In her 60-year career, most of it spent performing with her family in the Staple Singers, her wondrous voice has rolled up and down the length of America.
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At 71, this funny, garrulous “people person” is enjoying a career peak. “It’s amazing,” she says. “I never dreamed that singing would bring me and my family this far. We weren’t looking for a career, we just started singing to amuse ourselves.”
The Staple Singers formed in Chicago in 1950 on their living room floor, when Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples pulled out his pawn shop guitar and started teaching his four children – Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne – the songs he had learned as a child in Mississippi. Invited by Pops’s sister to sing the traditional Will The Circle Be Unbroken at her local church, they were an instant hit. “That was the beginning,” says Staples. “Pops taught us some more songs and we started singing at churches all around Chicago until we finally made a record.”
Their first single was Uncloudy Day, released in 1956 when Mavis was only 16. “It sold like an R&B record,” she recalls. “It went on to be the very first gospel record to sell a million copies.” For many years afterwards the Staple Singers continued to sing strictly spiritual music, with only the barest backing. “That was the best time and the best music of my life,” she says, “Just our voices and my father’s guitar, we sang like that for years.”
Their raw gospel travelled far beyond its immediate environment. In the early 1960s the civil rights movement was in full swing and the band became close friends with Martin Luther King. At the same time they were invited to folk festivals, hearing songs that seemed to chime with their own experiences.
“Pops would tell us stories about when he was a boy in Mississippi, and if a white person walked towards him on the sidewalk he would have to cross over,” says Staples. “Then Bob Dylan started singing Blowin’ In The Wind: ‘How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man.’ So Pops could relate personally to the purity of those words, and he said, ‘We can sing these songs!’ So we learned Blowin’ In The Wind and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, songs that were inspiring and had powerful, positive messages.”
The Staple Singers became a gospel group with a socio-political edge; their 1967 cover of Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth fused the ideals of the hippie counter-culture and the concerns of black America. Their influence evolved into mass popularity in the first half of the 1970s, when they beefed up their rhythm section and scored a series of massive hit singles, among them Respect Yourself, I’ll Take You There and If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me), showcasing a more populist blend of pop, soul and funk.
Although they kept performing sporadically until Pops died in 2000, the band last recorded in 1985. Mavis turned to her solo career, signing to Prince’s Paisley Park label in the mid-1980s and making two albums with the eccentric pop imp.
“I was very comfortable with Prince,” she says. “People don’t know him, but he’s very humble. The Bible is one of his big books. On my first LP he went secular and people got on his case about it: ‘You’re trying to make her into a female Prince.’ So when he wrote the second album, The Voice, he wrote songs that really fit me. He was a little comedian, too. He’d hide then pop out and scare you when you were coming into the studio.”
According to Staples, Tweedy is also “a little clown”. A fellow Chicagoan, the Wilco singer and songwriter offered to produce her new album after seeing her play at a local club, the Hideout. Invited over to Wilco’s recording complex, Staples was impressed by his knowledge and enthusiasm. Tweedy suggested several gospel tracks and two old songs by Pops Staples, but he also wrote some new material especially for the project, most notably the beautiful title track.
“I’ve worked with Curtis Mayfield, Dylan, the greatest poets in the world, and I found that beauty and inspiration again in Jeff Tweedy,” says Staples. “He wrote that song last, after everything else was finished, and he wrote it for me. He started talking about the meaning of the song and I said, ‘Tweedy, you’ve gotta write that song!’ When he did I told him, ‘You have written a masterpiece here.’” She laughs uproariously. “Like, ‘Where you been all my life?’”
Mavis Staples’s laugh is a joy to behold. Although her sister keeps telling her – with some justification, judging by the way she roars through the interview – that “I talk too loud and I talk too much”, her voice remains remarkably well preserved. Any tips? “I get my rest,” she says. “I drink my tea, I don’t smoke, and I have a little wine now and then.”
She remains socially engaged, and was “crying buckets” on the night Obama was elected. The Staple Singers performed at inaugural events for three Democratic presidents – John F Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – but Mavis did not receive an invitation to sing for the first black president at his ceremony in 2008. “So many people were wondering why I wasn’t at the inauguration, and I didn’t really understand it either,” she says. “It kind of hurt me. I just felt, with me being a Freedom Marcher back in the day and still being here, I should have been there. It took me a while to get over it, but when I saw the young kids like Beyonce, I thought, well, it’s their time now.”
She did recently perform for Obama at the invitation of Paul McCartney, who was the guest of the US President at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honours. “I was pretty nervous, I was getting the shakes and my mouth was dry,” she says. “I was just so honoured, but I didn’t get a chance to shake his hand.”
Staples appears in Scotland next week in less exalted surroundings. Her much anticipated Celtic Connections appearance will see her sharing the Mountain Stage bill with, among others, Scottish folk troubadour Dougie MacLean. It might seem an incongruous mix, but the lady who once made an album called Soul Folk In Action is unfazed.
“It makes sense to put me there,” she says. “You Are Not Alone was nominated for a Grammy in the Americana category, and since 2003 I’ve been nominated for Best Folk Album as well. That’s good. I would consider myself a folk singer as well as gospel. Folk songs are inspirational songs with beautiful words, they have a sense of history.”
As someone who has sung with both Mahalia Jackson and Bob Dylan, it’s clear categories mean little to her. It’s all about making a connection. “I still feel that I’m right where we were when we first started singing,” she says. “I’m still singing songs to lift your spirits and give you a reason to get up in the morning. We’re living in trying times, so many people are despondent, losing their jobs and their homes, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and these songs will comfort you. Don’t give up. It will get better.”
Coming from virtually anyone else, these claims would sound fanciful. But when Mavis Staples sings, it’s not hard to believe in the promise of a brighter future.
Mountain Stage with Larry Groce featuring Mavis Staples, Joy Kills Sorrow, Dougie MacLean and special guests is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 21