I wasn’t even playing then. I had been playing down in Mississippi, but when I went to Chicago, Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim, they was playin’ together, and that started me back to wanting to play guitar.

So you gave up playing for a while?

Yes, I got married, and my wife was having children so fast, I had to get out and get a job. So I got that job. I worked about 12 years before I even picked up a guitar. I’d got rid of all of them. I got the kids, they was on the way, and I got them up. They was about eight years old when I started to go back [to playing guitar]. There was a time I always was active, and they had us both working – my wife and me. We did it ourselves. We worked to make ends meet. She worked at night and I worked in the day. So on my time off, I taught the children to sing. I’d babysit in the day while she worked, and we gathered around, and that’s the way we started singing. Right around the house.

What were the first songs you taught your children?

“If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” and “Do Not Pass Me By” – those kind of songs. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

You have such a distinctive guitar sound on your early records. I’d like to play you one of your old songs and ask you about it. [I play the opening of “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again.]

That was one of the first songs we ever played! Isn’t that something.

What were you doing with the guitar to give it that sound?

Nothin’. I was just playin’.

What kind of amplifier?

Gibson. [At this point Pops picks up his Strat and sings and plays the first verse of the song we’ve just heard. Even without amplification, that gentle tremolo sound is there – it turns out he created a lot of that effect with the way he’d move his left hand. In an interview several days later, Ry Cooder told me he’d experienced the same phenomena while working with Pops on the album.]

That’s so beautiful. Let me ask you about something else. [We listen to the first verse of “The Lord’s Prayer” from the Freedom Highway CD.]

Who did the vocal arrangement?

I did. The children were so young, they didn’t know how to sing in a key, what key, or nothin’. It’s four sounds, so I just took them and [Pops plays four descending notes of a major chord on his guitar, one at a time, singing the pitch for each one.]

Each child would take a note?

Yes, yes! That’s what I did. I give them a note [plays an A]. I said, “Now you keep that. Hold it!” So she sings [sings an A]. Each one gets a note. When they all sing together, that makes a chord. That’s the way I taught them how to sing. I said, “Now you just keep that sound all the way through.” That’s the way I taught them – no music or nothin’. I hit the string where they should be – where this one should be and where that one should be. That’s the way I taught them how to make that music.

When did you become aware that Mavis had such a great voice?

Mavis was two years before we could get her – like I was hittin’ that sting – to hold her tune. For about two years, we kept on singing around the house. That’s the reason I said, “Never think about going on no road,” so we was just singin’ for ourselves. After about two years, Pervis and me was singing lead. Mavis was singing contralto, and then Pervis’ voice got too heavy for lead. I said, “Mavis, you try it.” And right then, when she hit the first song, I said, “That’s something.” I knew then. One of the guys said, “Staples, man, you sure got a good group” – that was when Pervis and me were singin’. He said, “You did right to leave the other group and start your family.” And I said, “Yeah, you think so? You just wait a minute – you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Sure enough, about six more months, Mavis was taking off.

If somebody wanted to make a record of Pops Staples’ best guitar playing, what songs would have to be on there? Which ones have your best guitar arrangements?

Those, and “Uncloudy Day,” “I Been ’Buked and I Been Scorned,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Some of those songs. That would be some of my old songs, back in those days. I play about the same – I don’t change much. But I can’t get a amplifier now. They changes up so – instead of going good to better, it seem like that sound I was getting out of the amplifier then, can’t get it now.

Did you have a reverb or a tremolo?

It was a tremolo on it, but they don’t make the tremolos like they did. It’s different things.

Have you tried getting one of the old amps or do you still have yours?

No. I found one, but they wouldn’t sell it to me. Down in Los Angeles. Ry had a pretty good one, but Jackson Browne had the best one. Jackson Browne had what I needed. See, that’s the one that I wanted to get and put it on the song with Bonnie Raitt [“World in Motion”]. That was a Fender Twin. I don’t know if it was a 10 or 12 speaker, but it was a Twin. It had a little foot tremolo [control], and you step on it. On one side [of the effects device] a wire come into the amplifier, and on the other side a wire come to the guitar.

Do you know what kind of tremolo it was? MXR?

It wasn’t no MXR. I just can’t remember. Whoo! Lord knows, if I had knew that this day was comin’, I would have kept all that stuff, but I didn’t.

You got rid of your classic gear?

Yeah. I didn’t know how valuable it was.

Have you kept any guitars through the years?

No. I wish I’d have kept that Stella, and the Les Paul I got in Chicago. I got rid of it – it’s worth about three, four thousand dollars now.

Is that what you used with Vee Jay?

Yes. Les Paul.

What kind of guitar was on the songs we just heard?

Gibson Les Paul.

When you played on the Grammy Awards a couple of years ago, you conjured that old sound.

[Fingerpicks and sings the first verse of “It's Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” using his fretting fingers to create a tremolo effect.]

That’s so deep, so Mississippi.

[Laughs heartily.] That’s the Mississippi sound! Yeah.

Who are the best slide players you’ve seen?

[Sighs.] Ry Cooder in the late days. I didn’t pay much attention to them before Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt. I wouldn’t give one for the other. So there’s two of ’em – Ry and Bonnie. I love both of ’em.

When you were growing up in Mississippi, did people use bottle necks to play slide?

Yes, broken bottle necks and pocketknives. Yeah, that’s what they used.

How would they make slides from bottles?

They’d break that bottle neck off, and somehow they would make it fit their finger, and they’d play with it like that. But the knives, they would lay the guitar down on the lap and play with the knife. But with the bottle they could play with the guitar up.

That song you just played – “It's Nobody’s Fault but Mine” – did you ever hear the old 78 by Blind Willie Johnson?

Blind Willie Johnson. That’s where I got it from.

When you were a child, did you ever hear people call blues “devil’s music”?

Yes, yes. That’s why they didn’t want it in the church. Because that’s the “devil’s music.” Not only the blues, the guitar was the “devil’s instrument.” And the Bible said we should use strings and wind horns and all to make music and praise God, but they took it for devil’s music. It’s not the instrument. It’s what you play on the instrument. You know that.

Rev. Gatemouth Moore told me last summer that the only difference between blues and gospel is you say “Jesus” instead of “baby.”

I’ve heard that. I’ve heard that. You got to have the feeling in your heart and the meaning. So many have took the gospel songs and sung with a blues feeling, and took the blues songs and made a gospel-song feeling. I take the blues feeling and do gospel. What I call “gospel” is truth. I sing truth for song. Songs have meaning.

Rev. Dorsey defined gospel music as “good news.”

Yeah, it is. It is.

What song did you play at Muddy Waters’ funeral?

“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, Since I Lay My Burden Down.” Same thing I sang at Willie Dixon’s. I was in London when I sung for him. He passed while I was in London. We made a beautiful tape. He was doing some talking, and I sung on it. Muddy Waters and his.

When you’re looking to get a guitar, how can you tell when you’ve found a good one?

Well, I’ve been using a Fender all the time. I been using this one here, that Strat, for about a year now. It’s different in the feel of the neck. You can get the same guitar, same color and everything, but it won’t play like this guitar. You have to pick by the way it feels to your hand. That’s the way I pick mine. Of course, Fender made me a beautiful guitar – I guess it cost, oh, $1,100 – and they give it to me. I endorsed it, and they gave it to me. It’s beautiful, but I haven’t learned how to play it like I have this one [points to the Strat in his hotel room]. I got this one. The one Fender made me got pearl all up and down the neck and got my name engraved in it, but I play this one. And they gave me this one for half price.

Do you play as much guitar now as you did twenty years ago?

No. I hardly ever play that much. I play more now since I made this record than I played in five or six years.

How great to be able to make this record.

The Lord has given me the strength and the will and the songs and brought stuff to me to do. I’m doin’ very good with it. I got more write-ups with it than with anything, even with the Staple Singers. [Pulls out a copy of Jet magazine and points to an article.] That’s what come out in the Jet – that’s the Staple Singers’ magazine. That Jet came out last week. You can’t hardly get nothin’ in the Jet, but they thought enough of me and they think the record is well enough to put me in there.

This article says it took you forty years to go solo!

[Laughs.] I didn’t want to go solo! I always said when I was a boy, “If I ever get to be a man, I’m gonna make me a record.” So I’m just now getting to it, just now getting to it.

Must feel pretty good.

Yeah, it does. It does.

Plus in such a difficult time, it’s wonderful to have an uplifting message.

Yeah. I wonder sometime, does it do any good. It must be, because everybody talking about all the destruction in Los Angeles and all this stuff going on. The record seem like it come up just at the right time.

The title says it all – Peace to the Neighborhood.

“Peace to the Neighborhood” – see, that’s what I strive for, Jas. Tryin’ to bring peace to everybody that’s miserable tryin’ to make it. You can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstrap. You need help sometimes. I was a lucky guy to be able to bring my children up. Through the time that I was comin’ up, I had to work for three dollars a week – a whole week, sunup to sundown. Three dollars a week – that’s less than you get for an hour’s pay now on the minimum wage. But now, I am blessed to bring my kids up and we made a nice living out of it. Because I want to do the right thing. I’m trying my best to help if I can. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s my aim and my purpose.


After our interview, Pops asked me to send him some Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie Johnson music, which I was happy to do. Later that year, Peace in the Neighborhood
 earned him a Grammy nomination. His follow-up album, Father, Father, won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 1999, the Staples Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Months later, 85-year-old Pops Staples fell in his home in Dalton, Illinois, and suffered a concussion; he passed away on December 19, 2000.

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