Staying Power

Singer Mavis Staples has built a long career on making music for a higher purpose

January 19, 2012

More than 60 years into her career, the joy of performing hasn’t dimmed for gospel singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples.

“I think this is what the Lord meant for me to do,” Staples says by phone from her Chicago home. “This is my passion — I’m a happy old girl.”

That’s a good thing, because the 72-year-old’s touring schedule would exhaust a less-enthusiastic performer: For her 12th solo album, 2010’s “You Are Not Alone,” Staples hopscotched the globe for nearly a year.

“It’s unbelievable that people want to see us,” Staples says.

She’s being a bit modest: Staples is up there with Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner in the ranks of diva legends. A singer since the age of 10, she began her career in the family band, the Staple Singers, headed by her father, Pops Staples — who was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s. Active from the mid-’50s through the ’80s, the Staple Singers performed gospel standards as well as politically tinged soul and R&B; the group is best known for the 1971 hit “Respect Yourself” and 1972’s “I’ll Take You There.”

Staples struck out on her own in the late ’60s, going on to work with giants as disparate as Curtis Mayfield, the Band, Ray Charles, Prince and Bob Dylan — with whom Staples has a close relationship.

Staples has continued to seek out surprising collaborators: For “You Are Not Alone,” she linked up with Jeff Tweedy, Wilco singer and fellow Chicagoan. Tweedy, a huge fan of the Staple Singers’ records from the ’50s and ’60s, encouraged her to go back to her musical roots.

“I said, ‘Tweedy, that was the best music of my life,’” Staples recalls. “Those songs brought back so many memories to me.”

She ended up re-recording three songs from that early era, “You Don’t Knock,” “Downward Road” and “Move Along Train.” She also laid down two new tracks penned by Tweedy, including “You Are Not Alone,” which blends her own gospel roots, Tweedy’s country-rock sensibilities and a touch of soul.

This year will find Staples back on the road, but she’s also hard at work on upcoming projects, including a memoir and another record, produced by Tweedy.

“There’s nothing I’d rather do than sing,” Staples says. “That’s all I know how to do! If I couldn’t sing anymore, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Mavis’ Staples

The gospel legend shares the stories behind her biggest hits.

“Respect Yourself”
Released on 1972’s “Be Altitude: Respect Yourself,” this track, written for the Staple Singers, marked a funkier direction for the group’s sound — and a crystallization of their commitment to social consciousness.

Pops used to tell the songwriters, “If you want to write for the Staples, read the headlines, because we want to sing about what’s happening in the world today. And if there’s something wrong, we want to try to fix it through our songs.” That song is still my favorite.

“The Weight”
Staples performed this rock classic with her father for “The Last Waltz,” Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary on the Band’s final concert. She still sings it today.

Levon [Helm, the Band’s drummer] and Pops were close friends. Levon … had one cigarette in one hand, one in the other. Pops said, “You smoking two cigarettes.” And Levon said, of the little rolled one, “You need to try this one.” My father said, “I don’t want any of that stuff!”

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
The Staple Singers recorded this traditional gospel hymn seven times, first in the 1950s.

[This song] is so special to me because it’s the very first song our father taught us. After Pops passed away [in 2000], this was the song I told [Jim Tullio, who produced her 2004 disc, “Have a Little Faith”] that I had to record. So, on that CD, that’s the very first time I sang lead on “Circle” — because Pops had always sang it.

“You Are Not Alone”
Jeff Tweedy wrote this song as the title track for Staples’ 2010 record. The pair performed it at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall.

When Tweedy and I first got together, he had these songs for me to listen to. He said, “Mavis, I have a title in my head. I want to write this song for you; it’s called ‘You Are Not Alone.’’’ We got in the studio, I’m standing over watching him, he’s picking on his guitar, he’s singing, and he got into a funk. He came in the next day and he gave me that song — and, man, I had to fight back tears. I said, “Tweedy, this is the most beautiful song I have ever sang.”

Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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