I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom's Highway

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Overview

“A biography that will send readers back to the music of Mavis and the Staple Singers with deepened appreciation and a renewed spirit of discovery” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)—from an acclaimed music journalist and author.

This is the untold story of living legend Mavis Staples—lead singer of the Staple Singers and a major figure in the music that shaped the civil rights era. One of the most enduring artists of popular music, Mavis and her talented family fused gospel, ...

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I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom's Highway

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Overview

“A biography that will send readers back to the music of Mavis and the Staple Singers with deepened appreciation and a renewed spirit of discovery” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)—from an acclaimed music journalist and author.

This is the untold story of living legend Mavis Staples—lead singer of the Staple Singers and a major figure in the music that shaped the civil rights era. One of the most enduring artists of popular music, Mavis and her talented family fused gospel, soul, folk, and rock to transcend racism and oppression through song. Honing her prodigious talent on the Southern gospel circuit of the 1950s, Mavis and the Staple Singers went on to sell more than 30 million records, with message-oriented soul music that became a soundtrack to the civil rights movement—inspiring Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.

Critically acclaimed biographer and Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot cuts to the heart of Mavis Staples’s music, revealing the intimate stories of her sixty-year career. From her love affair with Bob Dylan, to her creative collaborations with Prince, to her recent revival alongside Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, this definitive account shows Mavis as you’ve never seen her before. I’ll Take You There was written with the complete cooperation of Mavis and her family. Readers will also hear from Prince, Bonnie Raitt, David Byrne, and many others whose lives have been influenced by Mavis’s talent.

Filled with never-before-told stories, this fascinating biography illuminates a legendary singer and group during a historic period of change in America. “Ultimately, Kot depicts the endurance of Mavis Staples and her family’s music as an inspiration, a saga that takes us, like the song that inspired this book’s name, to a place where ain’t nobody crying” (The Washington Post).

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
[Kot] is consistently good in his well-reported new book on the Staples's sound, and on their story, which is involving from beginning to end…I'll Take You There…is rich musical history.
Publishers Weekly
10/21/2013
Chicago Tribune music critic Kot lets popular music icon Mavis Staples, lead singer of the Staples Singers, have her say in this rousing, chatty bio of 60 years of performing. Written with the cooperation of Mavis and family, this down home tale begins with Mavis’s ambitious father, Pop Staples, breaking away from a hardscrabble life in the Mississippi Delta, gathering his young family around him to start an upward climb through the Southern gospel circuit of the ’50s and ’60s, featuring Mavis, the skinny little girl with the grown-up voice. Along the way to stardom and sales of more than 30 million records, Mavis and her musical brood, based on Chicago’s South Side, crosses paths with such legends as Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Aretha Franklin, while making their indelible mark with inspiring songs about the civil rights struggle. Teasing the reader with Mavis’s abbreviated romance with Bob Dylan, her teaming with the reclusive Prince, and her recent association with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Kot’s effort remains clear and respectful and takes us deep into the golden age of Mavis and her marvelously talented group. (Jan)
Booklist (starred review)

“Kot chronicles the amazing story of a family that went from a hardscrabble life in Mississippi to Chicago’s church circuit to worldwide fame, merging the genres of roots, gospel, and soul…. This is a moving tribute to a very talented family and one gracious woman, in particular.”
The Commercial Appeal
"Remarkable. . . . With Mavis opening up the Staples archives and providing access to family and friends, Kot...[shapes] a story bigger than just that of a singing group. "
The Topeka Capital Journal
"A darn good story. . . . Whisking readers over a span of nearly 100 years, author Kot presents aroller-coaster ride of the highs and lows of one of gospel and soul’s mosticonic families. . . . a great look at history, both musically and culturally. . . . If you’re a fan of soul, R&B or gospel, “I’ll Take You There” is a bookyou’ll want to corner."
Windy City Times
"That Staples' life story is deeply intertwined with the Rev. Martin Luther KingJr., Sam Cooke, the Band, Bob Dylan, Lou Rawls, Jeff Tweedy, Prince, ArethaFranklin, Mahalia Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Curtis Mayfield, Stax Records andJerry Butler is no mean feat. . .The gems are here in all their richness."
DownBeat
"Fascinating... Musical analysis doesn't get much better."
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-28
A biography that will send readers back to the music of Mavis and the Staple Singers with deepened appreciation and a renewed spirit of discovery. Chicago Tribune music critic Kot (Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, 2009, etc.) mines one of that city's greatest musical treasures, showing how the Staple Singers developed from one of the leading acts in gospel (when the voice of the preteen Mavis, "a pocket-sized dynamo," was so husky that those who heard her on record thought she was a man), through their ascent to the top of the charts as pop/soul crossover sensations, and up to the career revival that Mavis Staples has recently enjoyed as a solo artist. As the title suggests, the book is more than a biography of Mavis, capturing the competitive, cutthroat nature of the gospel business, the pivotal influence of the civil rights movement and the complexities of patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples. He shaped the group's sound, selected its repertoire and protected the family's financial interests with a gun that unscrupulous promoters would learn to fear. His tremolo guitar and his family's rural-style harmonies have exerted a profound influence on such rock heavyweights as The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival. As the group moved its music from the church to the charts, it faced a backlash from the gospel community and ultimately saw Pops' signature guitar supplanted in the studio by session musicians. The book is particularly revelatory on the transition that saw the Staple Singers recording in Muscle Shoals, sessions highlighted by the hit that gives the biography its title. Yet it ultimately treats the recent solo releases of Mavis Staples--produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, the subject of an earlier book by Kot--almost as a tacked-on afterthought in comparison with the more thorough treatment given albums that made little impression upon release and have long been forgotten. Through it all, the ebullience of Mavis Staples and her music shine through.
New York Times
“Involving from beginning to end. . . . [Kot] charts the [Staples] family’s origins in gospel music; their gradual drift into folk, soul and pop; the reverberations of their increasingly political songs during the civil rights era. . . 'I'll Take You There'...is rich musical history."
Booklist
“Kot chronicles the amazing story of a family that went from a hardscrabble life in Mississippi to Chicago’s church circuit to worldwide fame, merging the genres of roots, gospel, and soul…. This is a moving tribute to a very talented family and one gracious woman, in particular.”
Alan Light
“Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers are a mighty river running through more than a half-century of song, connecting Sam Cooke to Prince and Bob Dylan to Wilco. Thoroughly researched and elegantly told, I’ll Take You There offers powerful and inspiring insight into not only American music, but American history.”
Tampa Bay Times
“A lively, engaging family biography, written with the Stapleses' cooperation and filled with vivid portraits, celebrity cameos and descriptions of music so evocative I kept wishing the book had come with a set of CDs.”
NPR
“Emotional honesty resonates throughout I'll Take You There. Kot provides an unflinching look into the Stapleses' struggles to maintain their spiritual and artistic integrity… I'll Take You There is a biography that's well worth the heavenly journey.”
Chicago Tribune
"[A] fascinating testimony. . . . Kot’s portrayal of Mavis is deft and balanced, worthy of a performance that, no matter how often you play it, never fails to live up to the promise of its title."
Washington Post
"Kot depicts the endurance of Mavis Staples and her family’s music as an inspiration, a saga that takes us, like the song that inspired this book’s name, to a place where ain’t nobody crying."
The A.V. Club
“Kot’s take on the singer’s immense discography is invaluable, and Staples’ indomitable spirit shines through."
Paste
“A thorough and illuminating biography that offers plenty of revealing details about a group the Band’s Robbie Robertson once likened to ‘a lonely train in the distance.’”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451647853
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 1/21/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 145,427
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Greg Kot has been the music critic at the Chicago Tribune since 1990. Kot is co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio program Sound Opinions, and the author of several books, including Wilco: Learning How to Die; and Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. He lives in Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

I’ll Take You There
“Freedom Highway” in sequined flats
I’m tired and I’m feeble,” declares Mavis Staples, with a high-beam smile that says exactly the opposite.

Mavis pretends to shuffle into the room as though a step away from collapse while paraphrasing Thomas Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a song that has been with her since she started to stir church congregations as an eight-year-old vocalist. Her sister Yvonne rolls her eyes in mock exasperation. A small flock of onlookers starts to laugh, breaks away from their backstage hospitality beers, and surges toward the sisters to clasp hands and offer hugs in a kind of group anointing.

Mavis and Yvonne—cofounders of the Staple Singers with their father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and siblings Pervis and Cleotha—have arrived at the Hideout, an unassuming Chicago bar tucked amid West Side warehouses. In a few minutes they will be on a big stage outdoors in front of a hometown festival crowd of eight thousand just as the sun is disappearing on a mid-September day in 2011. Mavis and Yvonne, both in their seventies, have been up since 5 a.m. after playing a show the night before in Michigan. Mavis has been pumping vitamin C to fight off a cold and a scratchy voice. “This is loosening me up, though,” she says as laughter and conversation fill the Hideout’s back room.

Donny Gerrard, one of her backing vocalists, does not by any stretch consider himself a gospel singer, or even a believer. But Mavis has a way of pulling even skeptics along in her wake. She is an artist who grew up in church and on the civil rights battlefront, but she doesn’t finger-point, preach, or prod. She leads with her enthusiasm for the day ahead.

“When I was asked to join her group, I was worried about the God stuff, frankly,” says Gerrard, adjusting his tortoiseshell glasses as he watches Mavis banter with her well-wishers. “Don’t believe in it, myself. But damn, if she doesn’t make you feel something else is at work when she’s around.”

The tall, curly-haired singer takes off the glasses, and his eyes gleam. He’s ridden the music industry roller coaster in a career that has had failures, hits (he sang Skylark’s huge ’70s single “Wildflower”), and a few health problems.

“It doesn’t matter how low you feel,” he says. “Sometimes I carry it on the stage with me, and then I see Mavis and it’s like you can’t feel down anymore. She’s always up no matter what happened that day.”

Mavis looks into her carrying bag and with the drama of a magician makes an announcement: “I know what the stage needs!” She digs out the prize. “It needs glitter! Every singer needs her stage flats, sequined flats!”

A dozen onlookers scramble for their cell phones to take photos of the diva wear. “Y’all are some slow paparazzis.” Mavis laughs as the amateur photographers click away and begin texting, tweeting, and Instagramming their friends.

Mavis, her glitter flats and matching sequined black scarf ascend the five steps onto the stage to cheers that stretch across a vast lot. Fans perched in windows and on rooftops of the buildings beyond wave their greetings. Yvonne, just off her sister’s right shoulder, is clapping just as boisterously. Nonbeliever Gerrard joins Mavis, Yvonne, and their band in an a cappella version of “Wonderful Savior”: “I am His, and He is mine.” Within seconds, the audience turns into Mavis’s moonlight choir with their rhythmic clapping.

Violin-playing indie-rocker Andrew Bird joins for The Band’s “The Weight,” which the Staple Singers had performed as part of The Last Waltz concert in 1976. Bird and Gerrard each take a verse, and then Mavis “takes it to church,” as her old friend Levon Helm used to say, a tambourine accenting every beat. Mavis twirls her hands above her head, and Yvonne is loving it, applauding her sister’s feistiness. Bring it on, Mavis roars, as she slaps her chest. “Put the load, put the load, put the load right on me.”

When the Staple Singers’ civil rights anthem “Freedom Highway” arrives, the band rolls into a marching beat and the call-and-response vocals between Mavis and her backing singers pick up the pace, more urgent with each turn. “March!” “Up freedom’s highway!” It is an echo of ’60s freedom marches, the sound of citizen soldiers girding for a beatdown, in the name of a cause that they believe is worth their blood and tears, and quite possibly their lives.

“My father, Pop Staples, wrote that song in 1965,” Mavis says as the anthem winds down. “Yes, he did, he wrote it for the big march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. We marched, we marched, and we marched, and it ain’t over yet!”

The band rumbles, voices from the audience shout encouragement. Most of the fans weren’t even born when activists, ministers, and everyday citizens locked arms and marched into a gauntlet of police clubs, snarling dogs, and water cannons in the name of racial equality.

“I’m still on that highway,” Mavis says. “And I will be there until Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream has been realized.”

At the side of the stage, the teenage Chicago musician Liam Cunningham is watching with a few members of his band, Kids These Days, who had played earlier in the day. They’ve read about the freedom marches in school, seen the news footage of the shaking fists and swinging police batons. Now they’re standing a few feet from one of the leading messengers of that era. Cunningham is mesmerized. “Her existence brings tears to my eyes,” he says softly.

The show doesn’t so much conclude as get passed on, one voice to the next. Mavis hands the closing duties to the audience, which embraces a twelve-minute version of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and sings it back to her. Mavis waves and exits alongside Yvonne, then hugs her brother, Pervis, who is standing in the wings applauding. She and her sister slide into a waiting black limousine behind the stage, roll down a tinted window, and wave to a small group of fans.

“Time to remove the sequined flats,” Mavis says with a laugh. “They got more work to do.”

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  • Posted January 20, 2014

    "I¿ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staples Singers, a

    "I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staples Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway" by Chicago Tribune music
    critic Greg Kot tells the story of the Staples family in what, from the outset, had to be a good read.  Mavis Staples alone is a
    national treasure whose music career is heading into three quarters of a contrary.   Just like Mavis herself, the book is
    spirited, winsome and never boring.   

    Kot fills the book with rich stories that take the readers through the ever changing music industry of the last 75 years.   There
    are numerous tidbits about this celebrity or that.  Bob Dylan did ask her to marry him and Mavis describes Dyalan as her,
    “first love, and it was the one I lost.”  She went to school with Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke with gospel legend Mahalia Jackson
    living right around the corner from the Staples‘ home.  During the civil rights era Mavis and her family were often the opening
    act for Martin Luther King, Jr. before he spoke.   

    Mavis Staples is still going, recording, singing, living.  Pops died in 2000 and Cleotha in 2013 but Mavis sings on.  
    This is truly an extraordinary book of an extraordinary life.  A must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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