“…he wanted us to sing blues. He said, Mavis can make a lot of money if we sang blues. I didn’t want to sing blues.” – Roebuck Staples
Roebuck “Pop” Staples, Mavis Staples, and Yvonne Staples Interview
Part 1: (48:24) LISTEN HERE: Staple Singers
Part 2: (44:07) LISTEN HERE: Staple Singers Part 2
Roebuck “Pop” Staples, Mavis Staples, and Yvonne Staples
Interviewed by: Chris Strachwitz and Barbara Dane
Date: August 3, 1963
Location: California Hotel, Oakland, CA
This is an unedited interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. email@example.com
A Note About the Transcriptions: In order to expedite the process of putting these interviews online, we are using a transcription service. Due to the challenges of transcribing speech – especially when it contains regional accents and refers to regional places and names – some of these interview transcriptions may contain errors. We have tried to correct as many as possible, but if you discover errors while listening, please send corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roebuck Staples: Chris, I was born in Mississippi, a place called Winona Mississippi about 100 miles south of Memphis Tennessee.
Chris: Was that Delta?
Roebuck Staples: No, the hills, they call that the hills.
Chris: They call that the hills, so the east …
Roebuck Staples: Then when I was two years old, my father moved to the Delta and we just stayed in the Delta till I was, you know, raised up in the Delta. I stayed around in the Delta, on a farm. I got to be 20 years old and then left and went to Chicago. Before I left the Delta I’d gotten married and two of my children was born there in Mississippi.
Chris: Did you work for some plantation down there?
Roebuck Staples: We had our own farm, my father had his own farm in Winona. He sold that and then we went to the Delta, on a plantation that was owned by a man by the name of Liston Sage. We worked with Mr. Sage there for, I don’t know how long I can’t remember just exactly, 12 or 14 years I guess. Then we moved.
Chris: What sort of arrangement did he have with you, did you share the crop or did you just ……
Roebuck Staples: No, we rented, my father rented.
Chris: Oh, right.
Roebuck Staples: We rented the land from the man, we had our own stock, our own horses and mules and farm equipment.
Chris: What did you raise the most around there?
Roebuck Staples: Cotton and corn. Peanuts, sugar cane, potatoes,…like that… but the main crop was the cotton, cotton and corn at that time. Rough on us…oh cotton field.
Chris: You went up to Chicago about, when was that?
Roebuck Staples: 1935.
Chris: 1935. When you were back in the Delta did you hear any musicians that you were really impressed with?
Roebuck Staples: Oh, yeah. I was impressed mostly by the old blues singers. Like, Blind Lemon Johnson, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and Howling Wolf was a young man. I was a boy and Howling Wolf was a young man.
Barbara Dane: What’s Howling Wolf’s right name?
Roebuck Staples: That’s all I know, Howling Wolf.
Barbara Dane: Nobody knows it.
Roebuck Staples: Nobody knows Howling …
Chris: Is that still Howling Wolf that’s still around Chicago?
Roebuck Staples: Yeah, the same one.
Chris: Or is that the other one?
Roebuck Staples: No, that’s the same.
Chris: Because there used to be a guitar playing Howling Wolf.
Roebuck Staples: This is guitar and harmonica. He played harmonica and guitar.
Chris: Do you remember Charlie Patton, did you ever see him?
Roebuck Staples: Oh, yeah Charlie Patton. We stayed on the same plantation he stayed, we called the place he stayed on the lower, we was on the upper. This man Dockery, fella called Will Dockery, he had two big farms and Charlie would play, play at those breakdowns. Saturday night suppers, they all had some kind of time.
Chris: He just play by himself or did he have someone
Roebuck Staples: No, sometime he had two guitar, some time he had two guitars. One played the lead and the other second. In those days that was swinging music, that’s what they called it then really swinging. Now, I liked it. Now..I still…
Roebuck Staples: Open tuning. Most played in the key of E, which is a blues key you know and they would jump on something fast every once in a while. That sold me on the guitar. My greatest ambition was then to play, and record. So, I got to that point.
Chris: What did you like at that time better the spiritual music…or?
Roebuck Staples: I always liked spiritual music the best. Always liked spiritual music the best. I been singing since I was a boy, you know. I did play, I did play the guitar. I sung… In those days, you didn’t use music much, just clap your hands and pat your feet. See, but after a little the guitar came out, I mean you know, came into being for me after I heard it I thought it sound good. But I never did play my solo with the guitar. I played a few blues on the guitar. I never did play gospel music on guitar until I got to Chicago.
Chris: You mean the guitars didn’t come into the churches until ….
Roebuck Staples: Oh, the guitar was a long time before they would accept the guitar. The guitars haven’t been too long accepted in the church.
Barbara Dane: That’s right, you’re about the only one who plays it now, with the gospel music.
Roebuck Staples: I kinda broke in the guitar on the gospel music.
Chris: You should’ve heard him in the holiness church. I hear them a lot.
Roebuck Staples: Right, in the holiness church, but the Methodists and Baptists, they didn’t want to get. The holiness church was …and they was back for a good while.
Chris: Have they always had them?
Roebuck Staples: No, they’ve had them longer than anybody else. They’ve had them longer than anybody, with the tambourines and guitar.
Chris: Were your folks strong church people?
Roebuck Staples: Oh, Yes.
Chris: Which church were they?
Roebuck Staples: My father, he was a Methodist. My mother passed when I was just about five, but my father was a good church man. In fact, the whole background was religious like.
Chris: Can you recall, before I get off the blues, can you recall any of the other guys that used to play around there? Have you ever heard of Sam Collins?
Roebuck Staples: Haven’t heard of no Sam Collins, but this guy, Barbeque Bob, …you remember him?…and Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey. Those were the ladies.
Chris: Where’d you see them? Did you seem them on a show that came through town?
Roebuck Staples: It’s not like now, it used to be. Used to play on the street, used to play on the streets. Any big time artist would play out on the street, like Howlin Wolf.. he’s out there on the street you know. They throw money. And then you tell them where they’re going to be Saturday night. Boy, they’d pack out, go to most of the…
Chris: They’d tell people which joint they’re going to be playing at?
Roebuck Staples: Tell them where they gonna be playing at that Saturday night.
Chris: Did they use any beer joints? Or would they use the house party?
Chris: How would they organize the thing? Did somebody just decide that their house would be a good place for it?
Roebuck Staples: No, they had regular places. We had regular places. This plantation had its houses, and that plantation had houses… We knew where to go, see because it was a regular thing, rotating, just like the Ash Grove we know who come to Los Angeles. Yeah, that’s the folk, that’s the supper club.
Chris: Each plantation had their own …
Roebuck Staples: Each plantation had their own house. They had their own house.
Chris: Who would hire the musician?
Roebuck Staples: The landlord, the man of the house. He would sell his home brew, and his white lightnings. That was the old days, where they had those suppers. They’d have, in this room, they’d have the dance floor, in that one they had food, and the back room back there they would have their gambling tables. They played Georgia Skin, shoot crap, have a crap table, and play cards. Gamblin’…
Chris: Who would get all the profits out of this?
Roebuck Staples: Well, if the landlord would do right, he would gain the most. He’d get most. Sometime he would get in the gambling game and lose all the whiskey money and the food money…
Chris: Was it the actual owner of the plantation or …
Roebuck Staples: No no, that would be somebody renting the house, like a sharecropper. No, wouldn’t be the owner.
Chris: Whoever lived in that …
Roebuck Staples: That’s right. Whoever lived in that house. Yeah.
Chris: Would there be mostly guys you know who always hung around, like the Howlin’ Wolf. Was he from Arkansas, across the river or someplace?
Roebuck Staples: Yeah. Most of the guys like that. We had a fellow called Dick Holloway, and Jim Holloway. Jim and Dick, now they was two fellows played the guitar. We had … I’m trying to think of the other guy’s name. I can’t think of the name right now, but was a good guitar player. Most of the guys like that, they’d pop up.
Chris: They’d all be from around there, you wouldn’t have too many….
Roebuck Staples: No, the guitar players, they’re mostly from the South. No, no we didn’t draw anybody like that. In the area, you know.
Barbara Dane: That’s probably why there were so many, because there was always a party going and you needed a musician.
Roebuck Staples: Yeah. Funny thing, a lot of good guitar players is not known. Lot of good guitar players not known that really play. Still some good ones down there. You know who’re screened out. You can get some old sounds down there. I try to pick up me one every once in a while when I go down there. Yes sir.
Barbara Dane: Did you ever hear of a Memphis Willie B?
Roebuck Staples: …?…
Barbara Dane: Yeah. Willie Borum is his right name. They call him Memphis Willy B.
Roebuck Staples: What did he play, guitar?
Barbara Dane: He was a guitar player.
Roebuck Staples: Oh, he was from Memphis. I’ll tell you …
Chris: You didn’t hear of a guy like Bukka White?
Roebuck Staples: Yeah, Bukka White, but he didn’t record much. And this guy you talking about, he didn’t record.
Barbara Dane: He’s one of the newly discovered old time …
Roebuck Staples: That’s what I’m telling you. But those kind of guys, I didn’t know too much about, but it just so happened that, Howlin Wolf and Charlie Patton, and Blind Lemmon was very well known but see he was big recording artist. Like those guys.
Chris: Would he also come and play on the street?
Roebuck Staples: Blind Lemmon? I never saw him, no. He was a big …
Chris: I didn’t think he came around..he hung out in Texas mostly.
Roebuck Staples: No…
Chris: As far as the church goes, do you have choirs in your church?
Roebuck Staples: Yes, I used to sing in a choir. I was one of the directors of a choir there. We used to have singing conventions, in the country. We’d go to different churches. This convention would meet here, on this plantation, this Sunday. We’d have huge crowds, and some beautiful singing, beautiful gospel singing. I was inspired when I was a little boy from my older sisters and brothers. They used to rehearse at our house you know. And you talking about singing. And from there I caught on a little bit.
Chris: When you first heard music at church, was it already done up in quartets and small groups, or was it mostly larger choirs?
Roebuck Staples: Larger choirs. When I first heard singing. It mostly just church, not even … just congregation. Then choirs came into being, and then quartets. I sung in a quartet too. Quartets. And then the quartets really got to be bigger, I think, than the solo singers.
Chris: Do you think that quartets got big when they started recording them, or before then already?
Roebuck Staples: Yes, when they started recording. They weren’t big until they started recording.
Chris: I was just curious. When you went up to Chicago, did you take your family with you?
Roebuck Staples: Yes. I took … course I went first and got me a job. I was there about 3 months from…
Chris: When was this?
Roebuck Staples: 1935. She came on later. Course, Cleotha and Pervis were born in Mississippi, Yvonne and Mavis they was born in Chicago.
Roebuck Staples: Right away, I didn’t start. No, right away I started singing in church choir,
Chris: And how did you show them that you were really so much better than the rest of them…
Roebuck Staples: I don’t know. I mean…I didn’t try to show anything, I just sung, started singing, and I was selected. I don’t know what … they’re the one done the choosing. Went on from there in front of the choir.
Chris: How did you make your first record?
Roebuck Staples: In playing the guitar, I stopped playing after I went to Chicago. It was pretty rough you know. All the kids were small, they were small, and I put the guitar down…I didn’t touch a guitar…maybe from … from ’36 until, oh at least 12 years.
Chris: Why was that?
Roebuck Staples: Took all my time trying to work, and keep the kids going.
Chris: Where’d you work?
Roebuck Staples: I started working at Armor Packing House in Chicago, when I went to Chicago. Worked at Armor’s, and I worked there a long time, until the war broke out. I worked from ’35 until ’41.
Barbara Dane: That must have been quite a hellish place to work in before the union came.
Roebuck Staples: Oh, it was rough, it really was. I was there when the union came, and I was working there when Social Security came.
Barbara Dane: I used to go to … I grew up in Detroit, I used to sing once in a while in Chicago, and I’d hear from the people, this was long after they had unions in the packing houses, but they’d talk about the way things used to be, and geez.
Roebuck Staples: That was some kind of rough. They’d lay you off when they wanted to, and worked you like a dog. They’d really drive you. You had to really go. You had to work hard, but I stuck with it until … the war broke out.
Barbara Dane: What kind of jobs did you do at the packing house?
Roebuck Staples: The packing house … first job I had was working in the pork department. Ham House you called it. I was pulling hams from vats on that, and went from that to hog kill. I worked a lot of different jobs. I worked on hog kill, I worked in fertilizing department. That was a rough one…that fertilizer was rough. I worked in fertilizing. That’s when I quit. Job was hard to get too. I quit, because the job made me sick. Had a hard time, but then I went back to them, and they put me in a different place, and I stayed there until I … it was a rough job.
Chris: You kept on working in packing all through the war?
Roebuck Staples: No, after the war, I went to construction work, building
Barbara Dane: During the time you were at the packing house, you didn’t play at all?
Roebuck Staples: No, I didn’t play at all.
Barbara Dane: Not even parties or anything?
Roebuck Staples: No, I didn’t play nothing. I didn’t have time to play. I was trying to make a living. When the children got up pretty good sized … I often tell this, little guy told me how to, a really high price guitar you know in pawn and if I would get it out of pawn I could have it in purchase for seven dollar fifty cent. That was a lot of money in that day. I hustled up the money, and started amusing myself you know. I’ll never forget one day , there was so much snow we couldn’t even … all we do is set around the fire. I took the kids, and started harmonizing. I picked this string, give that in the key, get us in key, and then I’d let them all, I tell them all to come in on a hum. That’s the way I got started.
Chris: Was this after the war?
Roebuck Staples: No, this was….when did we start? Around ’45. Yeah, it was after the war. I tried them out in ’46, and around ’46. They didn’t make it then. Was it ’51 we started? Around ’51.
Chris: Did you first get jobs in different churches singing?
Roebuck Staples: We got our first job at a church. I sung at my brother’s church, Sears Staples. He was the pastor. He’s a preacher. One of my oldest sisters was staying with me. She used to belong to his church, asked me to come up and sing a couple numbers. When we got there, and sung, they wouldn’t let us stop. They liked it so well. I’ll never forget that old man, old minister there, named Lathan. He said, I want you children at my church next Sunday. Next Sunday I want you at my church. We haven’t stopped since…we sung that couple of numbers, and then we went from there to his church, and we went from there, there was some more preachers …went from there, to somebody else’s recording company heard of us, they wanted to record us there. Girl named Evelyn Gail, I’ll never forget, very nice to us. She helped me get on record. She advised me. I didn’t even think about trying to get on record, but she told me that I should try.
Chris: Was that the first label?
Roebuck Staples: That was United. Fellow by the name of Mr. Allen, was the president of that label. We stayed with him two years, and he wanted us to sing blues. He said, Mavis can make a lot of money if we sang blues. I didn’t want to sing blues.
Chris: Yeah, I was wondering, how did you feel in those days about mixing the two kinds of music?
Roebuck Staples: I feel that they’re, folk music, and gospel music, coincide together. I feel that we’re mostly singing folk music. We’re mostly singing folk music all the time anyway. Lot of traditional stuff that we used, material that we used. Each to his own. If a blues singer … blues has a lot of soul, lots of soul in blues singing, and when you hear a person singing the blues, there’s something that he has to express himself. You can sing the blues, and you know what you’re singing, but it means a lot when you know. Just like gospel music. Our religion, we believe in the gospel, and we sing gospel. We know what we’re singing about, more or less, but a blues singer, when he’s singing the blues, he’s telling you something that has happened to him. That’s deep down. That’s coming out, and sometimes that throws off a lot of his burden if he can just…yeah. Throw if off. The blues singer, we used to play, you could walk the cotton field rows at night. After you done come from, maybe you been to see your girlfriend or something. I used to take my guitar with me over to her house. If she didn’t talk very much, I sing the blues. Yes sir. I go out and sing the blues a while.
Barbara Dane: We used to sing blues, not on the stage.
Roebuck Staples: No. What’d you say?
Barbara Dane: You don’t object to singing blues, as long as you don’t do it on the stage now, do you? Do you still sing blues for yourself?
Roebuck Staples: No, I don’t particularly, I take it out in gospel, …now I can do the same thing..
Chris: I was just curious about that, doesn’t religion give you the same uplift?
Roebuck Staples: That’s why I say they’re so close together, because you can get consolation in singing gospel. I get more consolation. I can’t get the consolation now singing the blues, because I don’t have those problems. I don’t have those problems that a blues singer would have. I have a problem now, I depend more upon the Supreme Being, see… and I can talk to him, I can sing. That, I get a consolation out of that, like I used to do with blues.
Barbara Dane: Something that I’ve always wondered about, I’ve never stopped making music, I’ve never had to for any reason, just to drop it. I’ve always wondered, how, a person who is used to playing music and singing, how could you get through a period of time without …
Roebuck Staples: You don’t, that’s why I came back. You can’t… It’s constantly on you all the time. It’s on your all the time. You don’t never get out. It’s in you. You know how it is Barbara. It’s in you, you don’t … that’s why I’m back out there
Barbara Dane: How could you stand it? All that time…
Roebuck Staples: Yes, but obligation will make you stand sometimes. You can’t come up to it. Boy, if I had to stop now, I don’t know what I’d do, you know. I don’t intend to stop. I always try, if I have to amuse myself. But, it was pretty tough. I had never been to a city, and I had heard so much, and I was determined to make it. I was determined to make it. I just dropped everything, and went straight into work. As soon as I kind of got straightened out a little bit, then I went back to my guitar.
Roebuck Staples: It was rough. Just like smoking. You smoke, you have to have lot of strong willpower.
Chris: What are some of your other favorite types of music besides gospel music? …
Roebuck Staples: Just like I said, blues to me, has more soul, then jazz. I like jazz. I like good music. Like jazz. Like I said, each to his own. Some like rock and roll. I listened to it. I listened to some of it. For my music, I take jazz. First I take gospel, then I take blues, then I take jazz. That’s the way I feel.
Barbara Dane: If you ever have time to just go out and amuse yourself listening to someone else, who do you pick to go and see?
Roebuck Staples: I like an artist … what do you mean, in what field?
Barbara Dane: Any kind of music.
Roebuck Staples: Of course, Ray Charles, he’s a gospel man. Nothing but gospel. In that field he’s between jazz and…and I like Cannonball to jazz music. I have to Jimmy Reed from the blues band. He’s just badass….I like Howlin Wolf for my second choice.
Chris: Did you know Jimmy Reed when you started making records? Did you meet him pretty soon when you both started recording for Vee-Jay?
Roebuck Staples: We met, we was just tight buddies. Yeah, Jimmy… I met him, and we always have a long conversation when we meet up, because it seems like we have something in common.
Barbara Dane: Does he stay on the road a lot?
Roebuck Staples: Yes, he stays on the road. He’s a busy artist. Well liked artist too. Draw a good crowd.
Chris: Sure a heavy drinker.
Roebuck Staples: They tell me. I don’t know, I never been to one of his concerts or nothing , but they tell me.
Barbara Dane: What about Howling Wolf? Does he stay on the road? …
Roebuck Staples: Howling Wolf … did you ever see him?
Barbara Dane: Never have seen him.
Roebuck Staples: He do a lot of work.
Barbara Dane: Everybody has obviously just come, they go on …
Roebuck Staples: Howling Wolf keep busy.
Barbara Dane: Can’t locate him.
Roebuck Staples: They keep busy.
Chris: We got to ask your daughters what they think about the music in general, what kind they like the best. Mavis, do you have any ideas of the kind of … any particular types of music that you like the best, or don’t like?
Mavis Staples: Well, I just like all of it. I enjoy listening to all of it. I enjoy listening to the jazz, and anything that comes over the radio, but I like spirituals best. I enjoy spirituals the most. I don’t have anything against any of it, rock and roll, or blues.
Chris: What did you think when your father said, you shouldn’t sing any blues, when the man from the record company…
Mavis Staples: I didn’t care. I didn’t want to do it in the first place. I would have said the same thing, but daddy beat me to it. Daddy spoke up first, but I would have told the man the same thing, because I didn’t want to sing any blues. I didn’t know anything about singing blues. I had been brought up in the church, and I’d been singing church songs around the house, and I didn’t know anything about the blues. I wouldn’t have known what to do if daddy had said yes, she can do it. I would have been lost, because I just enjoy singing spirituals. I wouldn’t have wanted to sing any blues. I wouldn’t have known what to do in that field. I feel like I was then, and I still am, I’m just that close to God. I wouldn’t feel right singing anything else but spirituals. I guess I’ll be doing it all my life. I don’t have any intention to do anything else other than singing spirituals.
Chris: Did you feel any different when you made this recent record, that Cotton Field and…
Mavis Staples: This Land, I didn’t feel any different there, but the “Cotton Field” it just seems more … I don’t know, it seems like, what do you call it, bluegrass?
Chris: Yeah, like Hillbilly music?
Mavis Staples: Hillbilly, yeah. Seems more like. But I enjoyed it. It was fun. I like it, I like the little song. I had heard someone else sing it before we cut it, and I had enjoyed it, but it was just fun doing it. We got a kick out of it, but This Land, I really liked this land better than I liked Cotton Field. A lot of people like Cotton Field. The disc jockey here, in San Francisco, he likes that one better, he liked Cotton Field better. In LA too, I think he likes it, but I like This Land the best.
Chris: But I mean…when you sing and things like that… Can you put yourself as strongly into a song like that as you would into a gospel number?
Roebuck Staples: Yes we can, because just like I said, they coincide together both of them, but we sang a folk number, we sang it more like we sang gospel any way not quite … you can’t hardly tell the difference between our style.
Chris: Actually, both of those are very good songs.
Roebuck Staples: Yeah. When you sing a true song like that, like This Land, you can feel … it is telling a good story….
Mavis Staples: It’s telling a story.
Barbara Dane: That’s right. That’s why artists like The Staples can take in that kind of material and have it, and feel quite at home with it, because they’re used to listening to the words they’re singing, and thinking about them, and meaning what they say, so there now, you can take any song in the world that fits that formula, and they’re going to feel at home with it, as long as it’s true.
Chris: Do you have any comments that you ..
Yvonne Staples: No, I agree with Mavis. I agree, to each his own. Each field, in rock and roll, in blues, gospel, each one is carrying a meaning that’s more or less telling something, they just have their way of telling. Like we say Jesus, and they say baby, but all of it’s pertaining to the same. It’s telling a story.
Chris: I was wondering how you feel about switching back and forth like that, from at one time, I know, some singers had very strong feelings about that, they say you can’t really mix it and to keep it apart…but
Yvonne Staples: Well I don’t think you should exactly mix it, but like I say, to each his own. And I like we say Jesus, and they’re saying baby.
Barbara Dane: Depends on what you think about what they’re saying.
Yvonne Staples: Just depends on what they’re thinking about, is this the way they’re feeling at this particular time, because I think that a lot of rock and roll singers and blues singers, they really have the feeling, exactly about gospel, but it’s more or less, this is their way of living. This is the way they feel. What they want to do. We’re singing gospel, this is what we want to do, because we know that we say Jesus, really we know that the man above is going to help us. It’s the same way with blues, but this is just their type of living. The want to say baby, they’ll say baby, but all of it is telling a story.
Barbara Dane: Something that they have experienced.
Roebuck Staples: She’s talking, the way I see it, it’s a big difference in just the words, singing…. big difference in the meaning. What we believe, we believe that there’s a Supreme Being, somewhere, and we’re depending on our God. It’s no comparison with saying something about a woman. You can’t compare that with the Almighty. That’s where I … I solely believe, and that’s my belief, and they can’t take that away from me, because I don’t know … must be a god somewhere, because, let me tell you, I have a lot of prayers that I prayed that have been answered, and I don’t know. That’s why I can get consolation, and using God’s name in my program because he’s the man can wipe all of us off. He can destroy, he can defend, and no person…. I fear no man, because God got all power in his hand. That’s the way I feel, but I don’t … I can’t just say, one’s saying Jesus, and one’s saying baby, because it’s too much different in that part, because a man can’t do nothing for you. The way I feel.
Chris: I was just curious, when I saw you in Chicago last summer, you were on there with the Meditation singers, who were kind of ….they really get wild….what do you think about that? Do you think that’s all, as long as they believe in it, they …
Roebuck Staples: Everybody saved by their own belief. That’s the way they want it, that’s they way it should be with them, but I don’t see it like that. I see it the way I’m singing it. Barbara is singing it the ways she sees it. ….You can’t take nothing … it takes all of that, takes all of us to make…..
Chris: That why I have the feeling…I can never make up my mind whether they do a lot of it for the show, or whether they actually…
Roebuck Staples: Well yes, I can tell you that. That’s one thing, I don’t see the Meditation but they’re … in religious work, I don’t believe in a lot of showmanship. I think that you should leave that for rock and roll singers, and such. Folk singers, they don’t do a lot of showmanship, and they were the biggest of the day. You know that, and next time they sing, but when they jump…if they want to do that, that’s up to them, but I can’t see it.
Mavis Staples: A lot of them feel it, they get the Spirit. They feel it …
Roebuck Staples: Like I said, some of it’s a lot of showmanship, like you said. A lot.
Barbara Dane: In any kind of, style singing, there is … I feel like you can divide up the artists in two different ways. You can say, some performers use the material to show themselves off, and others use themselves as a vessel to carry the material….
Roebuck Staples: That’s right.
Chris: How does that compare with the churches, when you were younger? Did they ever have things like that?
Roebuck Staples: No.
Yvonne Staples: It’s just a thing that everyone has to, more or less, you know what you believe in, and I feel each one of us know exactly what we want, and what we believe in, and regardless of what the other fellow might say, baby, or we say Jesus. I still feel that they are all, believe in … at least they know that there is one man above, but it’s just their way of doing it and our way of doing it.
Roebuck Staples: I tell you one thing, some of the blues singers and other what you would call sinful singers, is sometimes better Christians than some of these that tend to be Christian. It’s just another job, and they’re making a living. ….They’re performing good and they’re making a living… That’s why I say to each their own, and if he can do that … deep down you never know what’s in a person’s heart. Sing what they want to sing.
We didn’t have that in the old churches; we just mostly had hymns and choir.
Chris: Did you ever go to any other churches, except to Methodist ones?
Roebuck Staples: Yes. Sanctified. They had guitars there. That’s another thing, that’s what I find, use guitars in gospel music. Sanctified church. I’d often, when our Church would let out I enjoyed going to Sanctified. They swing. They got a beat…Lord help them nobody can compare with. They don’t have to say one, two, three, four. They hit, and you can’t beat them. You can’t beat em. Come on in Brother Reed.
<noise interruption – tape stops>
Chris: Well things that…Especially the contrast you’ve seen in the change of the church, I think that might be kind of interesting…new developments.
Roebuck Staples: You know what, it’s a moving time, see. Changes can’t be stopped. This church, you used to go and just sit, and look, but now, you can see the people waving in the air, they’re saying Amen, and witness to what the minister saying. That has been changed so much. The Methodist church, was real quiet. Now, they …what you say on the swinging. They move, too. The Baptist church, they’re like Sanctified more or less. It’s just a changing thing, but one thing we have come to the conclusion of, that no one is saved in no church if you’re not right. You can be in the Baptists, Sanctified, Methodist, any church you’re in, if you’re not living right, your church is not going to help you. I don’t particularly have no one denomination. I believe in doing the right thing. That’s what I believe. I believe you can do that in one church like you can in the other.
Chris: I was wondering, do you think that the church has increasingly become leaders, so to speak, in fighting for their own people, and so on, or do you think it has been the other way … I always felt in the older days, churches were much more conservative. They would never speak up on anything.
Roebuck Staples: They never speak up on no politics, and nothing like that. Seems like they stayed into it …but now, they’re … the preachers are leaders. They are ventured out to taking over, but that used to be something. That’s why I said change is coming on all the time. You can’t stop change. What do you say Barbara?
Barbara Dane: I’d like to hear the girls talk some more about their …
Chris: How do your schoolmates feel about you singing…you know? …
Mavis Staples: The ones in Chicago, they enjoy it. They make all our programs that we have there. All through school, every time I’d go out on weekend and come back, they’d have a lot of questions…you know there. I used to have to go out, in fact, I used to miss just about every Monday in school because we’d go too far and couldn’t get back home in time enough for me to get to school.
Roebuck Staples: That’s what happened. We…made… Before Mavis was out of high school, we had the hit record to come out… Uncloudy Day…and it came out about six months…
Chris: That was the first time I ever heard you, you at the Oakland Auditorium, must have been six, seven years ago.
Roebuck Staples: That’s right. We made that record, and she had to go, well, six more months before she graduated. So we got called, I don’t know how they found us..but called us, let us came in, and I tried to work weekends. I was working too then, I was working the steel mill at that time. Weekends, the weekend program. Sometimes we’d go as far as New Orleans from Chicago, Durham North Carolina seven, eight hundred miles, but we had a good car. We jumped that program. It would take us all night Sunday, all day Monday, to get back home. Then we had to go to work, Tuesday. We’d done that for, I done it from October to March, and I quit my job. Then she had to finish up hers.
Chris: What year was that? Do you remember?
Roebuck Staples: ’57….
Chris: Did any of the schoolmates ever ask you to sing rock and roll, or stuff like that?
Mavis Staples: Well, after the teachers found out that I was a singer, we had variety shows. In school they tried to get me to go on and sing, but they wouldn’t ask me to sing rock and roll. They would ask me to sing some of the songs that we sing. I used to try to sing. I couldn’t do too well, because I couldn’t sing any solos. I made it through, but it was hard to sing a solo, and I couldn’t have the whole group come over to the school, because my sister was working, and Pervis was working, and I was the only one in school. They couldn’t come over just for a variety show, sing a couple of songs. I had to get up there and try to do it by myself. I’d sing a solo, let’s see … I can’t think of what, it was one song I could do pretty good on by myself. I’d get a pretty big hand…
Roebuck Staples: I don’t know…but they tell me, they have a place there in Chicago where the young peoples go, and a lot of the young people know my kids. They’re crazy about them.
<recording drops off>
Mavis Staples: And use what you got. Cleotha was down there.
Yvonne Staples: And all the kids go down there. I don’t know how the managed to get our record. Every time, they get one, and the kids come back and tell me, I heard you, I heard your record at Birdland last night. This is strange, because they don’t do that.
Mavis Staples: They don’t usually do that…
Chris: Oh I see, you’re the only gospel …..
Roebuck Staples: They got all our records.
Female: This is the place where the kids go to dance. They don’t play
Yvonne Staples: They’d have an entertainer. …block away. It’s in the building, it’s in the Persian building.
Mavis Staples: It’s down in the basement there. In the Persian building.
Yvonne Staples: They have a theater there, they call Regal theater, and they have entertainers there. On a Wednesday night, they give them a big party. All the entertainers come down and sing free for the kids. After that, they play the records. I think it was several entertainers that was appearing there. Lloyd Price for one, that told us they were playing the records, and where they’d heard a lot of our friends, but I’d thought probably they were kidding.
Mavis Staples: They playing Hammer and Nails at Birdland.
Yvonne Staples: But it was really true. They have all the records on.
Mavis Staples: They sure do.
Yvonne Staples: Imagine we’ll get home, someone will call us and tell us, I heard your record This Land, I know they will. ….they both have beats, but I imagine….
Mavis Staples: They have that monkey beat. Kids can do the monkey off of it.
Yvonne Staples: This is a new dance…
Barbara Dane: Everything starts at Chicago. ….what’s the difference between that and the old dances?
Yvonne Staples: I don’t know. They make them up. Whatever particular dance is, if you can come out with that particular beat at that time, you got a thing going
Barbara Dane: How does the monkey beat go?
Mavis Staples: Goes like This Land and Cotton Field. ….
Yvonne Staples: When Hammer and Nails came out, Hammer and Nails was a twist beat. They did a twist on it. It’s really not that we tried to get that beat, it’s just…. it’s on the style that they do it. This is what it is. This is what they like……at this particular time they had a boss nova on it. They had the bossa nova beat, and they were doing the bossa nova, bossa nova version of everything. It happens that way.
(48:35) PART TWO
Roebuck Staples: I’m going to be lucky one day to be a big gospel singer, if I keep on. That’s my ambition, to get on the chart. Make a chart, on the 100, on the Billboard.
Chris: Well I think you certainly have made it in your field, but as you say, you made those records because you feel that you haven’t reached the broad market.
Roebuck Staples: No, I haven’t reached the broad market, and I think that’s … not only that I think that’s good material. I think that, it’s time for the whole nation to start listening to something that means something. If they were listening to the record and play it, and a lot of people that’s not thinking clear, and stop and think, this is everybody, this is not my land so many young people now think that, this belong to me. This is my land. This is ours. This land belong to everybody. To see it like that, we’d have a better United States. It’s just really rough, what the colored entertainers have to go through with sometime, in the trail. We hit down in the Southern states. It’s hard to get food sometimes. Nobody know, that’s why colored people sang the blues. That’s why they can sing with soul.
Female: It’s still going on, everyday.
Roebuck Staples: With all the integration, and what they’re saying have been done, you don’t know what’s gone on when you get out there and even the police will tell you things in your car, that you know you don’t … know what’s going on, either.
Female: It’s not just one particular place, it’s all over the country… so there’s no particular place at all.
Barbara Dane: That’s why I don’t think I can go down there. I don’t know what to do with myself wouldn’t know how to face the situation.
Roebuck Staples: Who was it, Jackie Russell? I was reading little piece where he was in the … they have…. they let him go inside a white hotel. He’d let Barbara come in, and ……and then the desk clerk like to you know had a fit. You can’t do … don’t mean nothing you know. It’s just so silly. I was down south last year. I was at a cavalcade had, how many cars would have? About four cars. I drive a Cadillac because that’s the best car. I’m not trying to be a big shot. That’s the best car in the world to drive. Hope Cadillac get, when you talk about Cadillac, they always give you one. I hope they see this and they can give me a Cadillac. ….but they’re the best cars in the world. I don’t do nothing but put gas in that car and change the oil. We drove up to Yazoo City, Mississippi, and I never will forget, a man asked me and said, I told him, I said, fill my car up. Fill it up. I was driving a brand new ’62 Cadillac. Reverend Franklin driving a brand new ’62 Cadillac. And they was kind of mad at us ‘cause we was driving them big new cars and “what about that one back there? Want me to fill up too?”
I said “Reverend you want your car filled up too…? I said “Yeah, fill ‘em up.” “Don’t you say Yeah to us white people down here.” Yes he did. He had fifty cent worth of gas in my car. I said, cut it off. That’s plenty. He cut it off. I gave him fifty cent. Thank you. My son came out of the door, and getting’ a can of something, and he said, okay to him…”Don’t say Okay, you say Yes sir to us white people down here. “
Barbara Dane: They’re so desperate. They know it’s over, but they’re desperate now …..
Roebuck Staples: It’s ignorant. I don’t know what.
Barbara Dane: They know that whole scene is over with.
Roebuck Staples: Trying to hold on.
Barbara Dane: They’re so desperate to hold on.
Roebuck Staples: I can’t understand. We went on down the street, and I don’t know what he was thinking of…we went down, he lost twenty-five dollars. We went on down the street, we filled all the cars up.
Yvonne Staples: He wasn’t trying to start anything he was just thinking about Chicago, and trying to finish a program…we were trying to get back to go to bed, and need some gas. You just, just like you would pull up any station here, and the man say, fill up? You say yes. This is all it is.
Roebuck Staples: He lost twenty-five dollars right there. We went on to the next station. We filled up. We had a full car. I don’t see how he can stand to lose that money like that. Twenty-five dollars. ….when you fill it up, it cost seven to eight dollars. He lost about twenty-some dollars. Right there. Just on account of he said, abused me like that.
Barbara Dane: They can stand it. They’re killing themselves.
Roebuck Staples: Not an exclusive place. I went in to just a service station. They had a counter there, you know. I ordered, I was driving. We’d gone late at night, real late, and I was going to get something to eat here, get us some sandwiches. Went in there…I ordered. Well, you go around to the back. Well you keep your food, I’m gone. That’s the kind of stuff. …. You’d be hungry too, but you don’t feel like eating it after they tell you something like that.
Yvonne Staples: You go around the back, your money can spend in the front as well as it can spend in the back. That’s the difference.
Roebuck Staples: I took my son to get some sandwiches, in a place down there two ladies was in there. I went to the front, and I was asking, Perv, what you doing back here? He told me, they told me to come around the back. I said, never buy any food like that as long as you live. If my money won’t spend there, if it’s not good enough to spend there, it’s not good enough to spend back here. Lady came, she said, Mr., said we awful sorry. Said we trying to make a living, so I know how you feel …but said…we got to do what this man said. We can’t do nothing about it. We hate it as bad as you do. Some of them, it’s not all bad white people now. Don’t think that, because … she said, she just didn’t see any sense in herself, she couldn’t see it, but there are … said, yep, if they didn’t do that, they would lose their jobs, and they’d needed to work…
That’s the position that a lot of position are in …I told Dick Gregory I wanted to go down now, you know while everything’s going on, but I don’t see if could sing somewhere, be some help. He said, I’m going to have a long talk with you first. Have to explain a few things.
Roebuck Staples: Yeah.
Barbara Dane: So you won’t get chopped down the first move you make. I don’t know, but it’s so exciting now to see that people are really taking things into their hands and going.
Roebuck Staples: One girl was coming through going to Cincinnati, stopped in the house in Chicago. CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) convention was in Cincinnati, Ohio. She stopped, and I asked her how was things going. She’s from Jackson, Mississippi, right out where Evers got killed, and asked her how was things in Mississippi. She was coming on from Jackson then, in Canton, and police stopped. Let me see your driver’s license, nigger. Who you calling nigger? See all that kind of stuff we have to go through with, that you all don’t, the white never know about. …
Chris: Well I’ve experienced with driving and …how terrible these people can be.
Roebuck Staples: And my state is the worst…
Chris: Most people don’t know it.
Yvonne Staples: Like I said, everything is coming to a change. It’s what’s stated in the Bible, and it’s really fulfilling, because it’s changing. It will change even more.
Roebuck Staples: It’s going to change even more, true. I believe in the Bible, I believe in the Bible. It’s fulfilling …it wasn’t fulfilling so fast. I couldn’t be, but it’s coming to pass. What the Bible says is coming to pass. Not only in the Southern states. We have segregation in the Northern states too. I can’t get some engagement from my groups of that white people get, but that’s being changed now. ……we going to be accepted now more than ever, I think. That’s being changed too … you know that’s being changed.
Barbara Dane: Almost because of it. The white music has lost so much vitality. There’s nothing to it, you know it’s so empty. People need music that has meaning and feeling to it. So they go looking anywhere they can find it.
Yvonne Staples: Because just that colored people to have experience]. We all I think have experienced something through a … type of thing, and really, everyone is really looking for the truth more, until now, and the truth is really what it is. We all telling exactly the way it is really.The truth… this is what we want to hear now, really, the truth. Usually it was so the truth will hurt you, but now it’s the thing that has come to be, that everyone wants to know.
Chris: I think you’re right.
Roebuck Staples: Ain’t no time for … one thing, what helped me and carried me a lot, because my people have a lot of confidence in me. With my family, they know that I’m trying to do the best that I can do you know. I’m sincere in this. I’m really sincere …
Yvonne Staples: …He is our father, and we have a certain respect that … but we’re all grown, we’re still grown. We’re at an age now that we should have been out, you know all of us raising families at home some place you know. It’s just a thing that we’re trying to put over, so this is the reason, because we are all of age. We’re no teenagers. My brother and my sister now. My brother, he’s married, and I have another older sister, Cleo, because she was with us. She’s married now. Therefore Mavis and I, and … we’re not married, but we’re still of age. We’re no teenagers, but still it’s just a thing that we’re trying to accomplish. Therefore this is the reason that we’re all here.
Chris: Come to think of it, where do you like to perform best? Where do you get the best feeling for yourself …in a big auditorium or church or?
Yvonne Staples: The church really is a place that you could really relax more so, but wherever the spirit hits. It doesn’t matter about the place, or where you’re singing. If you have the spirit and if it hits you, it doesn’t matter. You can be out there on the street, and if it hits you, this is it. There’s no particular … but ah…
Roebuck Staples: When you accept it, the better you accept it, the more you can get into it, and then sometimes you have to drive hard to be accepting. Then you can come through.
Yvonne Staples: You can go to the place, and people just sit there and look at you, and if you feel the spirit, well they can just sit there and look at you. it’s hard, but then if you feel it, well then, you know
Roebuck Staples: I’ll tell you one thing, what comes from the heart goes to the heart. More or less when it hits you, it’s going to touch somebody
Yvonne Staples: And everyone has a different way of showing it. You might just sit there and say, well they don’t enjoy, but if you could just really see, you could see them crying. Really, they just have different ways of showing it, that’s all.
Roebuck Staples: You can have an audience sometime that they just set and look at you. You know that’s your best acception]that you’ll never get ….] when they sit right there and listen. They give you that and then afterwards applaud. That’s wonderful.
Chris: When you first encounter that, I’m sure you felt kind of lost, didn’t you?
Roebuck Staples: Yes, but know we know.
Yvonne Staples: If the people enjoy us, we can tell. A person doesn’t have to get up and jump. This is unnecessary. Like I say, each person has their way of showing things you know. Then, you can always tell if a person has enjoyed you.
Roebuck Staples: We can always tell if they accept.
Yvonne Staples: You can always tell this.
Barbara Dane. There’s a different sound and feeling in the room.
Yvonne Staples: You just get up there and sing.
Chris: What do you think of these night clubs that have been specializing in gospel music? Do you think this is …..
Roebuck Staples: Specialize in gospel music? Like what?
Chris: For example, they’ve got this Bessie Griffin and her Pearls up in some Las Vegas gambling Casino. She plays there.
Barbara Dane: Now they got a club in New York called the Chariot.
Chris: They serve drinks and ….and people are drinking. what do you think of that?
Yvonne Staples: I’m okay, but the Chariot Wheel, we’ve never been there, but Sweet Chariot, we heard … I don’t think I would like to work there.
Roebuck Staples: I don’t think I’d like to work there. The other day, called drinks after the old prophets, the names of … I don’t approve of that.
Chris: I kinda feel ….those people going too far to make money. I think that’s …
Roebuck Staples: Like Miss Ward out here in Disneyland, I think that’s nice. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Even Clara. She’s working there. Just like I said a little while ago, some blues singer is a better Christian than some of the church members. That’s a job. Clara’s just got a job. I mean I feel that I can sing in a place like that, and take no part in it. That’s what hurts, when you’re taking apart. Whatever the sentiment of what you are doing but I think you can go there and … listen, let me tell you, I went to the Ash Grove, and some little kids came to me with tears in their eyes, saying, I want to change my religion. I feel that I had done some good see. They saw something in us.
Yvonne Staples: Some people, they won’t come out to a church, but still, you have to go to them, and still regardless, if you’re going to them, it doesn’t make you do what they’re doing.
Chris: That’s a very good point.
Yvonne Staples: What you might change them by you being there. You’re doing something then. Some of the clubs, they’re okay, but regardless, some of them … they’re just all for a fast buck.
Barbara Dane: I don’t see any difference in the gospel singer who’s just singing for the money, or the blues singer for the money, or the rock and roll singer, or anybody else. If they’re just doing it for that, they’re not doing themselves any favors. They’re not getting their joy from the music that they should have. That’s the real reward for singing the music. That’s really the only right reason for singing.
Chris: As you say, that’s a good point. Popular music doesn’t have that, that you feel like you are converting somebody, that you maybe are bringing them around to your religion, and think … I don’t think any popular music has this in mind.
Roebuck Staples: We go to the club, we don’t try to go in and convert nobody, but it happens. We go in there singing from our heart, just like we singing in church, and automatically happens. That’s the that way it goes. Automatically. You don’t have to try to make nobody. It automatically happens.
Barbara Dane: I felt when I saw you at the Ash Grove, I felt that all of you were so down for some reason, were feeling … were you?
Yvonne Staples: Well, this was our first time.
Chris: That was the first time that you played at a, people
Barbara Dane: That’s what I thought. Just what I thought, now they’re used to singing, everybody jump and carry on, and …
Yvonne Staples: This was our first time. I think we were more or less a bit scared, because this was our first time being in the club. This is what that was, but as far as them jumping up … because I really believe that they enjoyed it.
Chris: Don’t you get a feeling though from people, if they do react? Like in the church, when people really get with you. …doesn’t it give you a kind of an uplift …
Yvonne Staples: You get a feeling, but then too, you just don’t look for this particular thing. If no one jumps up, you won’t say, oh, they didn’t enjoy the program. What’s wrong with them? But if they give you the support afterwards, this is what really matters, because if you can go there next time …
Mavis Staples: You can go into to some places, and they’ll sit there and look at you, watch you sing, and then they won’t half applaud, but then after you get outside, everybody complimenting you..
Yvonne Staples: Like I say, each person has their way of showing it. Some places you go, you’d be surprised …..
Mavis Staples: I just feel lost at first, because that was the first time we had done that kind of work. I didn’t know what the people expected. They enjoyed it. I was just lost for a while, because I didn’t know just how to sing to them. I just thought, just sing to them like I sing any other time. They enjoyed it. They seemed to have enjoyed it.
Roebuck Staples: I feel that the sound of the gospel singer talking about, don’t go into the club, but just like I said, nobody knows my heart. See I know what I pray for when I go in there. Quite naturally, I gotta make a living. The money’s in it too. They holler, but still they go to the jazz festivals, and they sing on. They get with these stars…no more harm in singing. I don’t feel it’s no more harm than singing. A reputable place, not like some of the clubs they have. Place where I can have a nice audience, that will listen to us sing. I don’t mind going in there, pointing out, because might not be no better place to sing but in a club. You can’t get them to come to church, but singing there … Bible tell you to go everywhere to carry the Word.
Barbara Dane: You got to take it where you find it. Open ear, you can’t always find everywhere.
Roebuck Staples: That’s right. Guy came to Ash Grove said, I didn’t have no idea what it would be like. So I thought, gospel singer was like such and so. That’s the thing about it now. Gospel singing is nothing new to the Negro people. We’ve been had it a long time, it’s all over us, but there are lots of … the general public don’t know what’s gone on, and it don’t know how, and they see one gospel singer, and they think, all of em is just the same, but it’s not so true. We have a lot of ..maybe the do copy others and you get a different group. We have a style, a different style from probably any of em.
Chris: You probably had the most distinct style of any of them, I would say.
Yvonne Staples: We had friends here in Oakland that have never attended a program before, and since we’ve been coming here, they’ve been coming out, and they really enjoyed it. That’s not just here, but even like some of my best friends in Chicago. They never even attended a program before, and now they really enjoy it now. They didn’t know anything about going to church, I’ll put it like this. As far as spiritual things was concerned. Really, they enjoyed it.
Roebuck Staples: The little girl that was a friend to my oldest daughter, she had never went to church, didn’t know about no church, and she’s never been. She come out to the church. The school let us know. Oh boy, the spirit come. We really sung, we turned loose. She came up to me, Mr. Staple, I’ve never been to one of your programs before, but I’ll never miss another one. ….She was real pretty too. She was young, pretty girl. She kinda hugged me, sure made me feel good.
Yvonne Staples: Our friends. They just call you all the time, and want to know, when are you having a program here. ….they really want to know. They even want to travel with us sometimes.
Roebuck Staples: The only thing I can’t understand, why we can’t get through to their young public … only thing I can’t ..
Chris: Partly due to the fact that churches do different in their exterior … in their formalities? In white churches, you hardly have any singing. If you do, it’s a very rigid … but maybe that’s why.
Roebuck Staples: But here’s the whole thing about it. Every time we go into one of these places and sing, they crazy about it. That’s the thing about it. I mean they love it. That’s why I can’t understand. It’s going to catch on though.
Chris: I think it’s already
Roebuck Staples: We down in Mississippi. Like I said, all white people not, but they broad mind
Yvonne Staples: We were in Tupelo, Mississippi, and the mayor came out to our program. You heard the song about ….Hard Rain in Tupelo. Yeah, John Lee Hooker, well this is the place. Even in Miami, we were there the last time, and I think we had at least about 20, in Miami. It’s strange for Miami.
Chris: Where did you sing then, an auditorium?
Yvonne Staples: Yeah, Long Shore.
Roebuck Staples: We had a big auditorium too. But Last Sunday was the Olympic. The Sunday before that they just followed us out the hotel.
Yvonne Staples: I think he writes the script for the Gallant Men. He comes out all the time.
Roebuck Staples: Sam Cook invited us over for swimming. I think that is the way is should go. I think that is the way it should go.
Chris: Think that you will reach them, eventually, even without going into other fields of music.
Roebuck Staples: I don’t intend to go into no other field.
Barbara Dane: There’s no need to. There’s no need to.
Roebuck Staples: This is it, now.
Chris: You see the things that you have done on the popular vein of such good songs, it’s just as good as singing … do you have any plans to do any albums of folk songs?
Roebuck Staples: The next album coming out is folk. What they would call folk …
Yvonne Staples: Our folk, it’s still all in the same … it’s not too much different. You should tell them..
Chris: Do you still record for both Vee-Jay and Riverside?
Roebuck Staples: Just Riverside.
Barbara Dane: Is Ed Michelle producing for you?
Roebuck Staples: He’s on vacation. You mean at the present time
Barbara Dane: Has he been actively producing this stuff? Or who?
Roebuck Staples: I don’t know what he’s playing, what part.
Barbara Dane: He’s supposed to be A&R man there,
Roebuck Staples: Orrin Keepnews. He’s done all our producing and everything.
Chris: Does he tell you what he wants you to do, or does he let you do or does he let you …
Roebuck Staples: He lets us do what practically what we’re … that’s one thing about Veejay. They never. They just let us make what we wanted and how we wanted. We wanted to do this. Like Yvonne said a little while ago, we working for a point, we’re trying to show. They’ve been with me there, and they stick with me. Don’t be for that, the group wouldn’t be as strong, because my kids had really stuck with me, wonderful, and given me no trouble. That’s why I know that the whole United States will stick together in unison. Couldn’t nothing tear us down. Just this little group here. Everywhere we go. We’re the youngest thing here today, and we’re getting the interview. The one that’s been singing 20 years down the hall The Soul Stirrers, they’re not getting this interview, we getting this interview. ….So that tells me by sticking together, and doing what you’re trying to do, sincerely, that you will make it through. This thing will be a big help to us. I don’t know when it come, next year or whenever it come out, every time your name is mentioned, it means something. I can appreciate this, and the only thing I can say, we just striving to try … we don’t want no move in to folk. We still gospel singing, but what we said folk, we want to sing some songs that carry a meaning, and telling a story. Now I mean that can open up somebody’s eye.
Yvonne Staples: Say Jesus, but all of them is still carrying the meaning, and even so with our folk music and Barbara’s we’re still singing it in our style. We have this style this is true. All of it is true, but we still say gospel and folk. All of it is still pertaining to the same thing. This is the way you know, like some people don’t know that. We say this, but still we have our own style. She would have her own style of singing. We still have our own style, and really, it’s so much … you really can’t tell the difference, from what we say gospel and folk, because it’s still all the same. Then too, we gotta go along with what they say. If this is folk, well it’s folk. Who are we to change it.
Barbara Dane: All you can do is do what you want to do. Let them call it what they want to call it. Don’t worry about the labels. You can get tired of trying to explain yourself in and out of those labels ….
Yvonne Staples: This is what we play. Folk is folk.
Chris: Are your birthdays in that book, if I can …
Roebuck Staples: I think so.
Yvonne Staples: No.
Chris: Would you mind giving me your …
Roebuck Staples: We’ll give you all the birthdays. I was born the 28th of December, 1914. Pervis was born 18th day of November, 1934. ’35, yeah ’35. Yvonne was born … when were you born?
Yvonne Staples: 23rd of October.
Chris: 23rd of October.
Yvonne Staples: 1936.
Roebuck Staples: Mavis was born 10th of July, 1939. Cynthia was born
Yvonne Staples: January the 4th, ’52.
Roebuck Staples: Cleotha was born in 1934, April 11th. My wife was born …
Barbara Dane: She’s not doing any singing now, right?
Roebuck Staples: No.
Barbara Dane: Doesn’t she miss it?
Roebuck Staples: Oh yeah, she miss it. Mrs. Staple was born September 10th, 1917.
Chris: Think of anything else we…
Yvonne Staples: My mother leads well. She’s at home taking care of my little sister Cynthia. She’s quite a character.
Roebuck Staples: She plays the piano.
Yvonne Staples: Sing, she’s taking all the dancing. I don’t know, she’s going to be something in the entertaining field.
Chris: Has she ever sung with you before?
Yvonne Staples: Yeah. She has a song she sings. You Don’t Knock. In fact, the Kingston Trio, the last time we were here, they came out to the program and they had recorded this record, You Don’t knock. It was some sort of mix up, because my father and a friend of his wrote the tune. Anyway, they came out, and they invited us on. Very nice guys. This is a song Cynthia loves to sing, you don’t knock, you just walk on in. I think the Kingston Trio, they record it, but they’re very well on it.
Barbara Dane: How much of your music do you write yourself?
Chris: I was just going to ask that.
Roebuck Staples: Quite a bit, especially rearranging. We do a lot of rearranging. We have quite a few songs. About a third.
Chris: A good part are traditional songs that you’ve rearranged in your own style.
Roebuck Staples: That’s right. That’s where we get our best results from.
Barbara Dane: Roebuck, what’s your system for arranging? Do you break a new song in by improvising your own parts and then set it?
Roebuck Staples: Last night, something hit me last night. That’s why the guitar’s out. I started working on it, then I’ll work it out, and it’s no trouble for them to catch that part. Some people asked us why our group’s so much different. The family here, we have the same accent. We more or less speak the word just alike now. When …
Yvonne Staples: At the same time,…..thinking the same, like Mavis and I have the tendency to say the same thing, both of us come out with it at the same time. ….
Roebuck Staples: It happened yesterday, I mean often.
Yvonne Staples: Yesterday, we said, at the same time, we came in, just like two….exactly the same time.
Roebuck Staples: Mavis said Au contraire.
Yvonne Staples: The same time.
Roebuck Staples: That’s the way it goes.
Chris: when this comes to you …
Roebuck Staples: Yes, on the song last night now. I work it out. I put it down in my book. We’re going to record it. That’s the more or less… somebody else sang it, but when I get the beat myself, like I want it, I work on it, and when we finish with it, if it’s an old song, it just comes out different, it just comes out different. I can’t help it, whatever. It’s just the way we feel, when we arrange something like that. Quite honestly, they catch their part right on.
Barbara Dane: When you first started doing it, before you knew what voicing the kids would wind up with, each one, and before each one of them had developed their own way of doing it, then how did you solve the problem of putting them all together into a sound?
Roebuck Staples: Their parts you mean? Just like I said, I put it …it’s very easy.
Yvonne Staples: I say, for instance, well I was a singer…at least. When we started out, I was doing a little lead. This is a long time ago, and then I have stopped singing until my brother Pervis, he had to go into the army, and to keep from getting someone else outside the group, I had sung a little lead and a little tenor, which I … but then Pervis was singing alto, and boy, it took me the longest … baritone, to get there, but I had to do it, and I did it for two years. Daddy would tell me every day to get the record and listen to his part. This is how I got it. I didn’t think I could do it. This is really the way we did it. If I like my sister Cleotha, she was singing tenor. She went in, then I had to take tenor.
Barbara Dane: That’s something that I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain. People are always asking … in my own case, I started out singing, I was a high soprano, when I was a kid, when I was about 13 years old. I was singing way up high, lyric soprano. They all say, how come you sing low now, whole different sound. I contend that singing is mostly a mental process. You get an image of what you want to sound like, and then you just keep striving ‘til you sound that way. What she said proves her point. In fact, the fact that all you can take children as they come along and put them all into the thing, you don’t have to recruit on the streets, somebody who can already do it, but you can just take the kids and teach them to do what you need in the group, that proves the point.
Yvonne Staples: Well this is the way it happened.
Roebuck Staples: If I get something, like this song, they have never heard it, never tried you know singing with me. Now this is.. I Want Two Wings. Mavis
Chris: Just basically that song is just a straightforward sanctified shout …you can probably make a beautiful arrangement of it.
Roebuck,: See, I can sing all their parts.
(Roebuck, Mavis, and Yvonne work out an arrangement of I Want Two Wings.)
Chris: How long does it take you to work out a song?
Roebuck Staples: That’s about it.
Yvonne Staples: We’ll sit there and listen to him give us our part if we can’t get it.
Roebuck Staples: That’s about all it took. When we get ready to go, and then when I come back again on this, they’ll be ready for it. If I call in for rehearsal, let’s do Two Wings that there is enough for them to get their part and go.
Yvonne Staples: We was singing to Ma there …here Pop with his …so therefore what he does is you better try to get it, because he will call …
Roebuck Staples: An artist, I feel, that a professional artist should know his part. Now they should know how to catch their part.
Barbara Dane: Sure, build it by themselves.
Roebuck Staples: Build it by themselves. More you get in, they can swing it and ad lib like they want to.
Barbara Dane: The thing I was interested in is, I’m used to doing that with people who are mature artists already, like jazz musicians. I work with a piano and bass man that, we all know …we get along, and we know. I don’t have to rehearse, we never rehearse, really.
Roebuck Staples: That’s it.
Barbara Dane: Unless it’s some unusual thing, I might show them the changes, but otherwise, we just call it and go. Now, here’s what I’m interested in. As a mother with kids, see I want to know how you start out with little kids that don’t know already where their place is. I’m already the middle of ….
Roebuck Staples: I see what you mean. …
Barbara Dane: I know how to do it, and you know how to do it, but how would you explain it to somebody that doesn’t know how to do that, how to see what the child has to offer and fit them into things, and how to make …
Roebuck Staples: You know how to give it to them.
Barbara Dane: How to help the child learn to have the kind of personality that’s free enough to give it, see. How to make them free enough to give what they can give. That’s a very great art, and you’ve done it.
Yvonne Staples: I feel, for myself …
Barbara Dane: You’ve done it. I have things to learn from you on that score.
Yvonne Staples: Well I think it’s very interesting, and ….she must ask them if they want to. I imagine she should know whether or not they are around the house singing now, and if they want to just take each one and say, well, if you want to, then you sing this part. Try them, with this part, and the other one with this part, and then if that one doesn’t work, if they want to, but if they don’t want to, it’s something you can’t really exactly push on them, but then if you, like you for instance, singing all the time, eventually they’re going to come in.
Barbara Dane: All mine are playing all different things. We play and sing all the time, but there’s no organization to it.
Yvonne Staples: Just take one, and say, you try this part Joe and you take this part. Then you come up and say, well you know, let’s see what we have here.
Roebuck Staples: Something you can’t explain.
Yvonne Staples: You just try. You never know.
Roebuck Staples: She said a big thing there when she said, if they’re interested in it.
Barbara Dane: Yes, but creating that interest and desire, see that’s what you did, and apparently I’ve done it with my kids because they’re all interested too, but there are so many people who just can’t … they want their children to be musical, and they’d give anything, but still they can’t come up with one kid that wants to play an instrument.
Roebuck Staples: I see what you, oh no, that’s out. I can’t tell them either…I see what you mean.
Barbara Dane: I think it probably has to do with the fact that the parents just wish it, but they don’t participate, they don’t bring music into the home as an everyday thing. I’ve always planted in my kids the idea that there’s nothing in music that they couldn’t do. I don’t take no for an answer. I just hand them something, if we’re having a little session, I’ll hand them whatever it is, and I’ll say, play something on that. I don’t say, have you practiced on it, or do you know this, I’ll just say, here, play a little bit of that. They do automatically respond, because they know you have confidence in that.
Roebuck Staples: That’s right. Do you know music?
Barbara Dane: Yeah, well, they’ve all been taking lessons on different things.
Roebuck Staples: Do you read music too?
Barbara Dane: Yeah, I can read. I can’t read on the guitar, though.
Roebuck Staples: You can’t read on the guitar?
Barbara Dane: Can you?
Roebuck Staples: No.
Barbara Dane: Shake buddy!