FEATURE: Melody Cool on This Uncloudy Day: Mavis Staples at Eighty




Melody Cool on This Uncloudy Day

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Mavis Staples at Eighty


I realise I recently produce a piece...


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

about Mavis Staples for my Female Icons feature but, as Staples is eighty tomorrow, I felt it only right that I include her once more! It is important we mark the birthdays of music legends, I think, because it gives us the chance to celebrate, bring their work to new people and thank them for their contribution to music. When one thinks of Mavis Staples, it is hard to put into words what she has given us and the impact she has had on the industry. I have heard interviews Staples has given and she is always infectious, fascinating and compelling. Whether it is sharing stories from her past or talking about the new breed of artists, there is nobody out there like Mavis Staples. Of course, it is the music of Staples that hits the hardest. From her classics with The Staple Singers through to her new album, We Get By, the extraordinary Staples is a mesmeric artist. Her new album, in fact, is one I would list among the best from 2019. It seems that many critics agree with that assertion. In this review, American Songwriter noted how Staples’ voice is still an immensely powerful force:

Harper dials down Staples’ often fire and brimstone attack to a more subtle, less aggressive approach that still connects beautifully with this relatively understated material. Additionally it showcases just how strong, sturdy, flexible and resonant her singing remains when many others her age have long since found their voices have weakened.

It’s unusual when discussing legendary artists to recommend newcomers start with their most recent release, as opposed to cherry picking older tracks.  But in the case of the phenomenal We Get By, novices to Staples’ iconic voice may want to begin here and work their way back”.

I have so much respect for icons like Mavis Staples who have been performing for decades and continue to inspire artists. It is tricky changing with the times and trying to appeal to various generations but, with the passage of time, Staples accrues more and more fans into her camp. In terms of interviews, as I said, she is always fantastic value and eager to talk about her own music as well as the new breed emerging. In this recent interview with Billboard, Staples was in fantastic form:

To hear her laugh is to understand that her joy bubbles up from a well of inextinguishable enthusiasm, one she’s miraculously protected while living -- and singing -- through many of the darkest periods in modern American history. Staples has been using her voice to drown out hate since her first public performances with her family band, the Staple Singers, in the early ‘50s. Under the direction of her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, she, along with her brother Pervis and her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha, responded to the injustices wreaked by segregation in the Jim Crow South through song.

The younger crop of musicians penning songs for Staples have taken up the mantle of the other rock- and folk-minded artists before them, in that they, too, want to further Staples’ mission by giving her more to sing, thus offering her fans the salve they need to combat the onslaught of headlines in a Trumpian age. Live in London, her new album, was recorded over the course of two shows at London’s Union Chapel in July 2018, and serves as a transcript of a conversation between her past and present. New songs (like the Tweedy-penned “No Time For Cryin’” or Harper’s “Love and Trust”) blend seamlessly with the older standards (“Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” the album closer, was a hit single for the Staple Singers in 1973) on her setlist.


Regarding current popular music, and artists who embrace or encourage activism or political involvement in their work -- who’s doing really well on that front? Who are you really excited about or inspired by?

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.” I enjoy him and his band so much. For an old girl like me to be having so much fun and getting excited again, it’s just god’s plan. As Drake says, it’s God’s Plan. [Laughs.]” 

I will end with Staples and her musical legacy (and impact) but there is so much to discover when it comes to her background and need to change the world. Through her music, she wants to compel change and awaken people to what is happening around them. I think this desire and compunction stems from her childhood; being raised in church and growing up in Chicago. In this interview with CLASH earlier this year, Staples reflected on her upbringing and her father’s influence:

“…Speaking of going to church, you once said that you were “just doing my job”. Do you think your role is to inspire spiritual change in people?

Yeah, it is. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life. And then, I’m the last one here - I’ve got to keep going. It is my duty to sing my songs for my father’s legacy, Dr. King’s legacy - I’m the last one. I don’t ever intend to stop unless I lose my voice, but yeah, it’s my job, and I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I think the Lord put me here to sing these songs and to try to help bring love and hope into the world, to bring us together as a land of freedom, a land of hope, a land of love - people. You know, we’re living in trying times. This man has got us in trouble. This hatred and bigotry, it was subsiding; it was getting better. And then this man gets to talking and running his mouth, and all of a sudden here you see these people coming out of Charlottesville with torches marching all through the city, and I’m saying, ‘Are they going to come with burning crosses next? What are they doing, and how is this happening?’ Well, see, you weren’t seeing anything like that until he got in, and whatever he says, they feel like it’s alright to do what they’re doing.

You grew up in urban Chicago and Pops grew up in Mississippi on the infamous Dockery Plantation. How did the experiences of his childhood impact on your own?

Well, Pops would tell us stories all the time. What happened, we were singing because he had been singing with a group of men - the Trumpet Jubilees. He just wanted to sing, and these guys, they wouldn’t come to rehearsal. There was six of them. Pops would go to rehearsal and he’d see maybe two of them there, and the next week he’d go and there might be three or four. He just got so disgusted. He came home one night and he went in the closet where he had that little guitar, he called us into the living room, and sat us all on the floor in a circle. My Aunt Katie was there. She said, ’Roebuck, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m gonna sing with my children.’ I didn’t even know Pops had a guitar! We had never seen it. It didn’t have all the strings on it, but he could make it sound alright. He sat us on the floor and he started giving us parts to sing that he and his sisters and brothers would sing when they were in Mississippi. So, the very first song he taught us was ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’. We were singing, and Aunt Katie came through and said, ‘Shucks, y’all sound pretty good. I want y’all to come and sing at my church on Sunday morning.’ Oh Lord, we were all so glad we were gonna sing somewhere other than on the living room floor! We go to Aunt Katie’s church, man, we sang ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, and, you know, we didn’t know nothing about no encore or clapping us back. But people kept clapping us back. We ended up singing that song three times!”

Staples never wants to retire and she is determined to spread messages of freedom and the hope of a better world to the new generation. She believes in God’s plan and, in a way, I guess she is doing his work. Let’s hope we see Mavis Staples music for many more years to come because there is nobody that possess the same grace, humility and fascinating backstory as her! When you hear her speak and understand how she was raised, one cannot help but summon images; the young Staples in church or discovering all these great artists who would inspire her. I am ending with a Mavis Staples playlist but it is amazing to think that this iconic artist is still making the hairs stand at eighty (well, eighty tomorrow!). That innate power and spirituality comes from her time with The Staple Singers and the fact they took guidance from the messages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here, Facing History charts the background of The Staple Singers and their role in the civil rights movement:

 “The Staple Singers belonged to that tradition. Beginning as a gospel group, they became soul superstars at the height of the civil rights movement. As Rob Bowman notes in Soulsville, U.S.A., “They attempted to broaden their audience by augmenting their religious repertoire with ‘message’ songs.”

Musically and politically, The Staple Singers fit right in at Stax Records, that model of racial harmony in a time of societal upheaval. Co-owner Jim Stewart argued, “If we’ve done nothing more, we’ve shown the world that people of different colors, origins, and convictions can be as one, working together towards the same goal. Because we’ve learned how to live and work together at Stax Records, we’ve reaped many material benefits. But, most of all, we’ve acquired peace of mind. When hate and resentment break out all over the nation, we pull our blinds and display a sign that reads ‘Look What We’ve Done—TOGETHER.’”

Co-owner Al Bell went further: “Dr. King was preaching what we were about inside Stax, where you judge a person by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. And looking forward to the day when, as he said, his little black child and the little white child could walk down the streets together, hand in hand. Well, we were living that inside of Stax Records.”

The “‘protest’ material against a ‘folk rock’–oriented beat” that The Staples Singers performed also owed much to King.

According to lead singer Mavis Staples,

The songwriters knew we were doing protest songs. We had made a transition back there in the sixties with Dr. King. We visited Dr. King’s church in Montgomery before the movement actually got started. When we heard Dr. King preach, we went back to the motel and had a meeting. Pops [Mavis’s father, who played guitar and shared lead vocal duties with his youngest daughter] said, “Now if he can preach it, we can sing it. That could be our way of helping towards this movement.” We put a beat behind the song. We were mainly focusing on the young adults to hear what we were doing. You know if they hear a beat, that would make them listen to the words. So we started singing protest songs. All those guys were writing what we actually wanted them to write. Pops would tell them to just read the headlines and whatever they saw in the morning paper that needed to be heard or known about, [they would] write us a song from that”.

I have just skimmed the surface of who Mavis Staples is and why she is so important but, as she turns eighty, it has forced me to look back at her start and gobble up as much information as I can. Staples is a musical treasure and someone who cannot help but stir the soul and put a smile on the face. As The Telegraph noted when they caught Mavis Staples’ set at Glastonbury a couple of weeks back, she still holds the power to enthral audiences of all ages:

Her voice bellowed and rasped, ripe with age but having lost none of its bite. She made an impassioned speech about young people with guns, mothers who’d lost their sons, and children who’d been separated from their parents “in cages”.

“I’m tired,” she said, placing the blame at the foot of the man “in the White House”. And then this: “I’m going up to the White House. I’m going up there! I just might run for President!” “Are you with me? President Mavis! We’ve got work to do!” The crowd went wild.

As she left the stage to rapturous applause, she waved to all around her, clearly relishing the experience. Or perhaps this great soul survivor was practicing for yet another late career surge: as a politician. All hail President Mavis”.

Staples is a wondrous force of nature and we all wish her a very happy eightieth birthday! She has no plans to slow down and it is amazing seeing how much energy and passion she has! As we salute and tip our caps to Mavis Staples, enjoy a selection of some of her best-known and beloved songs. It (the playlist) proves that, in terms of power, legacy and emotion, there is nobody in music…

LIKE Mavis Staples.