Cleotha ‘Cleedi’ Staples, a founding member of the pioneering folk-gospel group, The Staple Singers, has died at the age of 78. She had gracefully battled Alzheimer’s disease for the last decade and passed away peacefully at her Chicago home on the morning of February 21, 2013.
Staples was born April 11, 1934 in Drew, Mississippi. She was the first-born child of Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his wife, Oceola. The family moved to Chicago in 1936 for better job opportunities. In the Windy City, siblings Pervis, Yvonne, Mavis and Cynthia were born. Pops worked a variety of manual labor jobs during the day and Oceola worked at the Morrison Hotel at night. To entertain the children in the evening, Pops began to teach them gospel songs while he strummed along on his ten-dollar guitar. His sister Katie enjoyed the sing-a-longs so much that she arranged for the family to sing at her church one Sunday morning in 1948. The family was called out for three encores and more than $7 was raised in the offering basket. Pops realized the family group had a future, and The Staple Singers were born.
The group began to sing on WTAQ 1360 AM radio and made its first recording with “These Are They” for Pops’ own Royal Records in 1953. They then recorded for United Records before striking gold with Vee Jay Records where they recorded “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” in 1956. With Pops’ blues-influenced guitar, Cleotha’s bright high notes, Pervis’ falsetto and Mavis rich contralto, they were on their way to stardom. They became one of the biggest gospel outfits of the era and turned out best-selling gospel classics such as “On My Way To Heaven,” “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Don’t Knock,” “Pray On” and their signature hit, “Uncloudy Day,” generally accepted to be the first gospel record to sell one million copies.
The family became active in the Civil Rights movement after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL in 1962 while on tour, and they often performed at events at the request of Dr. King. As they became immersed in the Movement, their music broadened from gospel music to more mainstream material. In 1963 they became the first black recording artists to cover a Bob Dylan song (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), and they also recorded songs of protest such as “For What It’s Worth,” “Freedom Highway” and “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad).” By 1968, when Pervis had left the group for the Army and Yvonne Staples took his place, they began to record for Stax Records, home of southern soul stars such as Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MGs and Sam & Dave.