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Mavis Staples can be found in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's traveling "Women Who Rock" exhibit, currently on display at the Musical Instrument Museum. However, the soul icon, who ironically won a 2012 Grammy Award in the Americana category, easily could fit in several of the loosely genre-demarcated sections of the exhibit. A look at her career leaves her repeatedly stuck between music worlds.
A child in the 1950s, Staples got her start singing in the family band, the Staple Singers, fronted by her enigmatic father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples. With Mavis handling lead vocals, the group found initial success as a rhythm and blues act — even charting a single in 1956. Though R&B was instrumental in the foundation and formation of rock 'n' roll, this hit didn't pack quite the rocking effect needed for her inclusion in the "Get Outta the Kitchen, Rattle Those Pots and Pans: Rock and Roll Emerges" section of the exhibit. As a family band, she also misses landing in "Will You Love Me Tomorrow: The Early 1960s/Girl Groups."
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. befriended the group, which also held tightly to its gospel roots. In turn, the Staple Singers lent a face and spiritual voice to the civil rights movement. Covers of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," along with other protest songs, were inspirational and powerful renderings that gave King's followers hope. These songs were part of the counterculture in original form, and the Staples' use of them clearly was revolutionary in effect; thus Mavis Staples can briefly be found in the "Revolution, The Counterculture and The Pill: The Late 1960s" exhibit section.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, and with the success of civil rights legislation, the Staples became a full-fledged soul act, working with Booker T. & the MGs at Stax. Their gospel infusion of soul send-ups landed the group eight Top 40 hits, including "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There." Staples also released several solo soul-leaning albums and appeared with The Band in The Last Waltz, but she never succumbed to being a "Disco Diva," thankfully avoiding that "Women Who Rock" designation.
As Staples continued her solo career in the 1980s and 1990s, she never went punk, nor could she be accused of "Causing a Commotion," à la her counterparts entrenched in "Madonna and the Pop Explosion" section. Instead, Staples had two slick soul albums produced by Prince and, in a return to her roots, released a Mahalia Jackson tribute album.
Skipping into the new millennium, Staples' career was rekindled, starting with a gospel-infused album in 2004, and later a Ry Cooder-produced album focusing on songs of the civil rights movement. More recently, Staples' work with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has garnered attention, including the aforementioned Best Americana Album Grammy Award for You Are Not Alone. The album features Staples' booming vocals amid nuanced inflection on a handful of classic tracks originally recorded by Randy Newman, Allen Toussaint, John Fogerty, Little Milton and her father — always her father on each album. Tweedy produced and wrote several songs for the album.
Tweedy again took the reins for Staples' latest moving offering, One True Vine. The album has a greater gospel focus, remaking vintage gospel songs, and some George Clinton-penned funk, along with tracks from Nick Lowe and Tweedy, among others.
The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Given her lifetime of achievements, Staples proves she rightly is part of the "Women Who Rock" exhibit as well — and in more ways than one.