Pervis Staples, Staple Singers Co-Founder, Dead At 85

Pervis Staples

Pervis Staples, a co-founding member of the soul and gospel group the Staple Singers, died on May 6 at his home in Dolton, Illinois. He was 85.

Staples’ death was confirmed by Adam Ayers, a member of Mavis Staples’ management team, and no cause of death was given. Funeral services are scheduled for May 17 in Chicago. Pervis’ sister and fellow group member Mavis Staples shared a statement about her beloved brother.

“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.”

Pervis Staples was born in 1935 in Drew, Mississippi, and the family later relocated to Chicago. Pervis and his three siblings Mavis, Cleotha, Yvonne all grew up on gospel music, under the tutelage of their father, Roebuck “Pop” Staples.

Early in 1953, the Staple Singers made their recording debut, recording a 78 on Roebuck Staples’ own label, Royal. The two sides, “These They Are” and “Faith And Grace,” were recorded on a two-track tape machine.

The group would record several gospel-folk style singles for various labels, first with United Records, followed by Vee-Jay Records (including their hits “Uncloudy Day” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”), Checker Records, Riverside Records, and then Epic Records in 1965.

Pervis sang tenor in the group, backing up Pop alongside Mavis and Cleotha, but it was Mavis who was hitting all those low notes.

“We’d trick ‘em,” Pervis recalled in journalist Greg Kot’s 2014 book about Mavis and the Staple Singers.

“The audience would be looking for me to come up with the low part – this was for the people who heard the record but had never seen us before, I’d come up to the mike and switch over at the last second where Cleotha was, then Mavis would step up. That messed them up, but it woke up the crowd.”

As the decade saw hit after hit for R&B singers, Pervis convinced his father to let the group sing more secular music, resulting in Pervis and Mavis’ cover duet of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

The Staples were an original influence on Dylan, especially “Uncloudy Day,” who called it “the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard.” Pervis and the folk hero had formed a friendship while on the festival circuit in the 60s, and the two would influence each other throughout their careers.

“They put muscle into their music, and when the Staples broke into the pop mainstream in the ‘0s with their Bible-based soul music, no one could honestly call them hypocrites.” wrote Bill Carpenter in his feature on the group in Goldmine magazine.

“Unlike many gospel artists who sing about their Savior but don’t apply his social activism to their lives, the Staples have lived what they have sung.”

Pervis would eventually leave the group after they released their first album for Stax, 1968’s Soul Folks in Action.

“Pervis left because he didn’t want to listen to Pops all the time, he wanted to do his own thing.” Mavis shared in Kot’s book. “He had been in the army, and he was standing up for himself as a man. Pervis just got tired of only being thought of as Daddy’s son.”

Pervis started managing Chicago act, the Hutchinson Sunbeams, who later became the Emotions, and secured them a contract with Stax Records. He only expected to leave the Staples for a short period while he got the Emotions established, but they soon became so big that he left the group permanently. Pervis also ended up penning their early hits for Stax.

Pervis was later inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with the Staple Singers in 1998, while the group received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

He is survived by Mavis, as well as his six children, seven grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

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