CHICAGO — Cleotha Staples, one of the founding members of the renowned Chicago soul and gospel group the Staple Singers, died Wednesday at the age of 78.
She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for 12 years, and had been under 24-hour home care. Her longtime caretaker was with her when she died at 11:11 a.m. Wednesday in her high-rise condominium on the South Side, according to her sister, Mavis Staples.
Cleotha Staples was a vital component of the Staple Singers’ distinctive harmonies. Her soprano voice, which rang out like a bell and descended with a distinctive twang, was among the key musical elements in the family group that sold tens of millions of records and scored hits such as “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself” and “Uncloudy Day.”
Cleotha Staples was the first child born to Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his wife, Osceola, in 1934, on a sharecroppers farm near Drew, Miss. A little more than a year later, Pops Staples moved to Chicago, where he found work at the Chicago stockyards and later sent for his family. In the South, Pops Staples grew up with blues guitarists such as Charlie Patton and sang in gospel groups. When he moved north, he gave up music for a time as he worked to support his family, which eventually also included Pervis, Yvonne and Mavis, all of whom were born in the 1930s (a fourth daughter, Cynthia, was born in 1952).
In the late ’40s, Pops Staples began teaching his children the songs he had learned singing with his family at Dockery Farm plantation in Mississippi. Soon after, the group became proficient enough that they were invited to perform at churches on the South Side. By 1953, the Staple Singers were cutting records and began touring outside Chicago. In 1957, they had a nationwide gospel hit, “Uncloudy Day,” defined by Pops’ reverb-drenched blues guitar, Mavis’ robust contralto lead vocals, and the rich harmonies of Pops, Cleotha and Pervis.
If Pops was the architect of the Staples vocal sound, Cleotha was in many ways his most ardent student.
“I credit Pops’ guitar and Cleedy’s voice with making our sound so different,” Mavis Staples said. “Her high voice — Pops would take her to a minor key a lot. A lot of singers would try to sing like her. Gladys Knight’s background singer (in the Pips), William (Guest) would tell Cleedy, ‘I’m trying to sound like you.’ Her voice would just ring in your ear. It wasn’t harsh or hitting you hard, it was soothing. She gave us that country sound. The way we sang was the way Pops and his brothers and sisters would sing down in Mississippi. Those were the voices they would use to sing after dinner out on the gallery.”
The “down-home” sound was enormously appealing to African Americans who had migrated to Northern cities such as Chicago in search of jobs, even as their culture and family traditions remained deeply rooted in the South. The Staples tapped into that sound in their gospel songs, than gradually incorporated folk, soul and protest music as part of the emerging civil-rights movement in the 1960s. They were enlisted by Martin Luther King to perform at rallies, and the minister frequently called upon Pops to sing the Staple Singers’ signature protest song, “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” In addition to singing harmonies, Cleotha Staples was an accomplished seamstress, and often designed the stage clothes for her sisters.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Staple Singers enjoyed their most commercially productive era, with uplifting, message-oriented anthems such as “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” Al Bell, who oversaw Stax Records and produced many of the Staple Singers hits during this era, first met Cleotha Staples in the ’50s, and was struck not just by her vocal ability, but her warmth and optimism.
“Her twang as a vocalist was unique,” Bell said. “And it was the color, the spirit and the attitude of Cleotha, too, that made the group special. She was always complimenting, encouraging and pushing everyone else along. In ‘I’ll Take you There,’ you’ll hear Cleotha urging on Mavis: ‘Sing your song!’ That was Cleotha the person relating to her sister. She embellished Mavis’ uniqueness, actively encouraged it. They were together, always, and Cleotha was so vital to that.”
Cleotha Staples is survived by her sisters Mavis and Yvonne and her brother, Pervis. Funeral services are pending.