The word legend is, if goes without saying, a much misused one but when it comes to Mavis Staples it’s wholly appropriate. Considering this is someone who, as the youngest member of The Staple Singers, along with family patriarch Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne, was in the eye of the Civil Rights Movement maelstrom in the ’60s, with Freedom Songs such as ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’, ‘Long Walk to D.C.’ and ‘When Will We Be Paid?’, I feel a bit like a gushing, weak-kneed teenage fanboy trying to do a passable impersonation of a mature adult in the presence of an idol. The ice-breaker is a question about if she’s been to Ireland before, and what her impressions were. “I was there in 1989″, she replies, “I think it was, with Prince. Ireland is so beautiful, so green, and everybody was so friendly. We went to Dublin, and Cork, and I kissed the Blarney Stone.”
Informed of the local belief that said action can work in reverse, i.e. while it is famous for imparting the gift of the gab to the normally reticent, it can also render the previously loquacious a tad taciturn, she says: “Well, it didn’t work that way for me. My sister Yvonne (now one of her backing singers, and her roomie on tour) always says, ‘Mavis, you talk too much and you talk too loud.’ ” As we crack on, the truth of this admission becomes increasingly self-evident. The woman doesn’t need much prompting to launch into story after story, and is not shy about expressing her views.
Born in 1939 in Chicago, where Pops had migrated from Winona, Mississippi, Mavis began singing in church with her family, aged eight, and attracted attention from the off. “We weren’t singing for money in those days, we would just be singing around the house all the time. We used to sing at Aunt Katie’s church. The first time I sang Ms. Vivian Carter from Vee-Jay Records happened to be in the congregation, and she said, ‘Pops, you gotta record these songs.’ But I was only eight, he wouldn’t let me start singing outside church until I was 11. Our first single was a song we sung that day in church, ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’.” It was a best-seller, as was the subsequent ‘Uncloudy Day’.
The group signed to Memphis-based Stax Records in 1968, joining their gospel harmonies and deep faith with more contemporary sounds. The first two albums, Soul Folk in Action and We’ll Get Over, were produced by Steve Cropper, although Mavis is at pains to correct any false impression that they were backed by Booker T. & the MG’s: “It was our own band that played on the records.” In 1970 producer Al Bell took them down the road to Muscle Shoals, and things got decidedly funkier. Starting with ‘Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)’, The Staples hit the charts 12 times between 1971 and 1975, including two No. 1 singles, ‘I’ll Take You There’, and the Curtis Mayfield produced ‘Let’s Do It Again.’ By this time, Mavis was carving out a solo career, but the group continued to have hits on the R&B chart into the ’80s, once with an unlikely cover of Talking Heads’ ‘Slippery People.’
Probed about The Staples’ Civil Rights Activism, Mavis recalls meeting Dr. Martin Luther King. “We were playing in Montgomery, and we just had to go and hear Dr. King preach at his church. He knew we were there. He acknowledged us at the door of the church, and spoke to us.’ But how effective is socio-political dissent expressed in music? Can it change anything, or is it just a form of comfort? “You know, I’ve been singing for 62 years, and I remember the first time we were able to drink from water fountains, I felt so proud. We were part of that.”
Given that she sings songs like J.B. Lenoir’s ‘Down In Mississippi’, which makes direct reference to segregated drinking fountains, and ’99 and ½’ and ‘Mine Eye Eyes’, all from 2007’s Ry Cooder-produced album We’ll Never Turn Back, it’s a bit of a stupid question on my part in the first place. “When I went to meet (former Dr. King associate and current Democratic Representative for Georgia) John Lewis in Washington, because I’d asked him to write the liner notes for We’ll Never Turn Back, he told me: ‘You should be proud, because you helped to bring about all those changes.’ Still, when I look at the news today in Chicago, where I live, I see when black families move into white neighbourhoods, they’re still not accepted. They get ‘the n-word’ sprayed on their cars. So it’s not like that’s all in the past.”
Incidentally, Lewis’ eloquent liner notes affirm that politically charged music can both contribute to social change, and be a source of comfort during struggle: ‘Back then, some people thought legalized segregation in America would never come to an end. But those of us in the Civil Rights Movement were inspired by a higher calling. And even if it cost us our very lives, “we weren’t gone to let nobody turn us `round”. We believed that the action of peace, the way of non-violence, and the power of love could overcome our oppression and remind our oppressors of their own humanity. Through the power of this faith our nation witnessed a non-violent revolution of values, a revolution of ideas that changed America forever. The music you are listening to right now was the soul of that revolution. It was this music that gave us hope when it seemed like all hope was gone. It was the heartbeat of this music and its steady, reassuring message that bound us together as one solid force. So when we were beaten, arrested and jailed; when we stood together on picket lines or marched through the streets of the Deep South; when we faced the guns drawn, the billy clubs and the bullwhips raised; when we were teargassed, trampled by horses, or scattered by fire hoses, it was these songs that lifted us and pushed us to a higher place. It is my hope that when you hear Mavis Staples, when you hear the Freedom Singers, and the other artists on this CD, that you too will be inspired.’
So, what about the forthcoming Presidential Election, and the Obama versus Romney debate? “You know, I watched that debate last night, and I was so proud of President Obama, the way he just kept his cool. Romney was getting in his face all the time, but he was so calm.” Will you be able to vote, if you are abroad on tour? “I’ve voted already. Yeah, in the big cities they let you vote early, so you can avoid all the queues.” Which makes the pre-election debates rather redundant, no? “I have no doubt that President Obama will be our next President. If he isn’t, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
As mentioned, Mavis has had some stellar collaborators over the years, with Prince on 1989’s Time Waits For No One, followed by 1993’s The Voice, and with Cooder. The latest in the line is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced and played on 2010’s You Are Not Alone, and contributed a couple of songs as well. “Jeff came to me with this song (the title track), and said, ‘I hope this song will comfort you’, and I thought it was just about the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. In the studio, Jess asked me, ‘Do you know what I’m listening to on my iPod?’, and it was the old Staple Singers’ songs. That’s why we started recording some of them. He told me he used to work in a record shop, and that’s where he first heard our music. It’s my band on the record, but I love Wilco. Maybe I’ll make an album with them someday.”
I intimate, as subtly as possible, that life on the road at 73 might not be without its more onerous side. “Oh, friends say to me, ‘Mavis, now you’re getting up in years, why don’t you think about retiring?’ But the truth is, I enjoy singing so much. My work, it’s fun. I’m gonna sing as long as the good Lord lets me. You know, when I was a little girl, I hated rehearsals, I was always the last in. And Pops, one day he said to me, ‘Mavis, the Lord gave you a gift. And if you don’t use it, the Lord’s gonna take it away from you.’ That frightened me so much. Ever since that day, I was always first into rehearsal.”
And with that she leaves, off to make use of her God given gift once more. Yes, she would have talked all night, and what’s more, I would have listened.
Mavis Staples plays the National Concert Hall in Dublin on November 3rd.