Mavis Staples, as someone recently described her to me, is “pure love”.
Here’s my piece on the gospel singer/civil rights activist:
By Brad Frenette
An edited version of this piece appeared in National Post, June 28, 2010
This September, Mavis Staples will release her thirteenth solo album, You Are Not Alone, a collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. However, there was a time that legendary gospel singer and civil rights warrior wanted to stop singing and instead become a nurse. A conversation with her father, Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, however, convinced her there were other ways to mend wounds.
On the phone from her Chicago home, the 70-year-old singer, as expressive and warm as one would expect after hearing her sing, recalls the long-ago conversation: “He said ‘Listen baby, let me tell you. You’re a nurse already. You heal people through your songs. People start feeling better – when you sing, you bring them joy’. I listened to him. I’m glad I did. This is what was meant for me to do.”
Convinced, Mavis joined her older sisters – Cleotha and Yvonne – along with her brother Pervis and Pops to form The Staple Sisters.
“We had a unique sound. My sisters and I realized that we were singing gospel songs, but Pops was playing blues on the guitar. He learned guitar from [the Delta bluesman] Charlie Patton down in Mississippi.”
Before long, that sound would take the Staples from singing at their local church to recording their debut album. Uncloudy Day was released in 1959 on Vivian Carter’s pre-Motown record company Vee-Jay Records, and became the first gospel record to sell a million copies. Their popularity blossomed, and they toured across the United States and a few years later, found themselves an audience with a man who would alter the course of their career, and music.
“One Sunday morning we happened to be in Montgomery, Alabama,” Staples recalls. “And we didn’t have to sing until that night.”
Pops asked his daughters to come with him to come with them to the morning service at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where a young reverend named Dr Martin Luther King Jr was about to deliver a sermon.
“We were ushered in and seated. Someone let Dr. King know that we were in the service. He acknowledged us…and said he hoped we enjoy the service. And well – we enjoyed the service!”
Afterward, Dr. King met with the family, and his words left an impression on the Staples patriarch, who then called a family meeting.
“[Pops] said: I like this man’s message. And I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it. We began writing freedom songs and protest songs. We joined the movement.”
Staples recalls watching the story of the Little Rock Nine – the nine African-American children who, in 1957, were prevented by the Governor of Arkansas from attending the integrated Little Rock Central High – unfold on the national stage. “The President of the United States said ‘let those children board that bus’. That day, when they went to board the bus, there was a policeman standing there, and wouldn’t let them board. Pops wrote a song that evening – Why Am I Treated So Bad? And that turned out to be Dr. King’s favourite. And we would go to the meetings… and Dr. King would tell pops: ‘Stapes, you’re going to play my song tonight right?’… If he could preach this message, we could sing it. And I’m still singing it. I’m so thankful I can carry it on.”
After the Staples sisters stopped recording, Staples made her first solo record in 1969, several more over the next three decades. In 2007, Staples’ career took a new turn, and she found a few audience, when she signed to Anti- Records, a label with a carefully curated roster of critically acclaimed acts such as Tom Waits, Mose Alison and Solomon Burke.
With the critical success of her first release with the new label, 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back (produced by Ry Cooder), Anti- prompted Staples her to do a live album, which was recorded in at a “funky club on the north side of Chicago” called the Hideout. Wilco’s front man Jeff Tweedy came to the show, and soon there was talk of him working on Staples’ next studio album.
“I said: ‘No, it won’t happen – this guy is giant and I’m just a little gospel singer. He’s not going to have time to produce me.”
The pair took a lunch date in Chicago’s Hyde Park, and then Staples visited Tweedy at Wilco’s studio, The Loft, where they started to compare notes.
“These songs that I’m singing [on this record] – he brought them, and I liked them. He had songs that my father would play for me when I was a child. Classic, traditional gospel songs. I used to love them. Pops used to play them for me, and this was the first time I’d heard them in years. I said ‘We have to do those.’ And on his iPod, he had Staples singers ‘50s and ‘60s music. He was a fan, and he loved Pops Staples.”
The Wilco singer invested himself in the record: producing it, playing guitar on it, singing on it and even writing a pair of new compositions for it – Only the Lord Knows (Staples was surprised at how much the new song shared in musicality with Pop Staples writing) and You Are Not Alone, and rearranging the traditional gospel song In Christ There is No East and West.
They also added a few old Staples classics for the album, including You Don’t Knock and Downward Road. “These songs that the family did in the 50s and 60s was the best music of our lives. It was my happiest time. WE were singing only with my father’s guitar. Our voices and Pops guitar.”
Tweedy brought Staples’ touring band in to record the session, and also a few other guests, including Wilco’s Patrick Sansone and background vocals by Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor, a pair Staples cheerfully calls the “new Staple singers”.
That’s not to say the first sisters aren’t a presence as well, and Yvonne Staples can still be seen on stage, singing background, when Mavis plays live. After the death of Pops, and the loss of his accompaniment onstage and off, Staples says she needed her sister up there with her. And although Yvonne was reluctant to get back on stage at first, she eventually acquiesced, and “that made it better.”
Looking back over the years, at the way the industry has changed, Mavis Staples is still “bubbling inside” with joy about her place in it, and the new attention, including spots at this summer’s Lollapalooza Festival and Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, that has come with her new collaborators.
“I’m the luckiest old girl in the world,” she says, “next to Betty White.”
• Mavis Staples plays Toronto’s Jazz Festival tonight. You Are Not Alone (Anti-) will be released on September 14.