Mavis Staples has had a career like few others. First as the lynchpin of her family’s Staple Singers band, and then as a solo performer whose career has flared up again over the past several years, Staples has more than cemented a legacy as one of the most distinctive voices in the past 60 years of American music.
The general outline of her life and career is well enough known: She started singing as a child when her father, Pops Staples, organized her and her siblings into a band that moved from their roots in the church in the 1950s to the front lines of the struggle for Civil Rights in the ’60s, before finding crossover commercial success in the ’70s with hits including “I’ll Take You There” and their appearance in the Band’s landmark concert movie The Last Waltz. Later, Mavis Staples recorded with Prince, before reaching a new audience over the past decade on albums she recorded with Ry Cooder and then Jeff Tweedy, including her Grammy-winning 2010 effort You Are Not Alone.
Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot fleshes out those broad strokes in I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway, a thorough and illuminating biography that offers plenty of revealing details about a group the Band’s Robbie Robertson once likened to “a lonely train in the distance.”
Here, for example, are 10 things you probably didn’t know about Staples and her family:
1. Bob Dylan wasn’t the only one in love.
It’s common knowledge that Dylan nursed a crush on Mavis Staples when they met in the early ’60s, but his infatuation wasn’t unrequited: Staples still regards the young folk singer as the one who got away. “We were really in love,” she told Kot. “It was my first love, and it was the one I lost.”
2. It’s anyone’s guess who actually wrote “I’ll Take You There.”
Though Al Bell, then co-owner of Stax, took sole credit for the 1972 song, Mavis Staples says she and Bell worked out the lyrics together, and members of the rhythm section at Muscle Shoals in Alabama say they built up the arrangement from scratch in the studio. Either way, it was the Staple Singers’ first No. 1 hit.
3. The Staples were a welcoming family.
The family’s home on the South Side of Chicago served as a headquarters for traveling entertainers, and Mavis’ mother, Oceola Staples, hosted the likes of Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Redd Foxx and Aretha Franklin, who often used the Staples’ place as a refuge as her career took flight.
4. Otis Redding wanted to work record with the Staples.
Stax Records guitarist Steve Cropper suggested that the Staple Singers add backing vocals to “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” but Redding died in a plane crash before the recording session could happen.
5. Mavis made a pitch to be a pitchwoman.
During a lull in her career in the ’80s, Mavis Staples phoned the Jheri curl company and offered to record a jingle. Told that the hairdo was a prerequisite, Staples offered to wear a Jheri curl wig. She didn’t get the gig.
6. Be What You Are includes an uncredited guest musician.
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page played acoustic and electric guitars on “Heaven,” the last track on the Staple Singers’ 1973 album. Stax engineer Terry Manning was a friend of Page’s and had worked on Led Zeppelin III.
7. Pops Staples was also an actor.
Not only did the Staples patriarch appear as a voodoo priest in David Byrne’s 1986 movie True Stories, he also landed a lead role—at the age of 75—in a Chicago production of the musical The Gospel at Colonus. (Pops wasn’t the only thespian: Mavis appeared in Prince’s 1990 movie Graffiti Bridge.)
8. The Staples nearly spent a night in jail.
A racially charged altercation with a gas-station attendant in Memphis in 1964 prompted the police to detain the Staples on suspicion of robbery and assault—until the police captain recognized the musicians and Pops produced a receipt disproving the attendant’s claim. The incident informed “My Own Eyes” on We’ll Never Turn Back, Mavis’ 2007 album with Cooder.
9. Mavis paid for her 2004 album herself.
Have a Little Faith was her first release after Pops Staples died in 2000, and Mavis charged $40,000 on her credit cards to make it happen. The blues label Alligator later released the album.
10. Mavis recorded “Wonderful Savior” in a stairwell.
While making You Are Not Alone at Wilco’s studio in Chicago in January, a bundled-up Staples and backing singers including Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor crowded around a microphone set up in unheated stairwell to record an a cappella version of the gospel standard.