In the 1970s, soul music took on a new conscience. Songs containing lyrics addressing social injustice such as Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)" and the Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power Pt. 1" filled the airwaves. While those artists tapped into energy fueled by the 60s Civil Rights movement, the Staple Singers focused on self-esteem and empowerment. The Stax legends scored a number of crossover hits in the 1970s fusing soul and gospel, with "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There" becoming modern classics.
While lead singer Mavis Staples has enjoyed a lengthy solo career, even collaborating with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Prince, the other Staple Singers members maintained lower profiles after their last success, a 1984 cover of the Talking Heads' "Slippery People." Family patriarch Pops Staples passed away in 2000, while Mavis' sister Cleotha died in 2013 from Alzheimer's disease. Brother Pervis was a member of the group until 1970, replaced by sister Yvonne. Yvonne remained with the family group through their string of hits; her April 10 passing marks another chapter in this legendary band's story. Along with Cleotha, Yvonne's backing vocals anchored the Staple Singers' songs in southern soul, but also functioned as a gospel choir. With her passing, Mavis and Pervis now represent the group's legacy.
Originally from Mississippi, the Staples family relocated to Chicago in the 1940s. While Pops worked in the steel mills and meat packing plants, the family would perform at local churches including the Mount Zion Church, where Pops' brother Chester was pastor. Yvonne was a backing singer, but she officially did not join the group when they signed their first professional contract in 1952. After recording for local labels, the Staples experienced their first breakthrough when they signed with Epic Records in 1965. Initially they performed gospel, but started transitioning to mainstream music in 1967 when they covered Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." In this early period, Pervis left the group when he was drafted in the Army; Yvonne took his place. Once he returned home in 1968, the Staple Singers made a fortuitous move: they signed with Stax Records. First under the direction of Steve Cropper and then Al Bell, the Staples toughened their sound, brining in elements of funk, blues, and soul. When Pervis departed the group again in the early 1970s, Yvonne permanently stepped in for her brother, becoming not only a member but the group's business manager.
Yvonne would record backing vocals on virtually all of their hits, including "Let's Do It Again" and "Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)." While a success upon its 1973 release, "If You're Ready (Come Go with Me)" receives inexplicably little airplay today. Echoing "I'll Take You There" in theme and sound, the track entices listeners to both dance and change their worldview. Mavis' breathy, slightly raspy vocals are front and center; only she could entreat "liars," "backstabbers," "troublemakers," and even those who commit genocide to accompany her to a higher state of enlightenment. While Mavis acts as the focal figure, the backing singers--Pops, Cleotha, and Yvonne--accentuate her pleas by chanting "come go with me." They serve as the choir, driving home Mavis' message that "Love is the only transportation / To where there's total communication." Their chants accentuate the beat, also functioning as a driving rhythmic element. However, when Mavis sings "No economical exploitation / And no political domination," the choir responds with "come go with me" but might as well be chanting "amen" or "hallelujah." "If You're Ready" represents quintessential Staple Singers: it elevates and transforms the soul, yet entices listeners onto the dance floor. The lyrics communicate a serious message over an equally serious groove.
Yvonne may not have been the "star" of the Staple Singers, but she played equally important roles as singer and manager. Without the Staples' guiding vocals, Mavis may not have communicated her important messages as effectively and memorably. In short, the group's pioneering work in fusing several genres while maintaining a universal appeal remains impressive, and their catalog still stands out as essential examples of socially aware 1970s soul.