Mavis Staples Reflects on a Career Full of Gospel and Positive Energy

Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples Chris Strong
The ability to reinvent oneself as a relevant musical talent in any era is difficult. To do without giving into popular trends, is as much an art form as the music that emanates from that talent.

No one exemplifies that sentiment quite like legend Mavis Staples. The irony of her solo renaissance is that it began in the mid-'80s working with Prince and weaved its way through many genres, culminating in her first-ever Grammy Award for her You Are Not Alone LP, produced with Wilco lead singer and fellow Chicago native Jeff Tweedy in 2010.

Beyond her second Tweedy-produced album, 2013's One True Vine, and her most recent work, last year’s Livin’ On a High Note, Staples has been in demand. Modern songwriters such as Nick Cave, Neko Case, and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) have all written songs for her.

From her Chicago, Illinois childhood days, as precocious signing talent with the mature, husky contralto vocals of a grown woman, Staples began her career singing in a family band with her father and siblings.
As she grew, so did her reputation, and by the time she ventured out on her own, she had become a household name. She has left her vocal imprint on the heart of many, including a smitten Bob Dylan, who asked for her hand in marriage back in the '60s. During her solo career she has released 14 albums over 47 years.

As she prepares for a new tour, kicking off at the Highland Church in Scottsdale tonight, Staples spoke with New Times to look back at her remarkable past.

New Times: You have had such great success over your career stages, received countless awards, played for Martin Luther King Jr. and heads of state from your early days with Pops and The Staple Singers, to your sustained solo career. What does it take to inspire you these days?

Mavis Staples:
I’m inspired by the people. They ask for me all the time, my shows are sold out, and the college students are coming, what do they call them, the millenniums; all of that keeps me going. Just the fact that I’m healthy, I still have my strength and I still have my voice. So, that lets me know God wants me to continue. The record companies still want me to record; it makes me feel like I’m still needed.

How much was your trademark husky contralto voice a product of training it and how much of it were you born with?

It’s a God-given gift. I don’t know any music. I really don’t even know my keys, but that’s a big part of it. My father, he scared me one time. I hated to go to rehearsal, and Pops said, "Mavis, your voice is a gift, a God-given gift. Now, if you don’t use it, he’ll take it back." That scared me. I was the first one in rehearsal after that. I was 9 years old when he told me that; I didn’t want the Lord taking my voice back. 
Through the early gospel days, through protest songs of the '60s and into your solo R&B career, how has gospel has always been the common thread?

Gospel for me is home. That’s where I started. And gospel is truth. From Sunday School, I used to learn about the Bible, and we had something that was God-given. We don’t study for it or go to school (for it). It all comes from our hearts; it comes from inside. I remember the best music I ever heard to this day was at my grandmother’s church in Mississippi. A little church, wooden floor, wooden benches, no organ, no piano. You’d hear the tapping of the peoples’ feet on the floor and clapping hands and the congregation singing; I’ll never forget it. That has kept me.

Pops had been in The Trumpet Jubilees, a men’s group, but found they didn’t like to practice. So, is it true he came home one night and just sat you and your sister and brother down and it all started?

One night he came home disgusted and he went straight to the closet and pulled out a little guitar he bought at the pawn shop and he called us children into the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle and begun giving us voices (different parts) to sing. That’s the best thing my father could have done for me and my sisters and brothers. We never intended singing for a career. We were singing at home to amuse ourselves.

What was the moment you recall being discovered?

Aunt Katie came through one night; she lived with us. She said, "Shucks, you all sound pretty good. I think you should play at my church Sunday." And that started the whole thing. Vivian Carter from VeeJay Records, she happened to be in church that Sunday. She said, "Pops, you and those children need to be making some records."

Did Pops have any reservations about recording you?

He said, "No, I don’t want my children making no records. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout them records." But he went on and learned and my sister Yvonne helped him and after I was about 12 years old, he called Vivian and said, "Vivian, I let my children make a record now." And when I was 13, we made “Uncloudy Day” and been goin’ ever since.

Moving into the unrest that surrounded the Civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, you initially were somewhat hesitant to do protest songs in front of larger groups of people. What eased your fears?

Well, it was our father, and it was the inspiration of Martin Luther King. We went to his church one Sunday and we got back to the hotel, and he said, "I like this man’s message, and I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.”

Did the similar gospel themes you grew up singing make for an easy conversion into protest songs?

There was no problem singing gospel and protest songs, freedom songs because freedom songs was gospel to us. We were telling the truth and we was helping this minister, Martin Luther King, whom Pops admired. And all of us fell in love with Martin Luther King. But, we didn’t feel no pressure from signing gospel and then freedom songs.

As the more secular soul, funk, R&B sound pushed the boundaries for Pops and the group, how were you able to maintain that gospel feel and still become more commercial?

It was a matter of being heard. A lot of gospel music, you couldn’t hear it on the radio until like 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. What we did from the freedom songs, we went into message songs.

Message songs was “Respect Yourself,” I’ll Take You There.” There was people that wanted to take us out of church because of “I’ll Take You There,” but we had to do so many interviews, people were saying we were singing the devil’s music, and I would tell people "The devil ain’t got no music.”

Gospel purists were concerned about songs like “I’ll Take You There” and Let’s Do It Again” they seemed to think the group had lost its gospel roots. How did you

We’re telling people, “I’ll take you there, ain’t nobody cryin’, ain’t nobody worried, ain’t no smilin’ faces lyin’ to the races.” Where else could we be taking you, but to heaven.

It is ironic that after singing with Stax Records, the overall sound changed, not due to your vocal style changes but to the music. How did that effect your sound and successful crossover to a hipper R&B and pop following?

We had gotten with Stax Records and they put this rhythm section with us, and again, like I said, it was about being heard more. We didn’t tell the R&B radio to play us. The record just crossed over I think because of the beat of the rhythm section. We had been singing all those years with just my father’s guitar.

So as far as adult content in your music and a more secular sound, you really were very frugal about what you recorded. Is that right?

All of our songs were about being positive with positive messages. The only secular song we sang was “Let’s Do It Again,” and Curtis Mayfield had to beg Pops to do it.

How was he able to loosen the gospel grasp from Pops?

He told Curtis, "Curtis, I can’t do that song, I’m a gospel man. I’m a church man." And Curtis said, "Oh, Pops, the Lord won’t mind." And so, my sister and I started begging Pops cuz we wanted to hear our voices on the big screen. "It’s just a movie score, we not gonna continue to sing those [kind of songs]." So, that’s the only secular song that The Staple Singers ever sang.

What was the key to your unlikely musical partnership with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco on You Are Not Alone, for which you won a Grammy?

He kept me right where I was supposed to be. ... All of Jeff Tweedy’s songs have a positive message. We even sang some gospel songs and some Staple songs. So, everybody I get with, they know as producers if they want to bring me a song, they got to bring it to me in the way I been singing all my life.
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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn