Cleotha “Cleedi” Staples, a founding member of the pioneering folk-gospel group, The Staple Singers, has died at the age of 78. After battling Alzheimer’s disease for the past 12 years, Ms. Staples passed away peacefully at her high-rise condominium on Chicago’s South Side, on the morning of February 21. Her long-time caretaker was at her side.

Though critically overshadowed by her formidable younger sister Mavis and her distinctive guitarist father, Roebuck aka Pops, Cleotha’s bell-like soprano was the Staple’s secret weapon. “I credit Pops’ guitar and Cleedy’s voice with making our sound so different,” Mavis Staples told the Chicago Tribune. “Her high voice–Pops would take her to a minor key a lot. A lot of singers would try to sing like her. Gladys Knight’s background singer (in the Pips), William (Guest) would tell Cleedy, ‘I’m trying to sound like you.’ Her voice would just ring in your ear. It wasn’t harsh or hitting you hard, it was soothing. She gave us that country sound. The way we sang was the way Pops and his brothers and sisters would sing down in Mississippi. Those were the voices they would use to sing after dinner out on the gallery.”

Pops, Cleotha, Mavis and Pervis, late ‘50s

Stax Records executive, producer and promoter Al Bell, who was behind the board for many of the Staple’s sessions during the group’s years at the legendary Memphis-based label, met Cleotha in the late ’50s, and was struck not only by the quality of her singing, but by the uplifting, affirmative spirit she brought to and made a cornerstone of the group’s musical personality.

“Her twang as a vocalist was unique,” Bell said. “And it was the color, the spirit and the attitude of Cleotha, too, that made the group special. She was always complimenting, encouraging and pushing everyone else along. In ‘I’ll Take you There,’ you’ll hear Cleotha urging on Mavis: ‘Sing your song!’ That was Cleotha the person relating to her sister. She embellished Mavis’ uniqueness, actively encouraged it. They were together, always, and Cleotha was so vital to that.”

Cleotha Staples was born April 11, 1934 in Drew, Mississippi.  She was the first-born child of Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his wife, Oceola. Seeking better job opportunities, the family moved to Chicago in 1936, where Cleotha’s siblings Pervis, Yvonne, Mavis and Cynthia were born. Her brother and sisters called Cleothoa “granny,” according to family friend and publicist Bill Carpenter, “because she acted like a granny in terms of being wise and always sure of the right thing to do.”

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-alongs so much that she arranged for the family to perform a gospel number at her church one Sunday morning in 1948. The family’s performance earned it three encores and more than $7 raised in the offering basket. Moreover, the reaction to their performance convinced Pops that he and his offspring could make it professionally.

The Staple Singers, ‘If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again’ (1956, for Chicago’s Vee Jay label)

The Staple Singers, ‘Uncloudy Day,’ a signature Staples song released on Vee Jay, 1956, and generally accepted as the first million selling gospel single.

As the Staple Singers, Pops and the kids started on WTAQ 1360 AM radio and made its first recording for Pops’s own Royal Records in 1953, with “These Are They.” After a stint with United Records, the Staples triumphed at Chicago’s Vee Jay label with “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” in 1956; a year later they had a nationwide gospel hit with “Uncloudy Day,” which became a signature Staples song and is generally accepted as the first million selling gospel recording. With Pops’ shimmering, blues-influenced guitar, Cleotha’s bright high notes, Pervis’s falsetto and Mavis’s rich contralto, they had found a distinctive blend. Soon they were one of the biggest gospel groups of the era, with best-selling gospel classics such as “On My Way To Heaven,” “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Don’t Knock” and “Pray On.”

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, and shortly thereafter began performing at events at the request of Dr. King, who would request the Staples do “Why (Am I Treated So Bad?),” Pops’s powerful protest song inspired by the Little Rock 9, the African-American children who enrolled at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 and then were denied entrance into the racially segregated school by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who was overruled by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Pops wrote a song called ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad,'” Mavis recalled in an interview for Chicago Stories on PBS station WTTW. “He had seen the Little Rock 9, you know, we were sitting in the living room, watching the news, Pops laying back in the recliner. And everyone had given these kids permission to go to school, I mean, to board that bus. The governor, the mayor, the president. Everyone had given them permission to board the bus. This particular morning when they got ready to board the bus, a policeman put his billy club across the door. And Pops laying back in the recliner, he said, ‘Now why they doin’ that? Why they treatin ’em like that? Why they treatin ’em so bad?’ He started writing that song right then. And that turned out to be Dr. King’s favorite. Any time we were together, he would say, ‘Stape, you gonna sing my song tonight, right?’ Pops said, ‘Yeah, we gonna sing it, Doctor, we gonna sing it.'”

‘Stape, you gonna sing my song tonight, right?’ ‘Yeah, we gonna sing it, Doctor, we gonna sing it.': The Staple Singers, ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad,’ Pops’s song, inspired by the Little Rock 9, that Dr. Martin Luther King requested the group perform at Movement events. This performance was filmed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1981.

As the Movement gathered momentum, the Staples’ music broadened from gospel to include folk, soul and protest songs, including several important originals, starting with “March Up Freedom’s Highway,” for the march from Montgomery to Selma, AL, and “Washington Is a Long Walk to D.C.,” for the 1963 March on Washington (remembered for Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech); other original protest numbers include “We’ll Get Over” and “When Will We Be Paid for the Work We Done.” 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).”

In 1965 the Staples recorded the album widely regarded as the group’s masterpiece, Freedom Highway. Released on the Epic label, Freedom Highway was produced by country hitmaker Billy Sherrill, far better known for his work with Tammy Wynette, George Jones and the like. Recording in mono, Sherrill captured the Staples live before the congregation at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church, with additional instrumental backing by drummer Al Duncan and, on bass, Phil Upchurch, otherwise better known as a versatile jazz-oriented guitarist of great taste and tone (he plays the epically lonely guitar fills on Dee Clark’s 1961 hit single, “Raindrops”) plus a full gospel choir led by Caravans founding member Ora Lee Hopkins. In addition to the monumental title track (in which Mavis sings, “Whole world is wondering what’s wrong with the United States”), the Staples offered a moving rendition of Hank Williams’s “The Funeral” and Pops climbed into the pulpit, figuratively speaking, to deliver some concise sermons of his own. The result is a soul stirring, hand clapping, transformative gospel moment. The original album is long out of print, with only two cuts from it surviving on a 1999 Legacy overview of the Staples’ gospel work for Epic, also titled Freedom Highway.

In 1968, after Pervis had left the group for the Army and Yvonne Staples had taken his place, the band was signed to Memphis’s Stax Records, where they joined a now-legendary roster of soul giants including Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MGs and Sam & Dave. At Stax, the Staples enjoyed their most fruitful commercial years on the strength of gospel-flavored, positive, self-empowerment treatises such as 1971’s “Respect Yourself” (a million-seller), 1972’s chart topping “I’ll Take You There” and 1973’s “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” (also a million-seller). The group’s other Top 50 singles included “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom Yeah)” (1971), “This World” (1972), “Oh La De Da” (1973), “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend” (1974) and “City in the Sky” (1974). In 1971 the iconic million-seller “I’ll Take You There” spent a week at Number One on the Billboard pop singles chart and four weeks at that spot on the R&B singles chart.

The Staple Singers, ‘Freedom Highway,’ from the like-titled live album released on Epic in 1965. Recorded at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church with the band expanded by drummer Al Duncan, bassist Phil Upchurch and a full gospel choir led by Caravans founder Ora Lee Hopkins.

Like sister Mavis, Cleotha did the occasional outside session, most memorably in a dynamic vocal display on Eddie (“Knock on Wood”) Floyd’s bluesy ballad of lost love, “It’s Too Late,” from the 1969 Stax Records duets LP Boy Meets Girl. She also appeared with the family band in Accra, Ghana, in 1971 at the Soul To Soul concert, along with Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, Santana, the Voices of East Harlem, Kwa Mensah, Les McCann & Eddie Harris, the Kumasi Drummers and others in a 14-hour cultural exchange between two continents, attended by more 100,000 enthusiastic locals; at the historic  August 20, 1972 Wattstax festival in Los Angeles (dubbed “The Black Woodstock”); and in Martin Scorsese’s landmark 1978 concert film The Last Waltz, in which the Staples sang “The Weight” with The Band.

The Staple Singers perform ‘Respect Yourself’ on Soul Train, the self-empowerment hit single from the group’s 1972 album, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself

The Staple Singers, ‘I’ll Take You There,’ a TV performance from 1971, when the million selling single spent a week atop the pop chart and four weeks at #1 R&B.

The group moved to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1975, where it scored its final number one single, “Let’s Do It Again.” From there it was on to Warner Bros. Records. Those years produced no hits of note, with the Staples’ three albums failing to chart on the Top 100, although 1976’s Pass It On did rise to #20 on the R&B chart. The Staples’ final album was 1984’s Turning Point, released by the Private I label.

Cleotha’s last recordings were with the Staple Singers for backing sessions on Abbey Lincoln’s Devil Got Your Tongue CD (1993) and Pops Staples’ two solo albums, Peace To The Neighborhood (1992) and the Grammy winning Father Father (1994). After Pops died following a concussion he suffred in December 2000, the Staple Singers ceased performing as a group.

Ms. Staples was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with her family in 1999 and also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

From The Last Waltz, The Band and the Staple Singers perform ‘The Weight’

Cleotha is survived by her siblings Pervis, Yvonne and Mavis, her dedicated caretakers Penny and Sushi, and an extended family of nieces, nephews and treasured friends.

Assessing the impact of the Staple Singers, Harry Belafonte noted: “There’s hardly a dimension in black life in its richest sense that cannot be found in the music of the Staples. Not only the political and overt social message that some of the songs have, but the religiousness of the spirit. It is the embodiment of the struggle of black people in America.”

On the aforementioned Chicago Stories interview, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called the Staples’ combination of music and message “soul and science,” and added: “And they were talking that relevant talk. You could demonstrate to their music. Or you could shout to their music. The Staple Singers were unabashedly freedom fighters.

(from left) Cleotha, Mavis, Pops and Yvonne. Said the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “The Staple Singers were unabashedly freedom fighters.’

“The rappers are now into the message of sorts. And often the message was a kind of raw vulgarity and sometimes barbarity. Staples never crossed that line. They had the gospel foundation. Sometimes the blues beat, but the message of liberation. Read the lyrics of their songs, you will find a message that moves people.

“Staples became fusion. They became the bridge between the gospel and the blues. Gospel and the blues both have very sad origins, born of pain. Difference is in the blues, you go down twice, you come up once. In the gospel, it’s always a ‘good news’ ending. There’s always some resurrection beyond the crucifixion. There’s always some brighter day ahead, beyond the clouds of today. And the Staples had that connection of blues origin and gospel ending. And that’s why they are cherished and legendary.” –David McGee