Clip: Mavis Staples
`I got a lot more to give'
With two new albums ready, Chicago's MAVIS STAPLES bristles at the idea of
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published August 1, 2004
One of the greatest soul singers of the last half-century is named
It says so in Mavis Staples' living room, where a certificate hangs
honoring "Bubbles" for co-producing the Grammy-winning 1994 blues album by
her late father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples.
Staples laughs so hard her auburn corkscrew curls start to shake. "My
nickname!" she proclaims. "My mom called me that because I had a little
bubble nose." She couldn't be listed by her birth name in the album credits
because she was under contract to a different label at the time.
Everywhere in the South Side condo Staples has called home for 30 years
there are reminders of a life well-lived, of a close-knit family raised on
hymns, spirituals and acoustic blues. The Staple Singers arose from the
gospel circuit to sell 30 million records and provide the soundtrack for
the civil rights movement with such signature songs as "Respect Yourself"
and "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)." Among the memorabilia and
collectibles casually furnishing the singer's home are Pops' old Gibson
guitar and a picture of him and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House,
a Rhodes piano only a few feet from the spot where Mavis and Al Bell wrote
the Staple Singers' immortal "I'll Take You There," and a trophy
commemorating the Staples' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in
And yet these are also reminders that Mavis Staples' life is moving on.
Both her parents are gone, and Mavis herself recently marked her 64th
birthday, as the flowers brightening her sunlit kitchen and family room
attest. Her sister Yvonne remains by her side as her neighbor and most
trusted adviser, and brother Pervis holds down Pops' old home in suburban
Dolton. Sister Cleo, who lives in the same condo complex, has been
sidelined by Alzheimer's, effectively putting an end to the Staple Singers'
But Mavis Staples bristles when the idea of retirement is broached. She has
not one but two albums ready to go: a Pops Staples album featuring the
final performances by the Staple Singers; and a solo album, "Have a Little
Faith," due out Aug. 17 on Alligator Records.
"It's a shame, us at this point, we still have to prove ourselves all over
again to the music business," she says, her effervescent demeanor
momentarily darkening. "You feel like you're being put out to pasture. But
I still got a voice, and I've got more inside me now than I did than when
we had hits. Look at what I've been through, and what I've overcome, and
what I have to offer to you now. What makes [the music business] think that
`What would Pops do?'
"The Lord ain't through with me yet. I got a lot more to do. I got work to
do. So don't hinder me," she continues. "I always think, `What would Pops
do?' I learned from him that had I depended on what other people think, I
would have quit a long time ago."
The proof of Staples' feistiness can be found in "Have a Little Faith," a
blues-tinged gospel album about making the most of troubled times. It began
with a phone call from a fan the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
Producer Jim Tullio, a veteran of recording sessions with members of The
Band, Aretha Franklin and John Prine, among others, had lost two friends in
the disaster and poured his feelings into a song, "In Times Like These." He
called Staples, "one of maybe three or four singers I know that could pull
something like this off. I didn't want it to come off cheesy, and I knew
Mavis would give it credibility, believability, soul."
Staples agreed to sing it after Tullio faxed her the lyrics. Three days
later they were in the producer's home studio in Winnetka, and their
partnership began. She had been working on her father's record when Tullio
suggested she work on one of her own. But a solo album wasn't a big
priority at first, because Staples felt that her past efforts to go it
alone -- both in collaboration with Prince in 1989 and '93, and for Stax
Records in the early '70s -- were unjustly ignored and under-promoted by
"She was pretty disillusioned," Tullio says. "I don't think she was
planning on starting a career again." As Tullio began bringing in songs and
backing musicians to the subsequent sessions, Staples found a comfort zone
she had only previously experienced with her family. Though she didn't have
a record deal, the singer believed in the project so much that she poured
$50,000 of her own money into it.
"It all started with 9/11 and me looking for a way to contribute," Staples
says. "If Tullio hadn't approached me, I probably would have continued on
with Pops' record. This is the first time in my life that I really have
been solo. I never planned to record without my family. But when we cut `In
Times Like These,' I felt we could make the type of CD that the Staple
Singers always did, a record that would send a positive message and uplift
Sealing the deal was a song written at the 11th hour for the album by
Tullio and guitarist Jim Weider, "Have a Little Faith," in which Staples
turns desperation into a small miracle of determination, wrapping up an
album that embodies Pops Staples' dictum that "if you want to write for the
Staples, read the headlines." Balancing those moments in which Staples uses
her voice to punch a hole through self-doubt and depression is "Pop's
Recipe," a classic midtempo Staple Singers grind that recalls the fire and
wisdom of the family patriarch.
Pops, the 13th child in a family of seven sons and seven daughters, grew up
picking cotton on a Mississippi plantation and studying guitar
finger-picking with blues legend Charley Patton, before moving his young
family to Chicago in 1936, where Mavis was born four years later. He drove
his family through the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle while they
toured the Southern gospel circuit in the '50s and '60s, befriending Martin
Luther King in the process.
For all the optimism in the music, there was nothing soft about it or the
family. Instead of allowing himself to get run off the road by young
hot-rodders on rural roads, Pops Staples would drive the family Cadillac
right back into the would-be intimidators until they fled. His
assertiveness was passed on to his children, who learned about life and
music at their father's knee. Mavis Staples' new album closes with "Will
the Circle Be Unbroken," the first song Pops taught his children when they
would gather around him in their living room.
Mistaken for a man
It was at these homespun sing-alongs that Pops developed the harmony lines
for which the group would become famous, with Mavis' heavy,
older-than-her-years contralto assuming the lead; on early recordings such
as "Uncloudy Day," which turned the Staples into stars, she was often
mistaken for a man, or a much older woman, before audiences laid eyes on
the diminutive teenager. The family was touring the gospel circuit before
Mavis was out of high school, and the combination of her robust leads,
Yvonne's second-lead vocals, Cleo's soprano and Pops' spidery guitar
figures gave the Staples a sound like no other vocal group's.
Though the Staples' voices were steeped in the Baptist church hymns of
their youth, there was always the strong influence of blues and country,
and later they were swept up in the folk movement during the Civil Rights
era. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez worshiped the Staples, whose songs began to
cross over to R&B and then pop radio in the '60s and '70s. For this
"betrayal," the Staples were sometimes taken to task by members of the
"They got on our cases for `I'll Take You There,' because it got played
across the board on radio, " Mavis Staples says. "They said we were doing
the `devil's music,' but I said, `The devil doesn't have any music. All
music is God's music.' Listen to the lyrics in our songs: `I know a place,
ain't nobody crying, ain't nobody worried'; `If you're ready, come go with
me'; `Reach out, touch a hand, make a friend if you can.' These are songs
about the world, but they're also about God being alive for us in the
`Everyone was in tears'
In that respect, "Have a Little Faith" picks up exactly where the Staples
left off. For Bruce Iglauer, who signed Staples to his Chicago-based blues
label, Alligator Records, he couldn't have dreamed it better. "It's one of
the most overtly spiritual records we've ever released, and it's by an
artist I never thought this company would be good enough, big enough or
powerful enough to ever sign," he says.
Iglauer says he went to see Staples perform at a blues festival in
Pennsylvania last weekend and was blown away. The showstopper was a song
called "God Is Not Sleeping," a centerpiece of the new album. Staples was
spent at the end of the performance, and so was the audience. "Everyone was
in tears," Iglauer says. "To call it artistry doesn't cover it. She just
swept everyone up in her emotions."
Tullio got a similar rush watching Staples record the album. "I was asking
myself, `Is this really happening?'" he says. "With most singers, there are
usually a number of flubbed notes in every performance, and you have to
patch things together. But with Mavis it was great, greater and greatest.
She says she doesn't `know' music, but knowing music has nothing to do with
it. She knows as much about music as Beethoven did, in her heart."
An impressive fan club
Mavis Staples talks about two of her biggest fans:
Bob Dylan: "When we met him in New York in the early '60s, he knew our
songs. He said he was 12 when he first heard us, and we later recorded six
or seven Dylan tunes. Pops was crazy about him. One day he told Daddy, in
front of everybody, `Pops, I want to marry Mavis.' Pops says, `Well, go ask
Mavis.' He says, `I love you Mavis, I want to marry you.' And we started
courting. We were about a year apart in age, and this went on for six,
seven years; we would write each other and call, and see each other
occasionally. In '69, I stopped the relationship. It was always in my mind
that I can't marry a white guy. I was so young and stupid. All I had to do
is look around. We had plenty of white people marching with us. Dr. King
loved that. So why would it be a problem marrying Bob Dylan? To this day, I
could kick myself, because we were really in love. It was one I lost."
Prince: "The first CD we did together [`Time Waits for No One' in 1989], I
told him I wanted to sing secular songs: I've been married, I've had
heartache, I want to sing about my life as a woman. But the disc jockeys
were saying that Prince is trying to make a female Prince out of Mavis, and
they didn't like it. The second one [`The Voice' in 1993], he took my
letters and wrote my life. I would write 14-, 15-page letters on a yellow
legal pad to him. I started from my childhood, and every song he wrote for
me for that album I'd hear something that was in my letters. `Blood Is
Thicker Than Time' is a song he wrote for my family, and I had to stop
about three times singing that song, I couldn't get through it, because my
mother had passed. My daddy was amazed about the Cain and Abel reference in
there. I said, `Daddy, one of his favorite books is the Bible.' I didn't
know him to be a bad boy, the way so many people think of him. I feel like
he's my adopted son in a way."
-- Greg Kot
- Greg K:
> The Staple Singers arose from theThis is a bit of a stretch. Respect Yourself peaked on the charts in '72,
> gospel circuit to sell 30 million records and provide the soundtrack for
> the civil rights movement with such signature songs as "Respect Yourself"
> and "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)."
Come Go w/ Me in '74...what most people think of as the civil rights
movement was well done before then.
> And yet these are also reminders that Mavis Staples' life is moving on.This is wrong, too, though it's easy to see why Greg would make the
> Both her parents are gone, and Mavis herself recently marked her 64th
mistake--every book you check says Mavis was born in 1940. But, as I learned
in the interviews I did with her for an upcoming ND feature, she was
actually born in '39...and she just turned 65. --davidcantwell
- They are finally releasing a CD and theatrical film of the big blues show at radio
City in February '93, which I reviewed at the time for No depresison; this was
tied to the Scorses documeentary and Year of the Blues stuff, but separate.
I mention this, because it contains Mavi's truy outstanding take on Blind lemon
jefferson's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" and her rauckus womens' blues
number with Ruth Brown and Natalie Cole, "Men Are Just Like Streetcars".
the CD is called "Lightning in a Bottle". When the number with Ruth Brown (and I
can still hardly believe that I saw Mavis Staples performing with Ruth Brown! is
shown in the movie--you'll see that the dirty dog man standing there and taking
it is Bill cosby.
- --On Tuesday, August 3, 2004 3:09 PM +0000 Barry Mazor <brmaz@...>
> her rauckus womens' bluesThat's quite a trio -- not sure I can imagine the three singing together.
> number with Ruth Brown and Natalie Cole, "Men Are Just Like Streetcars".
who dug the Prince stories (though my favorite is Charlie Murphy's
- I hate to be among the chorus to cast aspersions on the Mavis story
(especially since Kot is one of my favorite writers) but I have to
wonder about the Dylan story.
Mavis said that they had been going out for a few years and then
broke it off in 1969- by that time, Dylan had been married to his
wife Sara for a few years (since 1965) so that seems kind of odd.