Cleotha Staples, eldest of Staple Singers siblings, dies at 78
By Dave HOekstra Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org February 22, 2013 5:50PM
FILE - This March 15, 1999 file photo shows Cleotha Staples of the sibling group The Staples Singers at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York. Cleotha Staples, the eldest sibling in the highly influential gospel group died Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, at her Chicago home after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for the last decade. She was 78. (AP Photo/Albert Ferreira, file)
Updated: March 24, 2013 6:10AM
Like a warm blanket over a cold frost, the Staple Singers spread their message of tolerance throughout the South in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Chicago-based family group would take to the stage in auditoriums and churches. Pops was swing leader, daughter Mavis was lead soprano. Pervis sang baritone and his sister Cleotha was minor tenor. She always stood next to Pops, her high vocals emanating from Pops’ tremelo guitar and soothing voice of a country preacher.
Cleotha Staples died Wednesday morning in her South Side home. She was 78. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the past 12 years .
Although she had been inactive from touring for many years, Ms. Staples’ imprint was always part of the group, both musically and spiritually. She sang on the group’s first hit, 1957’s “Uncloudy Day” recorded for Vee-Jay Records in Chicago, as well as the family’s best known hits for Stax: “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” One of her final recordings with Pops was the groups’ edgy 1984 cover of the Talking Heads “Slippery People.”
Ms. Staples was a graduate of Doolittle School in Chicago. She attended Dunbar Trade School, where she learned dressmaking.
She found work for the Hart, Schafner and Marx clothing firm where she put shoulder pads in coats. She later designed stage outfits for the Staple Singers.
She married Edgar M. Harris in 1959 and left the group for a period in the early 1960s to devote time to her marriage.
Cleotha Staples was the oldest of the children born to Pops and Osceola Staples in Drew, Miss. It was a role she did not take lightly.
In 1964, the family was taken to jail in West Memphis, Ark., after they were mistakingly fingered for holding up a gas station in Jackson, Miss. Mavis was the night driver of the family’s green 1964 Cadillac. Pervis was in the back seat, sleeping underneath a pile of coats. Pops was also asleep in the back with Cleotha riding in front with her sister. When Mavis asked for a reciept for gas, the young, tall white attendant waved his finger at Pops and then Mavis. Pops and the attendant began to scuffle.
When the attendant grabbed a crowbar, Cleotha stepped in to make sure her father did not get hurt.
The family was pulled over crossing the bridge into West Memphis. The Staples were surrounded by three cars of police officers armed with shotguns and pistols.
The incident made the front page of the Nov. 14, 1964, issue of the now-defunct Chicago Courier weekly. The headline read: “STAPLE SINGERS RELEASED AFTER PUNCHING WHITE MAN IN MISS.” “It was jut like the movies, but without the actors,” Cleotha told the paper. “I was scared to death.”
The police eased off when one of them recognized the family from an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
In 1976, the Staples were to appear at a theater in Johannesburg, South Africa. When Pops heard that blacks were allowed to sit only in the balcony, the family refused to play. The concert was moved to a soccer field in Soweto, marking the first time blacks and whites sat together in a South African venue.
In 2002, I wrote and co-produced the Emmy-nominated documentary “The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement” for WTTW-Channel 11. The normally reclusive Bob Dylan recalled the first time he heard the Staple Singers while growing up in Minnesota.
“We’d listen to the radio, usually late in the evening,” he said. “‘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 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 and the Highway QCs and all that.
“But the Staple Singers came on . . . and they were so different.”
And then Bob Dylan smiled.
Cleotha Staples is survived by sisters Mavis and Yvonne and brother Pervis. She was preceded in death by her sister Cynthia. Funeral services are pending.