Yvonne Staples, whose baritone helped propel the Staple Singers to the top of the music charts and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, has died at home in South Shore at 80, according to Chicago’s Leak & Sons Funeral Home.
Ms. Staples performed on hits including “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Heavy Makes You Happy” with her sisters Mavis and Cleotha and their father, guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
She was born in Chicago to Pops and Oceola Staples, both with Mississippi roots. She started singing with Mavis and their brother Pervis in the 1940s at their uncle’s church.
Their mother “helped us with costumes, and she took care of everything, all the details. She even made sure the children carried themselves well,” Pops Staples once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “And she was always there after a tour or concert with our favorite meal.”
In 1970, Ms. Staples replaced her brother in the group.
The family lived near 89th and Langley, where they used to host an annual Fourth of July barbecue that drew friends and stars including gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Albertina Walker and Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler.
Their soaring harmonies wove together gospel, pop, funk, folk and soul on songs including Curtis Mayfield’s “Let’s Do It Again” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me).”
“That harmony is always going to be there,” Mavis Staples said in a 2003 Sun-Times interview, “because you all grew up together.”
The Staple Singers made more than 30 albums. Their greatest chart successes were on Stax Records in the early 1970s. And their performance was a highlight of the film “Wattstax,” a documentary of a 1972 Los Angeles concert dubbed the “Black Woodstock.”
Symbols of black empowerment and pride, the Staple Singers were active in the civil rights movement and toured the world. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled with the group, he’d ask them to play Pops Staples’ “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad).”
They received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. The recording academy said they “left an imprint of soulful voices, righteous conviction and danceable message music across the decades.”
Legions and legends were fans, including Bob Dylan, who would go on to have a romance with Mavis Staples. In 2001, he told the Sun-Times and WTTW about hearing them for the first time: “We’d listen to the radio, usually late in the evening. ‘Dragnet’ and ‘FBI.’ ‘Peace and War,’ ‘Inner Sanctum’ and ‘Jack Benny.’ And then after the radio shows would come on, we used to pick up the station out of Shreveport [La.], and they used to play rhythm and blues, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Junior Parker, and Muddy [Waters] and [Howlin’] Wolf and all that. But then at midnight the gospel stuff would start. I got to be acquainted with the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Highway QC’s and all that. But the Staple Singers came on … and they were so different.”
Pops Staples died in 2000. Cleotha Staples died in 2013.