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Pervis Staples, Founding Member Of The Staple Singers, Dies At Age 85

Pervis Staples, second from right, performing with his family in 1965.
Michael Ochs Archives
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Pervis Staples, second from right, performing with his family in 1965.

Pervis Staples, a founding member of the Staple Singers, has died. According to a statement from a family spokesperson, he died suddenly in his home in Dolton, Ill, on May 6. He was 85 years old.

Staples was born in Drew, Miss., in 1935, the second of five children. The family soon relocated to Chicago, Ill., where patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples worked in a steel mill. In order to keep his kids occupied while their mother worked the night shift at a downtown hotel, Pops had them sit around in a circle and sing. This is the seed of what would eventually become the Staple Singers: Pops on guitar, with children Cleotha, Pervis and Mavis on vocals. (Yvonne Staples would take Pervis' place when he was drafted into the Army in 1958).

"Pervis' childhood was filled with wonderful experiences," Mavis Staples said in a statement. "He liked to think of this period of his life as setting the stage for all that he wanted to do in life."

In the early years, the Staple Singers stuck mostly to gospel music, at Pops's orders. Pervis finally convinced him otherwise, introducing his dad to his friend Bob Dylan. Greg Kot, author of I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era, said in an interview that a young Dylan played the same festivals as the Staple Singers, and was a big fan. Pervis played "Blowin' in the Wind" to his father, who was struck by how the music spoke to the message of the ongoing Civil Rights movement.

"Pervis was essential in building that link," Kot says.

Pervis Staples eventually left the Staple Singers after their first record for Stax Records, 1968's Soul Folk in Action. He went on to manage the Hutchinson Sunbeams, who later became the Emotions, and opened his own Chicago nightclub called Perv's.

He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and received a lifetime achievement Grammy award in 2005, both as as part of the Staple Singers. In the family statement, Mavis Staples said "He was one of the good guys and will live on as a true Chicago statement."

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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