When you’re 22 years old and four months into your dream job, you’re still waiting for the bottom to drop out. The whole thing feels like an elaborate hoax, like you’ve miraculously managed to con everyone into thinking you belong but that at any second they could get wise to the fact that you actually have no idea what you’re doing.
If you’re lucky, Mavis Staples will straighten you out.
You’ll wander into her trailer at Bonnaroo 2011 dusty and exhausted, just one day removed from an interview that—to this day, years after the fact—stands as your all-time worst, and Mavis will be an absolute dream: sweet, charming, a treasure trove of incredible anecdotes from a lifetime of music. Afterwards, she’ll thank you for talking to her and tell you you’re a great interviewer and you’ll float out of that trailer feeling like maybe you’re not just a fluke, that you deserve to be where you are. You’ll leave with a renewed confidence in the fact that everything can—and will—eventually turn around.
But you don’t care about my Mavis Staples story. Everyone who has been fortunate enough to cross paths with the legendary singer seems to have one, and that’s part of the reason why a tribute concert in her honor feels long overdue. But better late than never: An all-star lineup that includes Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman, Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, Grace Potter, Ryan Bingham, Otis Clay, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Glen Hansard, Jeff and Spencer Tweedy, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, Buddy Miller, and many more will converge upon Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre for Mavis 75, a celebration of Staples’ life and career in honor of her 75th birthday, on Nov. 19.
It’s a lineup comprised entirely of friends of Staples and artists who have drawn inspiration from her, musically and otherwise. So we caught up with some of them to hear their Mavis Staples stories.
A friend of the Staples family since 1964, when he was singing with the Sensational Nightingales and touring the gospel circuit, Otis Clay has known Staples for longer than many of the concert’s younger stars have been alive, but neither shows any sign of slowing down.
“Well, Mavis, if you’ve ever met her, you know, she’s all the way live,” Clay says, chuckling. “I’ve been close to the family all these years, and I think about all those great Christmas dinners we used to have at the house. That was the privileged end of the thing, you know, being invited to the Staples Christmas dinner. This brings back great memories, and here we are celebrating 75 years. We always thought Pops and Mom would be the ones that would get to be that age, now here we are.”
Keb’ Mo’, who recently did a show with Staples at Atlanta’s Botanical Garden, echoes Clay’s thoughts on Staples’ vivacity.
“She’s so funny,” he says. “She’s so full of life. And the Mavis tribute, I know there’s gonna be a question like ‘Why are you doing it?’ or something. Cause it’s Mavis Staples! Anybody who’s called to do a Mavis Staples tribute, if you get called, you have to go.
“Mavis is part of that real-deal thing,” he continues. “Mavis, the Staple Singers, Mississippi, they’re part of that thing that makes the whole music business real. I remember many times I’ve been recording, and I’m sitting there, and you just start thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, I need Mavis.’ Why? ‘I don’t know, we just need her here for this, to do something.’ You know? You just need Mavis Staples. And my best memory of Mavis Staples, the crown jewel, is Mavis Staples singing ‘The Weight’ and to listen to her just sing and grunt and groan, you know, it’s like—I remember just standing behind her at Radio City Music Hall, doing the acoustic thing with Dr. John, somebody else and myself. And I’m standing behind her, and the monitor wasn’t on that loud, and all I could hear, I could hear her singing and I could hear her going”—at this point he starts wheezing and gasping for air, before laughing at the image he’s conjured— “and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is amazing,’ that this woman was pushing it out, you know? I was like ‘Oh my lord,’ I mean she’s gospel, you know? She’s a gospel, good-singing Christian woman from that whole thing. And that is a unique thing.”
That uniqueness dates back all the way to the ’50s, when—as Clay notes—the Staple Singers shook up the gospel world with “Uncloudy Day” and caused “quite a sensation.”
“It was something new, it was different, and you had this young girl out there with this husky voice and she was beautiful, you know, so that was unique in itself,” he says. “And then you had Pops playing that blues-gospel guitar.”
Bonnie Raitt, whose friendship with Staples dates back to the ’90s, insists she still hasn’t heard anyone else whose singing comes close.
“My first album was Why? (Am I Treated So Bad), which was just an unbelievable record, and I had never heard singing like that, and I think it came out in maybe ’65 or ’66, but I was 16 and I’d never heard anyone sing like Mavis,” she says. “I mean, the harmonies the Staples did, and Pops with his voice as well as their blend, his guitar-playing—there’s never been anything like it before, and I’ve never heard anything like it since. And Mavis is just a force of nature. I mean, that voice, to have that ability to sing that low, contralto, and to have all that air, all that ferocity and tenderness all at once. And then when you meet her or see her perform live and you catch her incredibly vibrant spirit and bubbling personality, you know, to be mixed with that super ferocious-sounding voice, and she’s in such a tiny package, it’s just a wonderful mix.”
But Staples carries with her more than a musical legacy, and she and her family will forever be remembered for their contributions to the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s.
“I’m really looking forward to maybe talking to her a little bit more [at the show],” says Ryan Bingham, who will be performing “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” at the show. “From kind of discovering their music through Dylan, through the ’60s, that whole Civil Rights movement, I know her father Pops was good friends with Martin Luther King, and I’ve been to the Civil Rights museum in Memphis and went to the hotel where Martin Luther King was assassinated, and it was a very life-changing experience for me, to be kind of a young kid from out in New Mexico in the desert to come see some of that firsthand and feel that and maybe know what people went through back then. So I’m definitely looking forward to meeting her. I’ve definitely been inspired and moved by her and her music, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
The Staples’ involvement in the Civil Rights movement is what first inspired Raitt to pick up one of their records.
“I was a teenager in California,” she says, “and I was very familiar with the Civil Rights movement and the gospel arm of folk music in the Civil Rights protest songs, being both a big Bob Dylan fan and a student of blues and the history of protest music, you know, the labor unions and the Civil Rights movement and the peace movements. So I grew up Quaker, and Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King were big inspirations to me. And early on I know from folk music circles that the Staple Singers were instrumental in performing with Dr. King along the route and at different church services and rallies.
“To me, Dr. King and the Staples are gonna be forever embedded together, just for what that means, for standing up for human rights. It’s coming from such a deep place in her personally and culturally and what she represents and the era that she grew up in and what people overcame and her mission—that she’s never turning back, that she’s still on Freedom Highway. If you go see her in concert, she’s still preaching about those principles and about what the fight was all about. And we look at Ferguson, and we look at the way blackface frat parties are popular at certain colleges around the country, you read about stuff in this day and age and you go, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you serious that this is still going on?’”
But despite a history that includes so much unfairness, adversity and mistreatment, Mavis Staples remains—by all accounts—a total ray of light, blessed with an uncanny ability to lift spirits wherever she goes.
“Even if she’s talking about injustice and being mistreated, the overall impact of the combination of her spiritual and her musical and her political all being tied up together in this one powerful person…singing with her is an experience that just lifts you off the ground,” Raitt says. “I have to say, even just sitting in the audience and watching her shows all those years, it had an impact on me.“
Even when she’s singing other people’s songs, as Grace Potter notes, she’s able to put her own uplifting twist on them: “She is the voice of an entire generation of people, but she carries her voice into the next generation in a way that has gravity and yet a lightheartedness to it that makes you want to chuckle along with her and feel like you’re on her page. Even though I’m of another generation, when I hear her kick in for her verse for The Last Waltz, it makes me feel like there’s this breath of fresh air, this golden light being shone all over the earth that just basically says, ‘Everything is going to be alright. Everyone’s just fine. There’s trouble all over the place, but we’re all doing our best to sort it out and deal with it in our own way.’ She is open to trying new things and never considers her work done at the end of the day. ‘The Weight’ will always hold a special place in my heart.”
According to Raitt, that positivity comes from an ability to constantly be looking forward while still honoring her past.
“I think she’s so compelling still because she keeps growing, and she’s so enthusiastic about new material and new songs, and she loves to tour and she loves to be stretched,” Raitt says. “She doesn’t really look back. She has a respect for where she came from and what traditions she comes from, but she’s lifting it up in new ways, whether it’s her collaboration with Prince or Jeff Tweedy or Ry Cooder, she’s a fully realized, evolved person that continues to stretch [while] at the same time keeping way in touch with her roots.”
Watch Staples interact with any contemporary artist—whether it’s onstage with Lucius or Lake Street Dive at The Newport Folk Festival, where she was a headliner this year, or backstage with Grace Potter—and you’ll witness the enthusiasm she has for new music, often appearing just as excited to meet and perform with young artists as they are her.
“The first time I met Mavis was in 2006 at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut,” Potter says. “We had just opened for her, and she spent 45 minutes chatting with us after the show. She was describing what it felt like to see us on stage. She was standing there impersonating me as a singer and the way I was dancing, and I just remember thinking she did such an incredible job of taking what we were trying to do and understanding it in a way that made me feel like she was both an audience member and a true appreciator of what it takes to be a great performer.”
And with a lineup that consists of so many great performers, Mavis 75 promises to be an unforgettable experience, both for those seated in the audience and those up on stage.
“Those things are always so special just because of the fact that you get to hear so many great musicians in one place and at one time,” Bingham says. “And it’s to celebrate Mavis and the legacy of the Staple Singers and her legacy as well, all those songs, and seeing all these great musicians come together and pay tribute and kind of join hands and stand as one, I think that’s gonna be something that I’ll always remember.”
Ultimately, however, it’s about the woman herself.
“To pay tribute while someone is still hale and hearty and enough to come out and sing onstage and show us all how it’s done, I mean, I think the highlight of the show is gonna be when Mavis comes out,” Raitt says. “And I hope that looking at her face on the side of the stage and watching her delight in how we all love her so much is just gonna make a person who’s already so joyful and exuberant and grateful even more into the stratosphere of happiness. That’s what I’m looking forward to, is making Mavis extremely happy and proud.”