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Mavis Staples is best known for her extensive gospel career with the Staples Singers.
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Singer; civil rights activist. Mavis Staples was born July 10, 1939, in Chicago, Illinois, the youngest of four children born to Oceala and Roebuck "Pops" Staples. Her mother died when Mavis was still very young, so she and her three older siblings (Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne) were raised primarily by their father. In earlier days, Pops Staples worked at the infamous Dockery's Farm cotton plantation in Drew, Mississippi. After a day of hard labor in the fields—for 10 cents a day—Pops took solace in the Delta blues, learning guitar from the great blues pioneer Charley Patton. In 1936, three years before Mavis was born, Pops moved to Chicago and landed a job in a meatpacking factory. He played in a gospel quartet called the Trumpet Jubilees throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, but eventually grew frustrated with his bandmates' lack of commitment to their music.
Mavis Staples recalled that when she was 8 years old, her father finally gave up on the Trumpet Jubilees and turned to his children to become his new bandmates. "Pops finally came home one night, got the guitar out of the closet and called us in the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle and started giving us our parts," Staples recalled. Two years later, when Mavis was 10 years old, the family band made its debut singing at a local Chicago church. After they received an enormous ovation, Staples recalled her father saying, "Shucks, these people like us. We're going home to learn some more songs!" Although she was the band's youngest member, Mavis soon became its lead singer with a logic-defying voice that more properly belonged to a woman several decades older and many times larger. She recalled her father telling her, "Mavis, listen, your voice is a God-given gift. You know, you don't know music. You don't even know what key you sing in." Staples added, with a laugh, "And I still don't know what key I sing in."
In 1953, the Staple Singers signed with the small gospel label Vee-Jay Records and released their first song, "Sit Down, Servant." Three years later, they scored their first major hit with "Uncloudy Day," introducing Staples' shockingly mature vocals to national audiences for the first time. "I was a skinny little knock-kneed girl with a big voice that comes from my mother's side," she remembered. "Deejays would announce, 'This is little 15-year-old Mavis singing' and people would say it's gotta either be a man or a big lady. People were betting that I was not a little girl." The Staple Singers toured the country and developed an impressive grassroots following, but they limited their concerts to weekends until Staples graduated from high school in 1957. They recorded two more national hits in the late 1950s: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "This May Be the Last Time," a song later adapted by The Rolling Stones.
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