Music

Mavis Staples

Time for truth

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In this world, there are legends—and then there’s Mavis Staples.

Sure, “legendary” is the descriptor that’s most often applied to the longtime gospel singer and civil rights activist, but it doesn’t quite do her justice. More than just a legend, Staples is a force of nature.

First, Staples is part of a musical dynasty. She’s part of the famed Staples Singers, which, led by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and rounded out by siblings Cleotha, Yvonne, and Pervis, earned the title of “God’s Greatest Hitmakers,” owing to their widespread appeal and rousing live performances. Mavis scored her first hit with her rendition of “Uncloudy Day” when she was still just a teenager, and had the state of the nation been different, she might’ve shone as one of gospel’s greatest stars and that would’ve been more than enough.

But Staples came of age during the late 1950s and 1960s, and her father was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., and so she came by her passion for civil rights and racial justice honestly and organically. With their covers of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” the Staple Singers provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement while also becoming household names. After the bloody Selma freedom march in 1965, Pops Staples wrote the landmark protest song “Freedom Highway,” and it remains in Mavis’ set list even today.

Making music with a message provided a path to success for the Staples Singers, earning them a deal with another musical legend, Stax Records, where they flourished, making the Top 40 with eight of their songs, including two number-one hits, “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.”

When Mavis struck out on her own as a solo singer, her commercial success was not that of the Staples Singers, but her ability to inspire other artists with her optimistic take on the trials of the times, as well as her distinctive voice and artistic chops, have helped her forge fruitful connections, and the list of people she’s collaborated with speak to her influence and the respect she engenders.

She’s had a longtime friendship and musical relationship with Bob Dylan—according to lore, the notoriously elusive artist even proposed to her once—and the two have been known to share a stage together even today. She’s recorded with Ray Charles, the Band, George Jones, Natalie Merchant, and more. Salt ’N’ Pepa, Ludacris, and Ice Cube have all sampled her voice for their songs. She’s performed at the Kennedy Center Honors, sang a song with Arcade Fire’s Win Butler at Outside Lands, and even released a couple of albums on Prince’s Paisley Park label.

In short, she’s done it all.

Although Staples is almost 80 years old and has been performing for the vast majority of her life, she shows no signs of slowing down soon. If anything, her career has only accelerated and grown in scope in recent years. Her 2016 album, Livin’ On a High Note—an upbeat album title that is classic Staples—was produced by M. Ward and features songs written just for the deserving diva by Nick Cave, tUnE-yArds, Neko Case, Aloe Blacc, and others.

But the most frequent and fruitful musical collaborator of Mavis’ modern era has been Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. The two have been joining forces for some time, and in late 2017 released a full-length album called If All I Was Was Black.

If you think the album’s title isn’t intended as a piece of pointed commentary about the state of our nation and the world in which we live, you don’t know the first thing about Mavis Staples. 

Much as she did during the 1960s with the Staples Singers, Mavis finds herself using her music to speak truth to power. Her musical stock in trade has been to always uplift, always see the good, always fight the good fight the right way. When Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” it resonated so strongly with Staples that she and Tweedy devoted a song to the idea—probably because it’s the unspoken mantra by which she’s lived her entire life.

But the current presidential administration (Staples prefers not to speak his name) has given the singer’s hard-won optimism a tougher edge. Once again, she finds herself in the thick of a fight with battle lines that are all too familiar to her.

“I never thought I’d have to do another album like this again after Obama became president,” Staples said during a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune. “People have told me you’re getting up in age, maybe you should sit down. But I won’t sit down. Music is truth. It’s time for some truth.”

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