Book Review - "I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom's Highway" by Greg Kot

Book Review
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The pivotal role of gospel in the timeline of soul music cannot be overstated. Countless time-honored R&B artists refer back to their church-going childhoods as the roots of their musical leanings. So many of these singers' performances possess heartfelt buildups and spine-tingling climaxes clearly inspired by the spiritual fever of a rousing devotional service. Greg Kot's new book, I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom's Highway, pointedly demonstrates just how real—and culturally relevant—this phenomenon is. The long-overdue biography is a spellbinding examination of one family's rise from the shackles of racial injustice to the heights of telling their story through song to captive audiences around the world.

The pivotal role of gospel in the timeline of soul music cannot be overstated. Countless time-honored R&B artists refer back to their church-going childhoods as the roots of their musical leanings. So many of these singers' performances possess heartfelt buildups and spine-tingling climaxes clearly inspired by the spiritual fever of a rousing devotional service. Greg Kot's new book, I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom's Highway, pointedly demonstrates just how real—and culturally relevant—this phenomenon is. The long-overdue biography is a spellbinding examination of one family's rise from the shackles of racial injustice to the heights of telling their story through song to captive audiences around the world.

I'll Take You There begins with informative insights on legendary leader/guitarist Pops Staples’ journey from the harsh trappings of segregated Mississippi farm life to seeing through his family's musical gifts via a prosperous (albeit often daunting) career in music. Culling largely from new interviews with standout vocalist Mavis and her siblings Yvonne and Pervis, Kot weaves together the family's experiences, both off and onstage, that shaped the group's transformation from an awe-inspiring church act to key players in the Civil Rights movement. Starting with their "down home" '50s work for Vee-Jay and continuing through their prime-era classics for Stax Records (and beyond), the Staples' unique, often understated, way with a message has influenced the lives of everyday people in about every locale possible, while profoundly affecting the output of groundbreaking musicians from multiple generations.

One of the most notable components of the Staples' dynamic story is their balance between gospel and secular. While even peers such as Reverend James Cleveland denounced their approach to spreading equality and belief in a higher power—deemed too nontraditional by some of the venues in which they got their start, Pops and his children held firm in their musical calls to peaceful action and honorable worship by incorporating elements of folk, funk, and rock into their arrangements. Kot notes in a discussion of the group's rise to fame during the mid-'70s: "To R&B and soul fans in their teens and twenties, the Staples were gospel singers to whom they could relate on a personal level. To this audience, the Staples transcended the church or the notion that one had to be a 'believer' to connect with their music."

Of particular historical significance beyond the music itself, quotes from Jesse Jackson and a recounting of the Staples' close relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., reveal just how effective the family was in rousing citizens to protest against racial violence and discrimination. Jackson observed, "The Staples were the forerunners of taking the music message to another level. [They] unabashedly sing songs Dr. King could identify with." Pops' memories of conversations with King are also noted, while Mavis describes how her recent records are ignited with the fuel of his noble mission.

Proof positive of the Staples' ongoing impact and indelible legacy are the reception Mavis has continued to receive a decade after Pops' passing, from modern rock bands such as Wilco and Low and a massive, unsuspecting audience at the 2010 Lollapalooza festival. Her recent albums, including We'll Never Turn Back and You Are Not Alone, reflect her determination to keep Pops' message of goodwill going—as well as his wide-ranging style of delivering it. She's exhibited this in settings as diverse as a duet with Bonnie Raitt on her most recent concert tour and revving up crowds of her own with a transformative rendition of "The Weight," a song the Staples took to magnanimous heights in The Band's 1976 concert film, The Last Waltz. Amy Helm, the daughter of The Band's co-lead vocalist and drummer, Levon Helm, confirms, "The Staple Singers doing that song sanctified it for my father."

I'll Take You There traces the Staples' musical evolution from early, defining compositions like "Uncloudy Day," through massive crossover successes with Curtis Mayfield like "Let's Do It Again," on to Pops' 1990s resurgence and Mavis's eclectic collaborations with the likes of Prince and Ry Cooder. Kot compliments this in-depth career narrative with a more than generous share of personal insights from family friends and many of the musical greats who have benefited from the Staples legacy (how often does a reader get lengthy insights from Prince on his musical influences?). All 286 pages are a magnetic read, providing both soul and gospel aficionados with the momentous story behind the family's rise from poverty to universally recognized heroes of song. Highly Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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