Sunday, 7 June 2015

"I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers And The March Up Freedom’s Highway" - A Book by GREG KOT - A Review by Mark Barry

AMAZON UK Link Above - AMAZON USA Link Below

“…You’re Not Alone…”

Father of two, all-round-good-egg and a respected critic at the Chicago Tribune since 1990 - GREG KOT has also authored three acclaimed music books - "Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music", "Wilco: Learning How To Die" and "Beatles vs. Stones: Sound Opinions On The Great Rock 'n' Roll Rivalry". This is his 4th musical tome...

Published in 2014 by Scribner of the USA in Hardback (308 Pages) - "I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staples Singers, And The March Up Freedom's Highway" is the first fully sanctioned autobiography of what many feel is an American institution long overdue hysterical praise - a God given thing of wonder - the voice and heart of MAVIS STAPLES. I'll be blunt here. I've loved her voice, her music, her spirit and her healing effect fro my whole life - having been a lifetime fan since those STAX Records sides in the early Seventies (the book takes its title from their 1972 hit). I'd high expectations for "I'll Take You There" and I'm thrilled to say it doesn't disappoint. 

And what a journey it's been - filled with never-before-told stories of growing up in segregation Thirties and Forties Mississippi - onwards with Pops and The Staples Singers to shaking church rafters with Sam Cooke in the Fifties - becoming both Gospel and cross-over artists in the explosive civil-rights Sixties - and global bone-fide Soul Superstars in the Seventies. The book then goes into the desert of the Eighties and re-emerges with Prince in the Nineties and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in the Naughties. You wouldn't mind if her last two albums "You Are Not Alone" (2010) and "One True Vine" (2013) were no good - now in her late Seventies they're probably the best of her career.

KOT cleverly keeps the chapters short and sweet - they last only 6 to 8 pages each and there's 43 of them - each packed with extraordinary names that crossed the family's path across nearly 7 decades (Charlie Patton, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy and Ella Johnson, Lou Rawls, John Carter of The Flamingos and The Dells, Johnnie Taylor, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin, Martin Luther King, Harry Belafonte, Billy Preston, Levon Helm of The Band and Hilary Clinton to name but a few). One of fourteen children himself - Roebuck "Pops" Staples was 18 when he married his childhood sweetheart Oceola Ware in 1933 (she was 16). By early 1936 and with his trusting wife and two young kids in tow (Cleotha and Pervis - Pervis would later manage the band) - hothead Pops defied his father's advice, scrounged for a whole year until he had the $12 bus fare needed and left the dead-end South for the music of Chicago. Yvonne Staples came in 1937 and Mavis followed in July 1939. Soon the family of singing siblings were doing ensemble vocal renditions of Gospel songs with Dad on his trademark guitar - practising in their apartment as a way to pass the time. But after they earned $7 one Sunday afternoon by wowing the Gospel crowds with their sheer spirit and uncanny harmonising - Pops began to see how he could support his family long term. Little did he know that such a humble beginning would spawn a musical career lasting way past his sad passing in 2000.

The beauty of a book like this is that it covers so much of America' turbulent history - a virtual step-by-musical-step through Americana. You get example after example of horrible racism, the civil rights movement and the redeeming bringing-together power of music. Through interviews - Kot gets the good and the bad of what happened - and to whom. Yet throughout Mavis remains positive and forgiving - bad career decisions - broken marriages - never having children - all of it anchored by family, music and a mighty, mighty faith. The chapters also document the very real difficulty the family had with their peers as they tried endlessly shed purist Gospel for their version of righteous Soul - how their success at Stax elicited howls of sell out derision - and how they toured in places where blacks just didn't go. We get her brief affair with Bob Dylan, support shows with Rock acts like Love, Steppenwolf and Traffic - collaborations with Steve Cropper of Booker T & The MG's as she took her first tentative steps into a solo career in 1969. There's stuff on Iran in 1970, Ghana in 1971, the WattStax Festival in 1972 with "Respect Yourself" on to headlining an anti-apartheid South Africa concert in 1975. There's stuff on Vee-Jay, Epic, Stax and Warner Brothers. 

Her meeting the mercurial Prince is described as Holy Ghost Moment and that same collaborative magic happened again with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. His "You Are Not Alone" is probably the single most gorgeous song Mavis has sung in damn near 40 years - full of great message and heart - a hopeful Soulful ballad of hope ("I wanna get it through to're not alone...every night I stand in your place..." Isn't that beautiful - much like her good self and this uplifting book...

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