Mavis Staples Brings Soul to SOPAC
Excited?! Oh, yes! I was absolutely thrilled about the prospect of interviewing Miss Mavis Staples, who will be appearing with her band this Saturday, November 16, at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC). And why wouldn’t I be thrilled?
Mavis is an icon – a name everyoneknows, both from the early days with the Staple Singers and from her 40+ years as a solo recording and performing artist.
Her career began before Mavis hit double digits. Her father, “Pops,” was singing with an all-male group in Chicago, and after he became discouraged by the other members’ lack of commitment, he turned to his family. “He gathered us in the living room, took his guitar out and gave us all parts to sing,” Mavis says.
“One night, my aunt came by and heard us,” Mavis says. “She told us we sounded so good that she wanted us to sing that Sunday at her church.”
That was the “rest is history” moment. After hearing the group, Vivian Carter, who with husband Jimmy Bracken owned Vee-Jay Records, told Pops that they should record. “When I was 12 or 13,” Mavis says, “he called Vivian and said ‘we’re ready’.”
Their first release - “Uncloudy Day” - took off! “It was selling like an R&B record,” she says, “and was the very first gospel record to sell a million copies.” Another winner for the group was a recording of the 1908 hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the first song Pops taught the family. Mavis fondly remembers a performance of that song in Nashville in the ‘70s for a TV special with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family.
“I still do that song in my shows,” she said.
Anyone who has seen Miss Staples perform might find it hard to imagine her being ill at ease on stage, but she told me that she was really shy when the group first started to perform in public. “I couldn’t even look out at the audience,” she said. “I’d just look up at the sky.”
Though she would have preferred the background, Mavis had such a beefy baritone voice that Pops insisted she sing lead. “I was so little,” she says, “they had to stand me on a chair.”
Audiences were often surprised to hear such a strong voice coming from a small female. “People who knew our songs didn’t believe that was me singing lead,” Mavis said. “One man said he bet his paycheck that it wasn’t a little girl.”
“We had so much fun on the road,” Mavis says. And her initial fears faded quickly. “I wasn’t nervous as long as I was with my family.”
By the 60s, the Staple Singers had begun to record and perform material that blurred the genre lines and gave them much wider exposure. The timing was right, too. Audiences in the late 60s and early 70s were drawn to music with a powerful message and a heartfelt, soulful delivery. Even other artists of the time appreciated the group. According to Mavis, “Bob Dylan told Pop that he had been listening to the Staple Singers since he was 12.”
Mavis remembers being at a TV show in New York with Dylan, who was performing “Blowing in the Wind.” When Pops heard it, he said ‘I lived that song’.” “Blowing in the Wind” was the first Dylan song that the Staple Singers recorded, and it represented another gentle shift for the group. “We would listen for songs on the radio that we felt had some spirituality or a message,” Mavis explains.
“We were going to folk festivals and jazz festivals, and singing on the same bill with all of these wonderful artists,” she says. “It kept us up on everything.”
“We weren’t singing strictly gospel anymore,” she says. And, she explains, that she felt a particular kinship with folk singers. “They were doing what we were doing – spreading the word.”
Another major step came in 1969, when Mavis released her first solo recording. Since then, there have been a dozen or so more Mavis Staples records. On some she sings with the family, on others she doesn’t. For one from Paisley Park Records, Mavis is produced and accompanied by Prince, who also wrote six of the record’s eight tracks.
And, for her last two recordings, “You Are Not Alone,” which won a Best Americana Album Grammy in 2011, and the 2013 release, “One True Vine,” Mavis teamed up with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
There is no doubt about it, whether in music or in life in general, Mavis keeps good company.
“I think I have met nearly everybody I wanted to meet,” she told me, and goes on to name a few: Lena Horne, Cannonball Adderly, Joan Baez–who Mavis says, “always comes to see us when we are in New York” –the folk legend Richie Havens–who Mavis described as someone who had “such a beautiful spirit”–and many more.
“I have been very fortunate,” she says.
Toward the end of our conversation, I posed a favorite question of mine to Miss Staples, asking her to name five artists she would have on the bill if she could put together a music festival.
She barely hesitated.
“Wilco, of course,” she said with a throaty chuckle.
“Bruno Mars”, and we both did a female wolf whistle.
“Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, and Patty Griffin.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself, that just about covers the spectrum. And I imagined out loud about how great it would be to attend that festival.
Mavis laughed her infectious laugh, and then shared with me some very exciting news.
“I’m planning a big birthday party at Newport next July for my 75th,” she said. “I’m going to get everybody I know to come play.”
“You gonna come?” she asked me.
“I will definitely be there,” I said.
Mavis Staples’ current band includes sister Yvonne Staples on backing vocals; Donny Gerrard, on lead and backing vocals; Stephen Hodges on drums and percussion; Rick Holmstrom, who serves as musical director, sings back-up, and plays guitar; Vicki Randle, lead and backing vocals; and Jeff Turmes, on bass, guitar and backing vocals.