Pervis Staples, Staple Singers co-founder, dies aged 85

The gospel group singer embraced secular music with great success and helped soundtrack the civil rights movement

Pervis Staples, who co-founded the gospel group the Staple Singers, has died aged 85. He died on 6 May, a representative confirmed to Rolling Stone. No cause of death was given.

His sister, Mavis Staples, told the magazine: “Pervis was one of a kind – comical and downright fly. He would want to be remembered as an upright man, always willing to help and encourage others. He was one of the good guys and will live on as a true Chicago legend.”

Roebuck “Pops” Staples formed the Staple Singers with his children Cleotha, Pervis and Mavis in the late 40s. They sang in churches around Chicago and soon recorded for a variety of record labels, leading them to Epic in 1965 and Stax three years later. Pervis became friends with Bob Dylan, who called their 1959 song Uncloudy Day, believed to be the first million-selling gospel single, “the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard”. This prompted him and Mavis to record a well regarded version of A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.

The group had two US No 1 singles in the 70s, I’ll Take You There, a song written by Stax co-owner Al Bell, and Let’s Do It Again, written by Curtis Mayfield. Jazz writer Stanley Crouch once described their sound as “joy and thunder”.

Pervis was born in November 1935 in Drew, Mississippi. The family soon moved to Chicago, where he became friends with the likes of Sam Cooke, and his youth was “filled with wonderful experiences”, Mavis told Rolling Stone. “Pervis and the guys would stand under the lamp-posts in the summertime singing doo-wop songs.”

It was Pervis who urged Pops to let the group embrace secular music; the group’s patriarch let them sing “message music” after witnessing Martin Luther King Jr preaching in Montgomery, Alabama. “He said, ‘If he can preach it, we can sing it,’” Mavis told the Guardian in 2017.

Their songs Why (Am I Treated So Bad)? – one of King’s favourites – March Up Freedom’s Highway and It’s a Long Walk to DC, But I Got My Walking Shoes On joined the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.

After Pervis was drafted into the US army, his sister Yvonne took his place in the group. Pervis returned for a short while but quit permanently after the Staple Singers recorded 1968’s Soul Folk in Action album, their first for Stax.

His sisters told Greg Kot, author of I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway, that after a stint in the army, Pervis no longer wanted to do his father’s bidding.

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and won a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2005. Pops died in 2000, Cleotha in 2013, and Yvonne in 2018. Pervis is survived by six children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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