Mavis Staples Has a Story to Tell
Mavis Staples has a laugh, oh, does she have a laugh, warm and full and open.
It surfaces when she is talking about calling a certain former president Bubba, when she is talking about going over songs for her first collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy as producer, and when she is talking about an unusual call and response during her family’s historic 1965 performance at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church.
Mavis Staples can tell stories, oh, can she tell stories.
About that first visit to Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, about her one-time beau, Bobby Dylan, and about singing at one historic event after another, from the Civil Rights era for Martin Luther King to the White House for Barack Obama.
Mavis Staples can sing, oh, can she sing, so powerfully even on a scratchy lunch time call from a North Carolina hotel.
She’s been belting out the truth since she joined The Staple Singers, her family’s gospel group, in 1950 as a pre-teen
By the time of her 75th birthday celebration in Chicago last fall, the list of guests was a testament to her collaborations over the years and her place in music history: Patty Griffin, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Emmylou Harris, Arcade Fire, Buddy Miller, Grace Potter, Joan Osborne, Otis Clay, Jeff Tweedy and Keb’ Mo’.
So her spring tour that takes her from Alabama to Australia is a chance to see and hear an enduring legend. Her last two albums, You Are Not Alone and One True Vine, produced by fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy, earned raves as spiritual music for the modern world. You Are Not Alone won a Grammy for best Americana album.
On the latest, One True Vine, she sings three Tweedy originals and covers Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That,” Nick Lowe’s “Far Celestial Shores,” and the Washington Phillips traditional, “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”
Staples is such a compelling storyteller, her words stand on their own. Here they are with additions for context.
It’s been a busy few years for Staples, releasing an album, touring, and playing special shows at the White House and elsewhere, overseeing the production of her father’s posthumous final release and the 50th anniversary of a live recording of the famous performance at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church.
“I tell you it’s such a good feeling,” she says. “I couldn’t even dream I’d still be around at 75 years-old. The people still want to hear. They come out. I am so grateful. I just can’t say enough. I won’t say I feel 16 [laughs], but I feel I’m a good twenty-something.”
Jeff Tweedy, a longtime fan, came a-courting to produce her albums:
“Tweedy and I are on different sides of town. He’s on the north side of Chicago and I’m on the south side. We happen to be doing a show. It was a live TV show of my freedom songs I did with Ry Cooder. The entire Wilco band came out. Jeff Tweedy came to the dressing room before the show and introduced himself. Then after the show, he came back again and said he just enjoyed it so much and we took pictures together, had a fun time.
Two weeks later, my manager called and he said Jeff Tweedy wants to produce your next album. I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ He said, ‘No, it’s real.’ I didn’t know Jeff Tweedy so I said I’d like him to send a couple of his CDS so I can listen and then we should have lunch together.
“Tweedy came to the south side. He looked like he was scared to death (laughs). My sister, Yvonne, was with me. We sat and we talked, Well, I talked. He wouldn’t talk at first. This guy was shy. So I cracked some joke. I forgot what. He cracked up, made him laugh and that loosened him up. He started telling me how he had worked in a record shop when he was a teenager and had access to all The Staple Singers music from the ’50s and ’60s. ‘I listened to you all all the time,’ he said.
“He started talking about Pops. Then he kept going, started telling me about his family, his wife and his son. I was just sold. When he started talking about famly, that was all I needed. Because that was what Pops would always instill in us. Stick with your brothers and sisters. Family is the strongest unit in the world. Stick together, cain’t nobody break you.
“We left that restaurant maybe two and a half hours later. I knew Jeff Tweedy and I could make good music. Our next meeting was at the Wilco Loft, where we chose songs for You Are Not Alone.
“It was so fun. We had such a good time there. I said, Tweedy you got catering coming! (lowers voice) ‘Mavis that’s what you deserve.’
He even had a teleprompter for me. I’ tell you I’d never seen that. I started to tell him you don’t have to bribe me, I’ve already made my choice.”
Staples has worked with Prince and Ry Cooder and covered artists as diverse as The Talking Heads, The Band, Bob Dylan, and Allen Toussaint. What makes a song a Mavis Staples song?
“I’ve got to know I can feel these lyrics. I want to make the lyrics my own. But first thing is I need a positive song. I need lyrics that are positive and make a difference. That news that will make you want to get up in the morning.. If you are depressed, if you are down, I want to lift you.
“Tweedy knows me pretty good. He’s good at culling songs. With ‘What Are They Doing in Heaven,’ I said, ‘Where are you coming from with these songs? I heard that one when I was a little girl.’ He knew me well enough to write for me what he knows I can’t help but accept.”
The Staple Singers were the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement. “Freedom Highway” was an anthem. Martin Luther King said his favorite song was “Why Am I Treated So Bad.” Tell me about moving from gospel songs into message songs.
“We wanted to be heard. We were singing strictly gospel songs. In the black community, black radio, gospel is heard like 4:00, 5:00 in the morning, People weren’t hearing our songs. When we started singing message songs, we didn’t feel were so far from gospel because they were truth. They were telling the truth and gospel is truth. We started singing songs we felt everybody could hear.
“The only song we got thrown out of church for was ‘I’ll Take Your There,’ and that was because the song switched over to mainstream R&B and it was all because of that rhythm section. Bodda-bonk, bodda-bonk. Up until then we had been singing with our father’s guitar. We never had a rhythm section. The church people were saying The Staple Singers are singing the devil’s music. We don’t want them in our church.
“I had to do so many interviews. I’d tell these people the devil ain’t got no music. You have to listen to our lyrics. We’re telling you, ‘I know a place. Ain’t nobody cryin’. Ain’t nobody worried. Ain’t no smiling faces lyin’ through the races.’ Where would we be taking you but to heaven?
“After they got the message, we were invited back to church. The first song right in the pulpit that was requested was ‘I’ll Take You There.’
“We started doing folk festivals. We started hearing other songs like ‘The Weight’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ We met Dylan [with whom she had a romance].
“They said [to Dylan] I want you to meet the Staple Singers. He said [doing her Dylan impression], ‘I know The Staple Singers. I’ve been listening to The Staple Singers since I was 12 years old.’ He said, ‘Pops, you have a velvet voice and Mavis, she gets rough sometimes.’
“Pops told us listen to what that kid was saying and Bobby was saying ‘how many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man.’ Pops could relate to that, literally. He told us about how he could be walking on one side of the street and if a white man was coming towards him on that side of the street, he’d have to cross over.
“So we can sing that. We can sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘The Weight.’ We felt we could sing them.
“The only secular song The Staples Singers have ever sung was ‘Let’s Do It Again.’ Curtis Mayfield told Pops, ‘This is your part: [she sings] I like your lady so fine, so fine with your pretty hair.’ Pops said, I’ ain’t going to sing that. I’m a church man.’ Curtis said, ‘Oh, Pops, cool, man, the Lord won’t mind.”
“We happened to be in Montgomery, Alabama, on a Sunday morning. Pops said, ‘Listen, y’all, Martin Luther has a church here and I want to go to his 11:00 service. Do you all want to go?’ We said, ‘Yeah, dad, we want to go.’
“We went to Dr. King’s church on Dexter Avenue. We were ushered in and seated. Someone let Dr. King know we were in the audience and he acknowledged us. He said, ‘We are glad to have Pops Staples and his daughters here this morning. Hope you enjoy the service.’
“Dr. King was standing by the door to shake hands as you were filing out. My sisters and I shook his hands and went filing out. Pops stood there and talked to him for a while.
“We get back to the hotel and Pops calls us to his room. He said, ‘Listen you all, I like this man. I like him. I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.’ That was the beginning of writing the freedom song, ‘March up Freedom’s Highway.’ We joined the Civil Rights Movement.
“[Years later,] I went to Washington to [Congressman] John Lewis’s office and I wanted him to write the liner notes to my album of freedom songs. I was surprised he remembered me. I hadn’t seen him in years. He said to me, ‘Mavis, your family’s music was the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement. Those songs kept us motivated, kept us inspired to keep on going. Yes, I’ll write your liner notes.’ “
Staples attended the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Library in Austin last year, rubbing elbows with movement leaders and presidents celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
“When Obama became president, I talked to Pops and Dr. King. I never thought I’d live to see the day a black man would be president of the United States. So many good things have happened. But we still have a long way to go.
“At the summit, the one I really enjoyed talking to was Clinton. I came in and said, ‘Hey Bubba.’ He said, ‘Mavis, don’t say that’ [laughs].
“I run into the Obamas quite often. Michelle is so nice. They were at that summit in Austin and he came in and said, ‘Mavis, what did you sing?’ I said, ‘You didn’t hear me?’ He said, ‘We got here late.’ I said, ‘I sang Freedom Highway and We Shall Not Be Moved. He said, ‘I bet you sounded good.’ And I said, ‘I did.’ “