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South Side Staples: A Guide To The Staple Singers' Chicago

By Joe Ward | October 27, 2017 6:25am
 The Staple Singers
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BRONZEVILLE —  Gospel legend Mavis Staples — and her onetime boyfriend, also a famous singer — will officially open the new Wintrust Arena Friday, a building that could cast a shadow on the Staples' childhood home in Bronzeville.

As the frontwoman of the Staple Singers, Staples and her family band became perhaps the most influential gospel act in American history as well as civil rights era icons. Though they made it to the top of the recording industry and toured the world, their story is tied to Chicago, particularly the South Side.

Here are some of the South Side landmarks linked to the Staple Singers:

Dirty Thirties: Staples and her siblings grew up at 506 E. 33rd St. in an area of Bronzeville they called the "Dirty Thirties," according to "I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers And the March Up Freedom's Highway," which is the year's One Book, One Chicago title.

The neighborhood would be noteworthy if it was just the home base of the Staples family, but Staples and her siblings grew up with legendary singers Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls, among other successful, less famous musicians. The neighbors all attended Doolittle Elementary, 535 E. 35th St., and Dunbar High School, 3000 S. King Drive. Singing filled the neighborhood, Mavis said.

'I was fortunate enough to see the horses and wagons ... the iceman, the coalman, the ragman," Mavis told Timeout Chicago in 2011. "My brother [Pervis] and Sam Cooke would work on the watermelon man's wagon and they would sing a song like, 'H-e-e-y-y-y watermelon here, get your red, ripe, juicy watermelon, man.'"

The family lived in many places throughout the South Side, including at 649 E. 89th St. and later on 103rd Street. They even lived at 14th Street and Ashland Avenue for a spell while the kids were growing up, according to the biography. The homes welcomed some of music's biggest luminaries, including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson.

Progressive Baptist Church [DNAinfo Joe Ward]

Progressive Baptist Church: Roebuck "Pops" Staples, the family patriarch, held a number of jobs before his family band took off, including at the Stockyards. He managed to get a side gig as a gospel singer at Progressive Baptist Church at 3658 S. Wentworth in Armour Square. Around that time, Pops began teaching his kids Mavis, Pervis, Cleotha and Yvonne how to sing in four-part harmonies.

87th and Vincennes: The Staples had known Martin Luther King Jr. since 1963, but three years later the group's local legacy of activism was secured. It was at an unnamed restaurant at this Auburn Gresham intersection that King asked the group to sing at King's Operation Breadbasket events as a way to draw crowds and publicity.

King's stay in Chicago did not go smoothly, as the civil rights leader was hit in the head with a rock during a demonstration at Marquette Park. But Operation Breadbasket was a success, as it led to 2,000 new jobs for black Chicagoans, according to the Staples' book. Operation Breadbasket also launched Jesse Jackson's career in Chicago.

Perv's House: Pervis Staples was the most restless member of the group and departed the family band in the early '70s to go into business for himself. He had a number of ventures, including Perv's Music, an artist management firm and studio at 8125 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

Perv's House, captured here by photographer Michael Abramson in 1976, was one of the most happening nightlife spots on the South Side. [Courtesy Michael Abramson Estate]

But his most successful business was Perv's House, a sprawling nightclub at 914 E. 79th St. that was one of the most popular nightlife spots on the South Side.

"Perv's House was the Cadillac of the clubs I visited — like a Playboy Club for the South Side," photographer Michael Abramson wrote in his book "Light: On the South Side."

Lollapalooza:  Staples had worked with music visionaries such as Prince and Stax Records founder Al Bell, but one of her most memorable projects as a solo artist came from her collaboration with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.

Tweedy, himself a Chicagoan, saw Staples at a show at the Hideout in 2008 and soon after agreed to help produce her next album. The two met at a Hyde Park restaurant, but Tweedy showed up late and disheveled, according to the Staples biography.

"Is he shy, or scared that he's on the South Side?" Mavis was quoted as saying of the meeting.

Mavis and Tweedy produced 2010's "You Are Not Alone," a successful album that led her to play a triumphant, and somewhat improbable, homecoming show at Lollapalooza. 

Mavis Staples and Bob Dylan will headline the first concert at Wintrust Arena, 200 E. Cermak Road, Friday night. Tickets can be bought here. The King Library at 3436 S. King Drive will host a walking tour of Bronzeville's gospel history at 11 a.m. Saturday.