CHICAGO -- Cleotha Staples, the eldest sibling in the influential gospel group The Staple Singers, has died. She was 78.
Staples died Thursday at her Chicago home after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for the past decade, said family friend and music publicist Bill Carpenter.
The family's music career had its roots with Roebuck "Pops" Staples, a manual laborer who strummed a $10 guitar while teaching his children gospel songs to keep them entertained in the evenings. They sang in church one Sunday morning in 1948, and three encores and a heavy church offering basket convinced Pops that music was in the family's future. The Staple Singers was born.
Two decades later, the group became unlikely hit makers for the Stax label, the home of southern music stars like Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs.
Cleotha Staples, known as "Cleedi," was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with her family in 1999 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys in 2005.
She was born April 11, 1934, in Drew, Miss., the first child of Pops and his wife, Oceola. Two years later, the family moved to Chicago, where Pops worked a variety of jobs performing manual labor and Oceola worked at a hotel. Chicago was also where the family's four other children were born-- Pervis, Yvonne, Mavis and Cynthia.
The Staple Singers became one of the biggest gospel groups of the era with songs like "On My Way to Heaven," "Will the Circle be Unbroken" and their signature hit "Uncloudy Day."
Pops and Mavis primarily took the lead on the group's vocals, but a 1969 recording of duets featured Cleotha's voice on the song "It's Too Late," a bluesy ballad about a lost love. She was described as a "velvety soprano" with a powerful and dynamic voice.
The family also became active in the civil rights movement after hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a sermon while they were on tour in Montgomery, Ala., in 1962. They went on to perform at events at King's request.
It was during that period that the family began recording protest songs, such as "Freedom Highway," as well as gospel. The group even covered Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
The Staple Singers had a string of Top 40 hits with the Stax label in the late 1960s, earning them the nickname "God's greatest hitmakers."
The song "I'll Take You There" spent a week at No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart.