Mavis at Levon’s
Mavis Staples needs no introduction from me, here or anywhere. You’ve been reading about her a lot lately, though. She won a GRAMMY, her second, this month for Best Roots Performance (“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”); she is on a tour in support of her new record, Livin’ on a High Note; and a recent documentary about her and her family just became available on HBO on that rare day, February 29.
Back in the summer of 2011, with a performance already scheduled nearby at Mountain Jam, Mavis came on a hot Friday night to the home of her old, dear friend Levon Helm as his special guest at the Ramble. That night was a jubilation, with Staples and Helm showing no sign of the full afternoon of rehearsals, and genially giving back-to-back performances of a couple of songs that were being recorded. “Did you like it?” Mavis asked us. “Good, ’cause you’re gonna hear it again. I blame Larry,” she laughed, patting Larry Campbell affectionately on the arm. She hugged Amy Helm as they stood together to sing, telling us how proud she was of her goddaughter. And, at the end, which no one wanted to come, and yet which everyone had been waiting for, the musicians closed the Ramble as they closed every Ramble — with “The Weight.”
“Put the load right on me,” Mavis sang, pressing her lovely, immaculately manicured hands to her chest, while Levon bent over his drums as if in prayer, eyes closed, beaming.
As I walked into “The Barn” on a chilly evening to watch the movie, I cried a little bit before it began.
Mavis! is a very, very special documentary. It’s a reeling out of the rarest, finest performances and backstage footage, some many decades old. It’s a history lesson for these times, which are sore in need of such a lesson. It’s a personal look at a private lady who has spent her whole life as a public — and political — performer of the highest order.
Much of the movie consists of Mavis, either being interviewed or in conversation. She’s every bit as good to listen to talking as singing.
Early in the film, she’s asked if, in her mid-70s, she is considering retirement. Staples has a dazzling smile, and you see it often, in reply to questions like these. “I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to sing,” she replies. “And that ain’t gonna happen.” Seventy-five and 15 feel the same to her: “I don’t feel old … [but] I’m grateful that we’re gathering a lot of young people.” She pauses. “I wish I would share it with Pops.”
Roebuck “Pops” Staples (1914-2000) is a guiding spirit of this film, as he has been for his daughter’s, and other children’s, lives. Pops grew up on what had been a cotton plantation in rural Mississippi. He came to music young, and with the masters: he played with Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton. He sang the Delta blues he learned from them, and gave his heart to jubilee and gospel music, which he brought north, to Chicago, in 1935.
The Staples children — Mavis, Cleotha, Yvonne, and Pervis — sang in church with their parents. By the time Mavis was 11, she was a full-fledged, full-voiced member of the Staple Singers. Their recording contracts, and hits, like “Uncloudy Day” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (here, Pops with June Carter and Johnny Cash), began in 1952.
“Pops sat us on the floor in a circle,” Mavis recalls, “and the first song he taught to the five of us was ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.'”
Their first appearance as the Staple Singers was memorable in many ways: “We had to sing the same song three times. It was the only one Pops had taught us.”
Mother Osceola Staples soon left the group and brother Pervis was drafted into the army, leaving it just Pops and the daughters. “We were singing gospel and we were sexy girls up there,” giggles Mavis. Big sister Yvonne, who still tours with Mavis and adds not only her voice but her dry humor, rolls her eyes. But it’s true. As many attest to in the film, Mavis was always — and is still — sensual without being salacious. The footage of her as a girl and young woman is stunning. People couldn’t believe her voice. As Mavis says, they thought “this has gotta be a man or a big fat woman.”
Bob Dylan suddenly appears on the screen, in a black cowboy hat, a city skyline behind him through the windows. He remembers listening to the Stapleses late at night. “At midnight,” he says. “The Staple Singers would come on, and they were just so different.”
One of the first songs Dylan heard was “Sit Down Servant.” He shakes his head. “It made me stay up for a week.”
Mavis smiles when she’s asked, during the filming of this movie, about Bob. “He was a cute guy … but I didn’t have flirtin’ on my mind back then.”
It was at the Newport Festival in 1964, she says, “when he let me know he meant it. We may have smooched a little. He was a handsome kid, with nice curly hair.” Mavis drops her chin and giggles like a girl.
In the early 1960s, most of the Staple Singers’ concerts outside Chicago were in the South. “White kids would try to run us off the highway,” Mavis remembers. But those highways took them to Montgomery, and there is Pops with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After meeting King, Pops told his children, “If he can preach it, we can sing it. And we started writing freedom songs.”
It is with quiet pride that Mavis recalls that “Why Am I Treated So Bad” was King’s favorite of their songs. In concert, Mavis announces to her audiences, “Today you’re gonna hear a couple of freedom songs. I ain’t gonna stop.”
Signing with Stax Records in 1968 changed the course of the Staple Singers and their career. Rhythm and blues has always contained blues and gospel, jazz, and soul, and Mavis sang it with the same amazing grace as she sang any other genre. Wide-eyed, she recalls the time when she first heard “I’ll Take You There” on the radio and “had a fit” — and then heard it on the next radio that was playing, and in the car, and on, and on. It fast became the Staple Singers’ best-known song. The group was world-famous. Mavis sang it at The White House in 2013.
“Let’s Do It Again” was too racy at first for Pops. “Curtis, man,” he said to Curtis Mayfield, “I’m not gonna do that.” Mavis laughs, remembering Mayfield’s reply: “Oh man, the Lord won’t mind.”
Staples remains devout about the power of music. “When you shout … get it out. You didn’t wanna make people feel bad about going to the graveyard. You wanted to make them feel better.”
Vicki Randle, who tours with Staples, adds, “If people are screaming, she’ll sing all night. … She has one speed.”
After a gig, Mavis exults. “That’s the best time I had, you all, since I got my new knee.”
Mavis!, the film, has wonderful footage and still photographs of the sisters in South Africa, and Wattstax 1972. As Yvonne corroborates, the sisters were — and still are — daddy’s girls. Pops’s last record went unreleased after his death in 2000, and with the help of Jeff Tweedy, Mavis saw it to completion in 2015.
“He must be daddy’s son,” Mavis says lovingly, as Tweedy turns on the sound system. The album, Don’t Lose This, plays in the background and tears fill Mavis’s eyes. “Oh, thank you, Tweedy,” she manages at the end, hugging him. “It sounds so good.”
Like father, like daughter. Listen to his new record, and hers. Go and hear her on the current concert tour through the South, Midwest, and at Coachella and JazzFest. But sit down and watch this movie — Mavis!, with an exclamation point. Like the woman, full of jubilation.