Mavis Staples – Soul folk in action
“He had so many brothers and sisters growing up that they had a ready-made choir,” Mavis says. “Pops would tell me stories about when they would all finish dinner they would go out on the gallery and sing. The gallery was the porch. I had to ask him, ‘Gallery? What’s a gallery, daddy?’ He says, ‘It’s the porch, Mavis.’ They’d sing and people would start coming, and the yard was just full.
“Now, the parts his sisters would sing on the gallery is the parts that later on he taught us. That was us. When my brothers and sisters and me started traveling around as a group, we’d come out and people’d go, ‘Ohhhhhh!’ They was surprised because they thought we would be old people, ’cause of how we sang together. ‘Cause of how we sounded like Mississippi.”
Roebuck, Osceola and their two children arrived in Chicago in 1937. Pops quickly found work at the Armour Meat Packing facilities in the city’s bustling stockyards. Their third child, Mavis, was born two years later.
“You know, I’ve read so many books that says I was born in 1940. And I go along with it,” Mavis says, laughing. “If you give me a year, I’ll take it! But I was actually born in 1939.”
Roebuck and Osceola worked hard to raise righteous, God-fearing children. Playing cards were forbidden in the house, and the children weren’t allowed to go to the movies unless Pops chose the film and chaperoned. He also did his best to ensure the children listened to nothing but gospel music. Pops, who especially admired gospel quartets, played his favorite 78s around the house, and when the Swan Silvertones or Dixie Hummingbirds visited town, or when local heroes the Soul Stirrers performed, the Staples family would go out to the program.
Not that the Staples kids had to be persuaded to love their parents’ music. After all, they not only were raised in the midst of gospel’s golden age, they experienced the era at ground zero. Thanks largely to the songs of Chicago-based Thomas Dorsey (“Precious Lord”) as well as to the singing of his primary proteges, Sallie Martin and Mahalia Jackson, Chicago had become, during the years of the Great Depression and World War II, the nation’s biggest single market for gospel music. Brought up in this environment, Mavis and her siblings could surely identify with Dorsey’s comment that he liked “the solid beat” of gospel music, the “long, moaning, groaning tone…the rock.”
“My brother Pervis had his own gospel group,” Mavis remembers, “and Sam [Cooke] was in another one, the Highway Q.C.’s. And every Sunday after 11 o’clock service, they’d go into the church and have a battle. The audience would just be all us kids, sitting out there eating potato chips.”
Indeed, Mavis attended the same grammar school as two gospel and pop stars in waiting, Cooke and Lou Rawls. What’s more, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield, each a future soul legend and member of the Impressions, lived nearby.
“We lived down on 33rd street, but all of us lived in the 30s [blocks]; we called them the Dirty 30s. That’s where all the doo-wopper boys would stand under the lamplight and sing in the summertime.”
In other words, despite Pop’s best efforts, his children were exposed to, and touched by, more than just gospel music. When Pops and Osceola were out of the house, the kids would sneak shots of rhythm & blues on the radio. Mavis enjoyed disc jockey Herb Kent (“Herb Kent, the Coooool Gent!”), especially during the early spring of 1952 when it seemed he was always playing Ruth Brown’s now classic “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean”.
Another of Mavis’ favorite numbers, to her family’s chagrin, was “Since I Fell For You”, a 1947 R&B hit for Annie Laurie. When the family grew too large “for my folks to keep us in shoes,” Pop and Osceola sent their youngest children south. Mavis and Yvonne stayed with their grandmother in Mississippi during the school year, returning home to Chicago for the summer. One day the kids in grandma’s neighborhood had a variety show at school, and when Mavis’ turn came, she started belting out “Since I Fell For You”.
“I think I was about 9 or 10,” she explains, “just a little bitty girl up there singing, ‘You! Made me leave! My happy home!’ I seen my uncle coming up toward the stage and I naturally thought he was coming up to pat me on the head when I was done ’cause I did such a good job. But he didn’t say a word. He just snatched me off that stage and we went on out of school. He took me home and pushed me in the door and told my grandma: ‘This youngun is up at the schoolhouse singing the blues.’
“She says, ‘Oh you singing the blues, huh? You go out and get me some switches!’ I stayed out there a long time hoping it’d pass, but she yells out, ‘Youngun, I ain’t forgot about you.’ So I go in with them switches and she gets to started. Every lick she’d say, ‘You! Don’t! Sing! No! Blues! In! This! Fam! Ih! Lee!’
“After I got grown,” Mavis continues, “I recorded ‘Since I Fell For You’ [for her second Stax solo album, 1971’s Only For The Lonely]. By then grandma was living with us. I took that record in there and played it for her, and she said, ‘You little booger! That’s the song you were singing at school! You never did forget that, did you?’
“‘I said, ‘No ma’am. But you can’t whip me no more. I’m over 21!'”