Cleotha Staples obituary

Singer with the soul and gospel group the Staple Singers

During the second half of the 20th century, the Staple Singers became one of black America's favourite groups. After achieving fame with traditional gospel songs, they were inspired by Martin Luther King to embrace protest music, before moving on to soul with the Stax label of Memphis, Tennessee. The group consisted of Roebuck "Pops" Staples and his children. Of these, the mainstays of the Staple Singers were the youngest, Mavis, and the eldest, Cleotha, who has died aged 78.

Cleotha was born in rural Mississippi. Her father worked at various jobs but found his metier as a musician, learning the guitar from listening to renowned blues players such as Charley Patton and Howlin' Wolf. Roebuck's brother and sister had moved north to Chicago and in 1936 he followed them to the Windy City with his wife Oceola and the two-year-old Cleotha. There the family grew to five children and by the late 1940s, Pops had schooled Cleotha and her siblings in the close harmonies of classic gospel music. Cleotha (also known as Cleo or Cleedi) attended the city's Doolittle school, then the Dunbar trade school, where she learned dressmaking – she would later design and make stage outfits for the Staple Singers.

The family group began to perform at the Mount Zion Baptist church where Roebuck's brother Chester was the pastor and in 1953, the Staple Singers joined Vee Jay, one of Chicago's larger record companies. Here, they achieved national prominence with such records as On My Way to Heaven, Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Uncloudy Day, which is believed to have been the first million-selling gospel single.

Pops built the vocal sound around Cleotha's bright soprano and Mavis's rich contralto. "Cleotha was the rock," according to the gospel expert Bill Carpenter. "Her voice was high in a light way, soothing and velvety, so Pops' guitar playing bounced off that." Cleotha always stood next to her father on stage.

They toured throughout the US and sometimes faced blatant racism. On one occasion Cleotha intervened to defuse the situation when Pops reacted aggressively to a white gas station attendant who refused to give him a receipt. Such behaviour was typical of Cleotha, who was sometimes referred to as "granny" because of her mature demeanour. She described herself as "the strong, silent type".

After hearing King preach in Montgomery, Alabama, Pops decided to put King's words into song, stating: "If he can preach this, we can sing it." He went on to write a number of civil rights anthems, including Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?, which was one of King's favourite songs. The Staple Singers were the first African Americans to record a Bob Dylan song (Blowin' in the Wind, in 1963).

Although Pops stoutly maintained that they were still expressing their Christian beliefs in their music, the Staple Singers had drifted away from the gospel music scene. This was underlined in 1968, when, after making folk-gospel albums for Riverside, they signed a contract with Stax, the pre-eminent soul and rhythm and blues company. Over the next decade, they had four top 10 pop hits, including the No 1 records I'll Take You There (1972), and Let's Do It Again (1975) and eight R&B hits. The Staple Singers were also among the stars of the 1971 Soul to Soul concert in Ghana and the charity Wattstax concert, held in Los Angeles in 1972. It was with Stax that Cleotha made one of her few performances as a solo singer, recording a duet with Eddie Floyd.

When Stax got into financial difficulties, Pops took the group to record for Warner Bros, and there were later albums for Epic and Priority. In 1999, the Staple Singers were the first gospel group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they were to disband the next year, following the death of Pops. Soon afterwards, Cleotha was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Cleotha is survived by her brother Pervis and sisters Mavis and Yvonne. Her husband, Edgar Harris, and her sister Cynthia predeceased her.

• Cleotha Staples, singer, born 11 April 1934; died 21 February 2013

Contributor

Dave Laing

The GuardianTramp

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