PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Part Two: Mavis Staples
I started this series by talking about...
IN THIS PHOTO: The Staples/Staple Singers (left-right: Cleotha, Pops; Mavis and Yvonne)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Kate Bush and, whereas I was going to move onto either Madonna, Joni Mitchell or Beyoncé – they will appear in future editions –, I felt it only right to talk about Mavis Staples. I was listening to Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie’s breakfast show on BBC Radio 6 Music today and they had a featured where Mavis Staples picked some records that are important to her. Not only did her selection include some interesting artists but her storytelling was incredible. In a way, the music was a backdrop to the recollections and her personal stories. We learned that Bob Dylan proposed to her the day he met her. Dylan has known about The Staple Singers and always idolised Mavis. He was in love with her voice and, without the need to form a friendship, it seemed like the two were meant to be. Of course, Staples felt differently and knew that it was a bit mad to accept a proposal from Dylan. On this morning’s show, Staples picked Dylan’s Lay, Lady, Lay after telling that story – one can hear elements of Dylan’s yearning for Staples in that song and, just like that, this classic song took on a new life. Staples also discussed her church past and the fact that she was raised away from secular music. The only way she would ever get to hear traditional music was at school or when around friends. She got to know R&B and Soul singers when she was young but, with regards the power in her voice, one has to draw a line to the church.
This is how icons like Aretha Franklin managed to blow people away: she was raised at church and got to sing/witness incredibly moving songs in a very evocative environment. Mavis Staples, compared to some other Soul legends, is a little more rounded and flexible with her voice. She has featured on songs from the likes of Arcade Fire and Hozier and there seems to be no limits to her reach and talent. She can lend her voice to a mainstream artist or a Rock band but also sounds effortless when she ventures into genres such as Soul, Gospel and R&B. I will go back to the start in a second but, when hearing Staples this morning discussing Hozier – an artist she has fairly recently discovered and loves – she was amazed by his voice and really wanted to sing with him. He heard about this and extended an invitation for her to join him on the song, Nina Cried Power – from the new album, Wasteland, Baby! It is humble of Staples to be blown away by the offer seeing as you’d expect things to be the other way around. This is a reason why Staples is so revered and regarded (rightly) as an icon. She has no ego and always seems moved that others would want to work with her. The Staples Singers released their first album, Uncloudy Day, back in 1959 through Vee Jay.
Consisting of Cleotha (who died in 2013), Pervis; Mavis and Yvonne (who died in 2018) – who replaced her brother when he was drafted into the U.S. army –, the group were known for huge hits such as Respect Yourself, I’ll Take You There and Let’s Do It Again. Although success would come for the group before too long, their earliest days were spent performing in churches in the Chicago area. They signed a professional contract by 1952 and, before long, their reputation spread. It is said that early albums such as Uncloudy Day influenced Bob Dylan – he had his eye on Mavis Staples pretty early! – and it was clear that The Staple Singers had something nobody else did. Like all great female/mixed-genre groups of the time, there is always that standout voice. Diana Ross outshone The Supremes whereas Beyoncé always stood aside from Destiny’s Child. Perhaps with less force and ambition than those woman, Mavis Staples’ incredible voice and passion meant that people (not just Bob Dylan) were taking notice! You only need to listen to their recordings to realise that, right from the earliest days, Staples had been touched by something primal and spiritual. Maybe it was her childhood experiences at church that gave her voice an extra depth and level but, even with The Staple Singers, their young star was recording in church – the line in-church album, Freedom Highway, is one of their most memorable early albums.
If The Staple Singers moved more into a Soul and Funk direction by the late-1960s, the earliest recordings combined Gospel and R&B. The Staples Singers is only one part of Mavis Staples’ legacy and brilliance. The incredible singer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and Blues Hall of Fame in 2017. The Staples Singers delivered messages supporting civil rights back in the 1960s and were a hugely important force in music. Even back then, one could tell Mavis Staples had this influence and need to see change. It is impossible to gauge the importance of Staples as a solo artist and as part of The Staple Singers. The first real step into solo territory came after The Staple Singers’ legacy became a little dimmed. By 1969, she released an eponymous solo album and one could feel that going solo was a natural and needed transition. From the late-1960s through to the 1990s, Staples’ music moved in different directions and, whilst there was not always 100% critical backing, there was huge public backing. In 2004, Staples contributed to a Verve album by the Jazz guitarist, John Scofield. A tribute to Ray Charles, That’s What I Say, was very well-received and allowed Staples, again, to step into new sonic territory. There were not hugely radical steps into genres but the flexibility and curiosity of Staples was amazing.
IN THIS PHOTO: Mavis Staples in the mid-1970s/PHOTO CREDIT: Marc PoKempner/Courtesy of HBO
I will finish by looking at Staples’ upcoming solo album but, when you think about all the artists who count the legend as a driving force, it is amazing! Everyone from Ice Cube, Bob Dylan; Salt-N-Pepa and Prince have either sampled Staples or been inspired by her music. That is a pretty impressive claim but, even now, there are artists who try to channel Staples and distil her essence. We lost Aretha Franklin fairly recently and there are not that many Soul/Gospel powerhouses left in the world – perhaps Staples is the last remaining legend in that sense. One might argue that Staples is not on the same level as, say, Aretha Franklin or Madonna, when it comes to breaking barriers and influencing the generations. I feel this is wrong and you need only hear her sing and listen to her talk to realise that she is a true icon. One can debate what makes an icon and keeps them in the public eye. I think it is humility and that lack of real ego that makes someone last; an understanding that the people want to relate to an artist and be moved by their music. If there was all this fantasy and lie then you would not be able to have the same connection as you do to Mavis Staples. Her music is raw and real; she sings from the heart and you believe every word she says.
In this interview with The Guardian, Staples talked about her love of David Bowie and Pharrell Williams’ Happy – the reporter, Jude Rogers, talked about the humble start of Staples and how that common touch remains to this day (2016 in this case):
“Humility runs like a thread through Staples’ career. She was born in Chicago in 1939; her father, Roebuck, known as Pops, grew up on a Mississippi plantation, learning guitar from delta blues legend Charley Patton, before forming the family band. Mavis was called Bubbles by her mum on account of her cheeriness, a fact one of her new collaborators, New Orleans singer-songwriter Benjamin Booker, has snuck on to her new album’s opening track, Take Us Back (“They don’t call me Bubbles for nothing,” Mavis rasps, brilliantly). By 13, Mavis was out on the road, getting extra homework for missing school on Mondays (she’d be singing at churches on Sundays). It was wonderful, she insists. “It wasn’t like the Jackson 5 and poor Michael – I didn’t miss my youth. We’d rehearse at home and then I’d go out to jump rope if it was summertime. I didn’t miss my prom neither!”
Staples has never got big for her boots. She still goes to the grocery store, she says. “I go to the cleaners, I go down in the basement to wash my clothes. I don’t have anyone running around for me like some of my girlfriends, Gladys Knight or Aretha – I’ve always done for myself. I feel if you don’t go out there, if you don’t mingle among the people, how are you going to know what they need to know, and hear what they need to hear? That’s the good part. That’s the best part. Just treat everyone right”.
This lack of pretence and surprise at recognition is what makes Staples so appealing. There is a whole group of young artists who want to collaborate with Staples and have that incredible voice in the mix. In this recent Billboard interview, Staples talked about her work regarding the civil rights movement and asked about the artists she is excited about right now.
“I like these kids today. Maggie Rogers, I love her. Brandi Carlile, she’s great. I’m proud of the young people today with the songs they’re singing… Youngsters are just falling in, singing positive messages in their songs. I appreciate that. I love Pharrell. When he came with his song, “Happy,” I said, Lord, why couldn’t I get that song?! I couldn’t get enough of it. It kept me smiling.
When Hozier came with “Nina Cried Power,” I just collapsed. He wanted me to sing it with him. I said, “Oh my God!” Nina Simone was a good friend of mine, and then all of the other artists that we’re calling out in that song are artists who have made commitments to the world through their message songs. I just had all kind of jittery feelings. He’s so handsome! I said, “Don’t look at me, Hozier! You’re making me blush!” [Laughs.] I had to tell him, “Andrew, that name doesn’t quite fit him for me,” so I said, “I’m gonna call you Hozier.” He said, “You can call me whatever you want, Mavis”.
It seems a shame that Mavis Staples fought hard with people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to see change in America and ensure there were civil rights. Whilst progress was made and there were steps, it appears America is back in a pretty bleak place. When interviewed by Rolling Stone earlier this year, Staples was asked about President Donald Trump and her feelings regarding his leadership:
“We’ve done better, but we left a lot by the wayside, and those are the ones who voted for Mr. Trump. Things are better as far as us being able to go into bathrooms in the South, to go into the restaurants in the South, and to stay in hotels, but you never know who’s lurking on the sidelines waiting to knock you down again”.
Let’s say that President Trump was willing to speak with you for a few minutes, what would you say to him?
My heart really goes out to him because he’s really in trouble. And he’s a troubled soul. I thought I wanted to pray for him, but then I don’t. Every time I say, “What is wrong with this man? God help him,” he’ll do something else. And he takes me backwards, so I just don’t know what to do about him. If I had to talk to him, if he wanted to talk to me, I would look him straight in the eye. I think he would see what I’m feeling from the way that I would look at him, and he might say, “Oh, this is a different one here. I’ve got to straighten up and fly right”.
On 10th July, Mavis Staples turns eighty and it will be cause for celebration. When asked in interviews how she is celebrating the big day, she said (or joked) that she will go skydiving or skateboarding. It seems like the energy and youthful spirit is still there and there are no signs Staples will slow down. Let’s hope there are many more years of Mavis Staples’ music because it seems like the icon is entering a new phase. She has performed with modern artists like Hozier but her upcoming album, We Get By, is out on 24th May and will be interesting to hear. The singles, Change and Anytime, have already been released and they go to show that Staples still has immense power and the ability to captivate. Her album has been written by Ben Harper and, whilst the lyrics are striking and memorable, it is Staples command and voice that elicits the biggest response. It sounds even more electric and physical at this stage in life than it did when she started out with The Staple Singers. Staples is still fighting for change and equal rights and she is giving plenty of fight. Her music is incredible after all these years and there is a slew of young artists who are taking guidance from Mavis Staples. In future editions of this feature, I am looking at Madonna, Joni Mitchell and Beyoncé: a trio of artists with different styles of music but all incredibly important and timeless. I would rank Mavis Staples alongside them because of all she has achieved and how she has been providing a huge voice to music since the 1950s. It is no surprise Bob Dylan fell for Staples at a young age and proposed – she has that sort of affect where you want to be around her and hear her talk for hours! Let’s hope Dylan has recovered from his broken heart but we know he, and the rest of the world, listens to Mavis Staples’ incredible music and…
ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Stavros Damos
THE knees buckle.