Mavis Staples

Music Features Mavis Staples

It was the last question she had expected to face this April, but it was an all-too-urgent one: To hobble or not to hobble? But there he was, only a few feet away on the White House grounds, thought gospel/blues legend Mavis Staples, as she prepared to meet the President of the United States. And surely she could stand and stroll proudly without the use of a walking stick that a recent knee injury had necessitated. Surely on an uplifting day such as that—the annual In Performance at the White House concert dedicated to Memphis soul, featuring Booker T., Sam Moore, Eddie Floyd and Staples herself belting her definitive 1972 hit with The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There”—miracles could happen, and the lame could walk again. Surely.

“So I told my manager ‘I am not gonna go up in there with this cane!’” recalls Staples, an otherwise youthful and sassy 73. “But he said ‘Mavis, they’re already looking for you.’ So when it was time to take a picture with Obama, I told the girl liaison we had ‘Here—you hold my cane. I’m gonna walk over there without it!’” She sighs with frustration. “But the girl took the cane and she went right over to Obama, held the cane up, and said ‘This is Ms. Staples’ cane!’ And I was like ‘Oh, no, no, no! Why did she do that?’ So Obama, he felt like I couldn’t stand on my own, and he just kept holding me and saying ‘I’ve got ya! I’ve got ya!’ And I thought, ‘Well, this is good! I’ve got the President holding me up here!’ So I’m glad she showed him the cane.”

The show—taped for PBS—went off without a hitch, Staples reports. “It was all the Stax people, even Steve Cropper,” she chortles. “Steve Cropper and that little old Justin Timberlake, they did ‘Dock of the Bay,’ and it was really good.” The longtime civil rights activist—whose late father Roebuck “Pops” Staples had been good friends with Martin Luther King, Jr.—grows quiet when discussing how Obama’s Republican detractors have fought tooth and nail against any and all of his proposed legislation. And their neverending search for potential scandals like Benghazi? Don’t get her started. “Anything. Just anything,” she growls. “It’s so sad. And I’ll tell ya, it hurts so bad, how they just pick at him.”

But that knee is still a sore subject with the singer. It’s been bothering her for a couple, three months now, she says, ever since she flew to the land Down Under for a few shows. “I’ve always had arthritis in this knee, but it feels to me like that flight to Australia and New Zealand just shattered it,” she says. “I couldn’t even get off the plane when I got there. So I’m gonna have to have a knee replacement. I was with Bonnie Raitt the other day, and I told George her guitar player ‘I’ve got to get some new knees,’ and he said ‘Well, Mavis, can I have your old ones? I want anything that belongs to you!’ And I said ‘Well, I’ll tell the surgeon to put the knees in a Ziploc bag for you!’ We just had fun with that.”

But Mavis Staples has faith. She wants to be clear about this, above all else. She has a lot of deep-rooted faith. She’s lived the Golden Rule existence she sings about, she says, and here’s what she believes, in a nutshell: “You live a good life, you do the right thing, and good things come to you.” For example, she says, only a few years ago, she didn’t know Wilco bandleader Jeff Tweedy from Adam. Although they both resided in the same city, Chicago, she lived on the South side, he on the North, and they’d never run in the same musical circles—never once crossed paths. But miracles do occur, right out of the blue: At the 53rd annual Grammy Awards, Staples won her first trophy for her remarkable 2010 comeback for hip imprint Anti- Records, You Are Not Alone, produced by none other than Jeff Tweedy. The spiritual set proved such a surprise hit that the label insisted that the team track a followup, the great new One True Vine, recorded at Wilco’s local studio The Loft.

And make no mistake, Tweedy is a true believer. Vine—like You Are Not Alone—is a labor of love for the artist, who played almost every instrument himself and even penned three psalms specifically for his subject: the minimal title track, a waltzing, chorale-backed “Jesus Wept,” and the serpentine-slinky perambulator “Every Step,” wherein Staples testifies in classic revival-meeting style over her producer’s subtle, skeletal guitar line. Nick Lowe offered a cut that Staples instantly snapped up—the eerily-vintage-sounding “Far Celestial Shores”—and the rest were carefully culled from a big suggestion box Tweedy had amassed, including Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That,” Pops Staples’ “I Like the Things About Me” and the lilting gospel classic “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” Staples’ throaty bellow is tightly restrained throughout, filled with heartfelt nuance; she inhabits every last note as if she’d sculpted it herself, and her talent seems to have only grown stronger, more majestic and deep, over the years. In short, the lady can still tear it up like she did as a teenager on her early Staple Singers singles in the ’50s, “Uncloudy Day” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

How did these two unlikely collaborators meet? As Staples understands it, Tweedy used to work at an R&B-retro record store, where he had access to much of The Staple Singers’ Vee-Jay and Stax catalogs from the ’60s. And he swore to her that he would listen to their soul-stirring songs almost all day long sometimes. He was a a huge fan of the family band that Pops started as a simple church group back in 1948, which featured his children Mavis, Purvis, Yvonne and Cleotha (who passed away this February). So that bridge between them had already been built long before they ever met. But around 2009, word finally reached the gospel queen that a humble rocker named Jeff Tweedy was seeking an audience with her.

Their first summit was a bust. “A year before we officially met, Tweedy sent word that he wanted to come down to my show at Millennium Park and maybe sing a couple of songs, but he couldn’t make it,” Staples remembers. “He was too tired because he’d just come home from a tour. So the next time, we were dong a show at a funky little club in Chicago called The Hideout, where we made a live CD, and Tweedy and the entire Wilco band came to that show. And he came up before the show and introduced himself, and after we sang, he came backstage. And he enjoyed it so much, we took pictures together. And after that, over the next two weeks, my manager called and said ‘Mavis, Jeff Tweedy wants to produce your next CD.’ And I said ‘What?! He’s a rock star! I’ll have to meet him and get to know him before I’ll agree to sing with him.’”

Staples picked a restaurant near her digs on the South side of town and set up a one-on-one sit-down. “And at first I thought ‘This guy is shy—he’s not even gonna talk!’ But I said some kind of joke, and that cracked him up, and we started talking.” She laughs. And as they spoke, she grew more and more impressed. Her benefactor knew everything about her, all her old recordings, long before The Staple Singers hit it big with early- and mid-’70s hits like “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” “And then the kid, he started talking about family. And when he started talking about family, that was it, I was sold. Because Pops always instilled in us that family is the strongest unit in the world—that’s all you got. And if you stick with your family, can’t nobody break you. And Tweedy talked about his father, his wife, his children, and I thought ‘This is a good guy.’ And when I left that restaurant, I knew that we could make good music together. I just knew it.”

Now, the duo even has a workplace routine that echoes an eager-to-please mother and her overprotective son. And Staples is quick to sing Tweedy’s praises. “As a producer, he is just the best,” she purrs. “He always looks out for me, and he won’t over-sing me. The only thing I get angry with him about is, he sends me home too early! I’ll do some songs, then all of a sudden, he’ll say, ‘Okay, Mavis. You can go.’ And I’ll say ‘But Tweedy—I’m not ready to go!’ And he’d say ‘Yes, but you really don’t have anything else to do until tomorrow.’ Because I’d drive over there every day, and it’s about 40 minutes, and he’d go ‘I don’t want you to be out at nighttime—you get in the house!’ And I’d say ‘Okay. Okay, Mr. Tweedy—I’ll go…’ But I really enjoyed working with him.”

Staples even laid claim to one particular nook of the Wilco Loft, where she found the acoustics to be just about perfect. “So I have my own little space up there, my own corner where I sing, and nobody can mess with my corner unless I allow them to,” she declares. “And I’m comfortable right over there in that corner. So it’s just been a great experience. And somebody asked me the other day, were we going to do a third album? And Tweedy didn’t even think we’d do a second. When we were doing the first one, that was when I said to him ‘Tweedy—we gotta do another CD!’ And he said ‘Mavis, I don’t know if they’ll let me produce you again.’ But I think that Grammy might have helped, you know? Because soon Anti- was asking us to go back in, so it worked out beautifully. And Tweedy wanted to make sure that this CD didn’t sound like the last one, so it’s more laid-back, with a lot more acoustic guitar.”

And the lady felt no pressure to jump at every composition on offer. If Tweedy or Lowe came to her with a song she didn’t feel was up to snuff, she had the honesty—and the guts—to say so. “I would just tell them ‘Uhh…I’m not feeling it,’” she notes. “If they had a song that I didn’t like for me, I would just say so. And I’ve also turned down songs that Tweedy had in the mix—we sat and listened to a whole batch of material before we’d choose from that batch.” But she said yes to Funkadelic, she adds, “because I used to jam on that song!”

Mavis Staples’ history is out there for all to behold. In 1999, she—along with The Staple Singers—was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a year before her father died. After delving into the political with Staples protest songs in the ’60s (“Long Walk to D.C.,” “When Will We Be Paid?”), she went solo with an eponymous Volt debut in ’69, then moved to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom imprint and was then taken under the wing of the Purple Popster himself, Prince, for two albums, Time Waits For No One in ’89 and ’93’s The Voice. Along the way, she was befriended by everyone from Bob Dylan to the late Mahalia Jackson, for whom she recorded an entire tribute disc in ’96. To date, she’s recorded with Ray Charles, John Scofield, Ann Peebles, The Band, Dr. John, Los Lobos, George Jones, Patty Griffin and Natalie Merchant, and had her rafter-rattling voice sampled by Ludacris, Ice Cube and Salt-n-Pepa. And long before the White House soiree, she’d performed at Stax-honoring shows—’03’s “Soul Comes Home” at the Orpheum in Memphis, and at the same theater for the Stax 50th Anniversary Concert in ’07. She even appeared—with Tweedy at her side—at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Washington-held Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010. She’s also been awarded honorary doctorates from both Berklee College of Music and Columbia College Chicago.

But those are just the facts. The soul of the woman herself emerges softly, like a plume of billowy smoke, from the stories she tells. Years ago, when she was only 14, she recounts, she was getting ready to take the stage with her family. “And these other kids were my same age, and they came out and they were jumping around the stage and singing loud,” she says. “And when my turn came to sing, I did that, too—I started running around the stage. And Pops snatched me offstage and said ‘Mavis, what are you doing?’ And I said ‘I’m just singing, Daddy!’ But he said ‘Mavis, let me tell you something. You don’t need gimmicks. You don’t need to sing at the top of your voice. You are singing sacred music—be sincere and sing from your heart, because what comes from the heart reaches the heart.’ So I live by what my father taught me—sing from your heart.”

Are there moments onstage when the music carries her away to another transcendent place? “Oh, yes. Oh, yes!” she responds in a heartbeat. “It’s beautiful, and you just let yourself go. And I come back with things that I never sang before—it takes me to a higher ground. I’ve said things that I’ve never said in that particular song, and it doesn’t happen often, but it has happened with me. Because you want to keep your mind on the people who are listening to you, singing songs from your heart. But the spirit has just overtaken me—I call it The Joy, I call it getting happy, and you feel as light as a feather. And when I come back, I look around, and the band is still there, but I’ve been someplace else, and I can’t explain it to them. Even my sister Yvonne will say ‘Mavis! You’ve got to get back to those lyrics you were singing!’ And I can’t do it. I don’t even remember what I said in the song, but I sang some different lyrics in it, and they just come to me.”

Staples, a Baptist, still attends church as regularly as she can. And if she can’t make it to chapel, she’s got modern technology to lean on. “See, every Sunday, our pastor records the sermons on CD and DVD, so I’ll have my brother or my friends get me the tapes,” she chuckles. “So if I can’t get there, I’ll still have church with me, and I don’t miss out on anything. And I still know how to pray, you know. I used to go to prayer meetings with my grandmother, down in Mississippi, and I learned how to pray when I was a kid. And I know that prayer changes things. For me.”

Staples also understands that in this Bill Maher/Christopher Hitchens/Richard Dawkins age, it’s quite hip to proclaim yourself an atheist. “Some people just don’t believe in God,” she sighs. “And I don’t fault them for that—to each his own, and who am I to judge? But that’s just the way that I was brought up—if my parents hadn’t been Christians and going to church, I probably wouldn’t have been there, either. But I’m grateful that I have someone to turn to now—when things get hard for me, I just pray, pray for strength. I pray for Him to take care of me, just like in Tweedy’s song on the CD, ‘Every Step.’”

When Staples was touring as a kid, her dad would never allow her to attend any wild after-show parties. So she never really sowed any wild oats—she never drank to excess (although she admits to occasionally having a glass of red wine with dinner nowadays), and she smoked mild cigarettes, Kents, until surgery on a vocal polyp scared her into quitting. She has no voice-preserving techniques, she swears—just daily green tea with honey and plenty of rest. “I’ve never even had any voice training,” she marvels. “The Lord just blessed me with a strong voice, and it does seem to be getting better for me. So I’m just grateful that it’s not leaving me!”

Given her firm religious upbringing, what does this devout artist believe comes next? “You mean with me and Tweedy?” she asks, then catches herself with an oh-you-mean-the-afterlife start. “You know, I’m a firm believer that when I die, I’m gonna transcend,” she replies. “I’m gonna see my mother, my father, my sister. I believe in the spiritual world, I believe in heaven, I believe that I’ll see them again. Just like that song on the record, ‘What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?’—Pops used to sing it, too, and when me and Tweedy sat down and he had that song in the mix, I said ‘Hold it! Hold it, Twee, I’ve got to sing that one!’ We just lost my sister Cleotha a few months ago, and that song hit me so hard.

“So what are they doing in heaven today? I can see Cleotha, she’s there now, with my mother, and she has her wings, she’s a little angel. And my mother is making sweet potato pies, Pops is playing his guitar, and my sister is singing.” She pauses. “Well, that’s just the way I visualize it. And I feel like when I leave this Earth, that’s where I’ll be—I’ll be with everyone that has gone that way, even sister Mahalia Jackson. I’ll see her again, too!”

Not that Staples is in any hurry to reach the other side. Thanks to Jeff Tweedy, she’s got a new lease on life, and making perhaps the most vital music of her long, illustrious career. That bum knee excepted, of course. “So I just hope this old girl can keep hangin’ in there,” she concludes with a chuckle. “I ain’t got no reason to be saying I’m retiring or I’m quitting or I’m even tired. I’m not any of those things!”

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