Roebuck “Pops” Staples, one of the foremost figures in American gospel music as a singer, guitarist, and patriarch of the Staple Singers family group, was a blues performer in his younger days, and his blues-drenched guitar work was a constant trademark of the Staple Singers’ gospel sound. Staples traced his style back to the hymns and spirituals he learned from his grandfather and the blues he heard in Mississippi. Roebuck and his older brother Sears, the last two of fourteen Staples children, were named after the Chicago mail-order company that numbered many rural African-Americans among its millions of customers, including many who ordered guitars by mail. Another Staples brother, David, played blues guitar before becoming a preacher, and a famous relative born years later was Oprah Winfrey, whose great-grandmother was Roebuck’s aunt, Ella Staples.
Staples was born on a farm near Winona, Mississippi, on December 28, 1914. The family moved around, ending up at the famous Dockery plantation—longtime home of Delta blues king Charley Patton—around 1923. Inspired by Patton and Howlin’ Wolf (a Patton devotee who often performed in the nearby town of Drew), Staples took up guitar and began frequenting local juke house parties, but also sang in church and at local gospel gatherings, sometimes with the Golden Trumpets. Although he chose to stay on the gospel path, he remained a lifelong blues fan and was a friend to many blues singers, from Wolf and Muddy Waters to Albert and B.B. King.
Staples’ children Cleotha and Pervis were born at Dockery, followed by Yvonne, Mavis, and Cynthia after the family moved to Chicago. Staples put the guitar aside for several years while he worked meatpacking, factory, and construction jobs to support his brood, although he sang locally with the Trumpet Jubilees. The success of their 1956 recording “Uncloudy Day” enabled Pops, Pervis, and Cleotha to quit their day jobs to become full-time singers. Pops and Pervis had been lead vocalists when the group began, but Mavis’ powerful voice soon took center stage. Under Pops’ guidance, the Staple Singers not only earned the title “the first family of gospel music,” but also developed followings among blues, soul, folk, rock, and jazz audiences with their inspirational “message songs.”
The Staple Singers’ Vee-Jay 45 “Too Close,” featuring Pops’ down-home guitar, was recorded live at a concert in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1960 by legendary WROX blues and gospel DJ and promoter Early Wright. Revenant Records later included it on the award-winning box set The Worlds of Charley Patton. Staples was heard to play Patton’s blues note-for-note at home or backstage, but would not perform the songs onstage.
Although he professed not to be a blues singer, Staples did collaborate with guitarists Albert King and Steve Cropper on the Stax album Jammed Together, and he won a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues category in 1994 for his final CD, Father Father. “It’s just my way of playing,” he explained. “I can’t get away from it—it’s gonna have a little touch of blues.” The Rhythm & Blues Foundation honored Staples with a Pioneer Award in 1992, and in 1998 he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Pops died on December 19, 2000. His daughter Mavis was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.