Mavis Staples may be 68 years old, but the righteous fire that distinguished so many of her rich, bottomless vocals during an extraordinary 50-plus-year career continues to burn brightly. When asked why the songs of struggle that make up We'll Never Turn Back, her moving new CD, need to be heard today, she draws a straight line from the '50s and '60s when "black freedom fighters suffered from being hosed down and beaten with billy clubs and being attacked by dogs" to the malignant neglect that surfaced shortly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005.
"I had flashbacks from Katrina," she says. "You've got people floating in this black water and people dying; dying in a stadium filled with black people, with no water, no food. It's hot in New Orleans, and senior citizens and babies were dying. So many things happened that make me know it's relevant."
Staples, who still lives in her native Chicago, is just as frustrated that so many individuals in the position to speak out against injustice and myriad other societal afflictions are too busy "living the life of Riley" to bother. She and the musically blessed members of her family her late father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, and siblings Yvonne, Cleotha and Pervis, known collectively as the Staple Singers were regular performers at civil rights rallies organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and she knows from personal experience how much King's words did to improve the lot of African-Americans in this country. But now, she believes, "the ministers are not stepping up. We don't have any leaders. There are some so-called leaders; they claim they're leaders. But they don't show me anything. There was a time when the ministers made sure that things got right, that things were better. Not today. You have ministers today who are interested in mega-churches these big churches where people have to watch a big screen to see the pastor. It's about money, big money, with these ministers. They all have their big cars and their big houses. I'm telling you; it's kind of like we have a lost world."
A few public figures give her hope. She praises Bono and Oprah Winfrey for their devotion to causes in Africa, even if she wishes they'd also try tackling problems closer to home. "Let's get together and come over here," she urges. "I know how it is in Africa, and they need all of what you're doing for them. But we have homeless people and poverty over here. Some places over here look like places in the Third World." And she's a big fan of Kanye West, with whom she delivered a stunning version of his song "Jesus Walks" at the 2005 Grammy ceremony, thanks to West's assertion that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" during a Katrina telethon. "I had a fit about it!" Staples exults, cackling. "I jumped for joy and said, 'Hallelujah!' My phone started ringing, and after I got done talking about it with those people, I started calling and talking to other people about it!"
Much of We'll Never Turn Back is every bit as blunt as West's words. Produced by stellar guitarist Ry Cooder, who gives the recordings the force of authenticity, the disc features deep, time-capsule-worthy versions of movement favorites such as "Eyes on the Prize" and "Jesus Is on the Main Line" (which Cooder covered on his fine 1974 platter Paradise and Lunch). Throughout, Staples is feisty and outspoken, embellishing the traditionals with telling asides and commentary of the sort that dominates "My Own Eyes," which she cowrote with Cooder and David Bartlett. In a key section, she declares, "I saw New Orleans/Saw the people left for dead/I've heard every bald-faced lie/You politicians said/I've seen it for myself/And you can't fool your sight/We'd better aim for change/And we'd better start tonight."
Then again, there are limits to what Staples was willing to say on the CD. Because she wanted the music to connect with youngsters, who she feels aren't being taught enough about civil rights heroes, she wanted to touch upon hip-hop; producer Mike Elizondo, who's worked with Dr. Dre, among others, plays bass on the disc. In addition, she reached out to Public Enemy's Chuck D, who contributed "Freedom's Got a Shotgun," an offering that proved too raw for her. "It wasn't ladylike!" she exclaims. "Ry Cooder said, 'Well, Mavis, I don't know if you want to say these things.' And I said, 'No, Ry! I can't say that!'" As a result, "Shotgun" was placed on the shelf, but Staples regrets not having reached out to another rapper: Common, a Denver-connected Chicagoan who's a member of her church (as is Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama). "Common's things are positive," she emphasizes.
So was the material cut by the Staple Singers, who began as a gospel group and developed into one of that genre's preeminent acts during the '50s. Indeed, albums such as the 1959 landmark Uncloudy Day, cut when Mavis was just 19, continue selling to this day. "I feel like that was our best music," she says, "because it was just us and Pops' guitar." Still, the most popular Staple Singers material was released in subsequent decades, when the group supplemented its repertoire with folk-derived protest songs and message-oriented R&B, including "Respect Yourself," a classic made for the Stax label in 1971. The Singers' biggest hit, though, was 1972's "I'll Take You There" not that they reaped many benefits from the Alvertis Isbell-penned tune at the time. Mavis confirms that the family made far more money from the number during the three years it was used in television ads for Chevrolet than when it topped the pop charts. "Any entertainer out here has been cheated by the record companies," she says. "I don't remember us even getting any royalties from 'I'll Take You There' until Stax crumbled, and then Fantasy [which bought the Stax catalog] started paying us royalties. We didn't get royalties from Warner Brothers or Epic or Universal. We were on about six labels before Stax. But now we do. We get royalties."
Although plenty of other things have changed for the better since then, too, Staples warns against complacency, especially when it comes to racism. She tells vivid stories of touring in the South during the gospel period, when the Staples weren't allowed to stay in white hotels (they were instead relegated to "tourist homes" houses owned by local African-Americans who opened their doors to travelers) and danger lurked around every corner.
"Pops would tell us, 'If you go into town, don't y'all start nothin','" she remembers. "But then he'd tell us, 'Don't take nothin', either.'" Years later, Staples is revered in the music community and beyond; June 19 was officially proclaimed Mavis Staples Day in the state of Illinois.
But when she's traveling with Yvonne, who now serves as her tour manager, she says she's regularly treated poorly for no reason other than her skin color. According to her, employees at hotels and airports will "look right in your eyes, right in your face. But they'll be like, 'You wait. I'm going to help this white person first.'"
Moreover, Staples continues, the cycle of race-based poverty that Dr. King and others tried so hard to break lingers on, as does the crime that such inequity fuels. "You don't see little girls out on the street jumping rope or playing hopscotch or playing volleyball like we used to do. You don't see that because the kids can't go out there, because they might get shot," she says. "It's a messed-up world. So sad."
We'll Never Turn Back is Staples' attempt to focus attention on such issues, past and present, and she says she's offered to share the music and her experiences in schools as a way of showing kids that this part of history didn't happen all that long ago. Astonishingly, she insists that no teacher has taken her up on this proposal to date a wrong that needs to be righted as soon as possible.
"I felt so good singing my songs," she says. "And I've told people it's not about making money. I wouldn't mind if everyone who could buy a record burned a copy and passed it on, just so more people could hear it."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.