On the very short, exclusive list of vocalists who can cross any genre seamlessly and pour every ounce of heart and soul into each beautifully uttered note is Mavis Staples. Under the leadership and tutelage of her father and band leader, Roebuck Staples (better known as simply "Pops"), Chicago born and bred Mavis and her sisters Cleotha and Yvonne rose to prominence between the late 1960s and early 1970s thanks to the uplifting messages their music delivered in a particularly trying time in history. Deeply entrenched in the ongoing struggle for civil rights and equality, The Staple Singers and their soulful blend of gospel-based rhythm and blues served as the backdrop for positive, forward-thinking individuals who fought the good fight and recognized the power of positivity. Uplifting tunes like "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself," which have gone on to become timeless anthems, were crucial messages at the time of their respective releases. Besides the weighty, intelligent sentiments they conveyed, the real allure of these classic hit singles is the rich, husky, honey-soaked soothing vocals of Mavis. As unforgettable and endearing as any singer of her time, Mavis' gift is the familiarity and the ease in which she croons and coos. It's safe to say that anyone who has ever been within earshot of Mavis Staples or heard any one of her innumerable dynamic recordings won't soon to forget the impression she casts.
Now 73 and in the throes of a successful solo career, signed to hip indie label Anti- Records and teaming with Wilco mastermind Jeff Tweedy on her superb 2010 release You Are Not Alone and on a forthcoming new record (more on that later), Mavis seems energized and excited about her current projects and her continued delivery of the messages her now-deceased father imparted.
I had the pure delight of chatting with Mavis from her Chicago home as she geared up for a tour that finds her visiting St. Petersburg's gorgeous Mahaffey Theater on Saturday night. It was difficult to conceal the sheer glee and excitement I was feeling at the opportunity to speak to one of my absolute all-time favorite vocalists. As I tastefully and respectfully started our phone conversation by gushing a bit and letting Ms. Staples in on my adulation, iI was greeted with that unmistakable rich voice in turn thanking me: "Oh thank you..." Mavis replied. "Thanks for taking the time out to talk to this ol' girl!" She set the tone and broke the ice and I knew our conversation would be one I wouldn't soon forget.
First I asked Mavis about the Staples Singers' significant role in what was referred to as the "message music" of their heyday, whose decision it was to choose that path, and if it was a conscious effort.
"Oh, that was daddy's idea. We had never heard folk songs before, but we started hearing Bob Dylan songs and his messages, and daddy said 'we can sing that!'" She pointed out the Dylan classic "Blowin' in the Wind" as the one with the message that really moved Pops, and began to sing the well-known first line of the tune in her signature soulful warble — "How many roads most a man walk down / Before you call him a man?" — before talking about the days when her father, growing up as a young black man, was forced to cross the street and take the opposite sidewalk if a white man happened to start walking on his side. The first line of the song resonated with Pops and helped to bring about the shift messages he chose to deliver from then on with his and his family's music.
Adopting and incorporating the deep, insightful messages of Dylan and Joni Mitchell, the Staples became their unlikely contemporaries. "Yes!" she remembered with delight. "We were invited to the Newport Folk Festival around all the flower children. We really fit in with them." The group went on to record several Dylan-penned numbers as smothered in their own unique blend of gospel-tinged brilliance. Obviously an honor for Dylan himself, who has many times gone on record as a staunch fan of Mavis and her family's recorded output.
At a time when musical genres and palettes weren't as fiercely divided as they are today, Pops had the brilliant realization that it wasn't the time to stick to a single style. "'Don't categorize us' Pops would tell the songwriters. He knew the blues and he wanted us to play every kind of music," Mavis said, a decision that helped carry the Staples to many different corners of the world and a variety of musical stages.
Respect and admiration beamed through the phone line whenever Mavis brought up the love and leadership her beloved father shone on her. She giggled as she recalled stories about Pops saving up enough from his 10-cent-a-day job ("He said that was a lot of money back then!" she chortled) and teaching himself to play guitar as a contemporary of blues legend Charley Patton. She charmingly recounts growing up down the street from another blues heavyweight, Howlin' Wolf, and hips me to the fact that Pops sang at the funeral of blues great Muddy Waters. Each and every recollection of her father and his colorful life is related with nothing but pure fondness. "I couldn't have asked for a better life," Mavis sighed, her heartfelt tone making it obvious that she's brutally sincere.
Her humbleness was never more evident than when I asked her about all the musical luminaries who've jumped at the chance to work with her throughout her career. "When people ask to produce you ... and you're meeting people you admire ... I think to myself, 'you must think really highly of me,'" she said as if in disbelief. And who could blame the likes of Prince, Dylan, Marty Stuart and The Band for wanting to be soak up the vibes of such a great force? I was particularly intrigued by her connection with The Band, and in particular, the jaw-dropping sequence from 1978 film The Last Waltz, where they team with The Staples for a definitive rendition of "The Weight."
As that was my personal introduction to Mavis and her mightiness, I told the vocalist that I benefited from my older sister's obsession with Robbie Robertson, and that it was she who dragged me to see the film several times as a 'tween. Although I enjoyed all the performances in the film tremendously, that famous scene featuring Mavis trading leads with late great drummer/vocalist Levon Helm stood out most. As a dopey kid, I didn't recognize the level of unabashed heart and soul laid out on that piece of film. When I asked Mavis how the film impacted her and her family, she reminisces about the new audiences they gained as a result. "Oh yeah. The college students started coming around and we started seeing a lot of different faces at our concerts." She continues to marvel at the power and the punch that "The Weight' carries, and launched into its first lyric ... and that's about when the interview started to rank this as one of the greatest days I've ever lived through up to this point. She lovingly recalled Helm and refers to him as "a beautiful person," her constant praise and kind words for her contemporaries, her family and her admirers coming across like a breath of fresh air and added sheer delight to the free-flowing conversation we've enjoyed so far.
A self-admitted untrained musician, Mavis sheepishly admitted to me, "I don't know music. I don't know what key I sing in." When asked by bandleaders or fellow musicians what key they should play in to accompany her, her sense of humor takes over, her joking responses "a key of 'S' or 'Q'" since she knows full well such keys don't really exist. She recalled a time many years ago when she was asked to perform the National Anthem before an LA Lakers game and couldn't tell the accompanying organist the key she sang in — so she reached for the nearest phone and called Pops for guidance. Pops pulled out his guitar, started to play and asked her to sing along over the phone. Then he told her she was singing in the key of "A," the information relayed to her collaborator for the performance.
We've all sat around while listening to records or to singers we love and wondered what they were like in person. From the onset of my conversation with Mavis, I felt the exact vibe from her warmth and personality that she's always exuded on record. She's a natural, a down-to-earth lady who happens to sing with the voice of an angel. "I like to feel what I could sing about. I imagine it first like a movie in my head" she recounted. She admitted to enjoying singing all different styles and genres of music, but that she always returns to gospel. "That's home, that's my favorite."
I prod her to fill me in on what fans attending her concert Saturday night might expect to hear. Like a proud mother, she starts to reel of band members' names and the instruments they play. She'll be accompanied by her sister Yvonne, and she mentioned this with the utmost sigh of comfort. As far as their repertoire, Mavis offered a laundry list of classics. "Well, there are some songs that I have to play, songs that bring me back. 'Too Close to Heaven,' 'Uncloudy Day,' 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken,'" she said, then explained, "I never sing the same song the same way every time; I like to grab something new and different on each journey."
At the close of our conversation, I thanked her, on behalf of everyone who has ever reached for a Staple Singers record during low times or times of much needed inspiration, and she said she takes solace in knowing that she's done her part. "I like to sing about what's happening. We knew we were living in trying times and we knew people needed something to lift them up."
Her unbridled talent and enthusiasm are unmatched and her passion for her art is still fully intact. And what's next for the lady who has lived a life full of music and enjoyed the companionship of a loving and nurturing family? Another record with Jeff Tweedy at the helm is on the horizon with a tentative release date of July, 2013. Her fondness and her admiration for Tweedy is apparent when she praises him for the "beautiful words" he writes for her to sing, though it's not all seriousness. "He thinks he knows me so well," she snickered. "I like to fool him. I kid with him."
Her week has been filled with drives across Chicago to work with Tweedy in the studio on the new album and she sounds downright giddy when discussing the new material in the works.
It's safe to say that the charm and charisma that have oozed from Mavis Staples's gut-wrenching vocal performances for decades are matched only by her true life persona. Our conversation filled my afternoon with joy and elation, and gave me new insight into her amazing journey as a professional musician and lover of music.
But, the real treat lies ahead; Mavis Staples live and on stage this Saturday night doing what she does best, what she was born to do, treating us to the sheer power and beauty of one of the most unforgettable voices of our time.