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An Appreciation of Pervis Staples
RIP Pervis Staples (1935-2021)
Thank you to everyone who has signed up for my new newsletter. I am so glad to have you along. My hope is to post about twice a week. Here is my first post: a remembrance of the late, great Pervis Staples.
These days, it’s rare for a newspaper item to come as a shock with social media and all, but the Obituaries page of the Globe and Mail on Friday, May 14 held one when I saw that Pervis Staples had passed at the age of 85.
Pervis was an integral part of the Staple Singers but left the group at the tail end of the 60s just before the hit records started. He wanted to break out on his own and that’s what he did: first as the manager of the Emotions and then, as a nightclub owner.
Like most, my first exposure to the Staple Singers was through the hits - ‘Respect Yourself,’ ‘I’ll Take You There,’ ‘Let’s Do It Again’ - and it was only through listening to Bob Dylan’s marvelous Theme Time Radio Hour and hearing their famous recording of ‘Uncloudy Day’ that I realized there was a whole other side to the Staples. The sound I heard was otherworldly, anchored by “Pops” Staples’ eerie guitar and Mavis’ lead backed by “Pops,” Cleotha and Pervis. A later episode had their mid-60s rendition of ‘Be Careful of Stones That You Throw’ with Pervis taking the lead and reciting the song’s timeless parable.
The Staple Singers started out as a family gospel group and branched out - first into folk and then into soul, and were also tireless foot soldiers in the push for civil rights - primarily at the urging of Pervis. The New York Times’ write-up on Pervis sums up, if briefly, the role he played in the evolution of the Staple Singers.
It was Pervis’ friendship with Bob Dylan - among the most fervent fans of the Staples - that led them to record memorable versions of ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ (Pervis and Mavis sharing the lead), ‘Masters of War’ (“Pops” offering fire and brimstone) and ‘John Brown’ (a solo vocal by Pervis). Indeed, this is my favourite period of the Staple Singers and the era where Pervis emerged as the group’s third lead vocalist.
I admit I feel a special thrill when I hear a cut by the Staples Singers and hear Pervis either singing lead or his tenor anchoring the family harmony. It’s a reminder that one can be both in the background and also have a chance to come to the forefront. Just listen to the way he tells the tale of the returning solider in the aforementioned ‘John Brown.’
Mavis Staples’ comments on Pervis’ passing touch on why he left the Staples. It was motivated by the wish to no longer be dictated to by “Pops,” which would be the first indication that I have ever read of any level of tension in the Staple Singers. One thing, in my mind, that distinguishes them from many other family groups is the seemingly utter lack of turmoil that often occurs when family and music mix. For me, the Staple Singers are a celebration of the profound bonds of love that families, when they are close, can inspire, and how those bonds can be deepened even further when they unite in song.
Although Pervis had long left the group, he was there when the Staples were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, joining in the family circle as they received their richly deserved honour.
“Pervis was one of a kind – comical and downright fly. He would want to be remembered as an upright man, always willing to help and encourage others. He was one of the good guys and will live on as a true Chicago legend,” is how Mavis chose to sum up her brother.
He will be missed.