'Pops' Staples Dead at 84

December 20, 2000 -- Guitarist Roebuck "Pops" Staples, patriarch of pop-gospel ensemble the Staple Singers, died Tuesday, following injuries received in a recent fall near his Dalton, Ill., home. He was 84.

Staples, born Dec. 28, 1915, in Winona, Miss., started singing and playing guitar in the late-'20s. Although his first exposure to music came via the church, Staples also became infatuated with the blues in his teens and would go on to meld sacred and secular influences to tremendous affect.

After a stint with gospel ensemble the Golden Trumpets, Staples migrated to Chicago with his wife, Oceala. He started the first incarnation of the Staple Singers — featuring his children Pervis (later replaced by daughter Yvonne), Cleotha, and Mavis — in the '40s, and the quartet gradually gained acclaim for its tight harmonies and spirited performances. The group began recording in the early '50s, albeit with limited success, until its 1956 Vee-Jay single "Uncloudy Day" became a favorite with gospel fans.

During the '60s, the Staple Singers began to branch out beyond traditional gospel fare, incorporating protest songs and works by artists such as Bob Dylan and Buffalo Springfield into their repertory. Fusing Memphis-style soul with powerful messages, the Staples tapped into the spirit of the civil rights movement and anti-war sentiments.

The group racked up a string of hits for the Stax label in the '70s, including "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)," "Respect Yourself," and the No. 1 1972 smash "I'll Take You There." In 1975, they hit the top of the charts again, this time for Curtis Mayfield's Custom label, with "Let's Do It Again," from the film of the same name. The group was also prominently featured in the 1973 film Wattstax, alongside Isaac Hayes and Richard Pryor.

While the Staple Singers remained active during the '80s and '90s, even going so far as to score a 1984 club hit with a cover of the Talking Heads' "Slippery People," Pops Staples also launched a solo career and acted in films, including True Stories (1986).

In 1992, Staples' solo album Peace to the Neighborhood was nominated for a Grammy Award. Two years later, his 1994 release Father, Father received the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.