Mavis Staples is just a kid, plopped cross-legged on the living room floor. Her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, is strumming his old six-string, teaching his youngest daughter and her siblings Yvonne, Purvis and Cleotha the traditional song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." It's a quiet Chicago weeknight in 1950 -- the gospel legend's first and fondest musical memory.
"That was the happiest time of my life," the 71-year-old says, recounting a formative moment for the Staple Singers, the iconic family gospel troupe that would later embody the soulful optimism of the civil rights movement while leaving an indelible mark on American pop music writ large. And for Mavis, the group's star, it launched a career where every note came steeped with a familial trust in her collaborators.
Her 13th solo album, "You Are Not Alone," arrives Sept. 14, and it was produced by an unlikely accomplice: Americana rock hero, Wilco frontman and fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy. A longtime Staple Singers fan, he approached Staples after seeing her perform in Chicago in 2008. But before she would agree to work with him, she had to get close to him.
"We decided to have lunch on the South Side -- my territory," Staples says. "And I found out that he was really a family man. That made me feel really good." She listened closely as Tweedy talked about his two sons. His wife. His music. His former addiction to painkillers. And his love for the music that Staples made with her family.
"When I talked to Tweedy in that restaurant, he let me into his life," she says. "And I let him into my life. He let me know he had been to rehab. And he didn't have to tell me all that stuff, but he wanted me to know."
Having forged an almost instant intimacy with the 43-year-old songsmith, Staples was ready to get to work. She liked Tweedy's music -- "It reminded me of the Band, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm" -- and decided to record the album at Wilco's Chicago studio, the Loft. Tweedy came prepped with a handful of traditional songs hand-plucked for the singer, including "Creep Along, Moses" and "Wonderful Savior."
"I said, 'Tweedy, you're taking me back to my childhood now! Pops would play these songs for us when we were little kids,' " Staples says. "He kept me in my comfort zones. . . . He didn't try to take me too far from what I do. The positive messages in these songs -- he could hear me singing these and I could hear myself singing them, too." (Tweedy also wrote two songs for the album, including the title track and "Only the Lord Knows" -- both of which essentially sound like Mavis Staples fronting Wilco.)
Staples says Tweedy couldn't have made the session more comfortable. There was great catering, a teleprompter for lyrics, an adjacent room where Mavis's sister Yvonne could watch her soaps. And lots of welcome visitors.
"The Wilco guys would come through, and all of them are family guys," she says. "They'd bring their little babies. And I love children." According to Staples, Tweedy's sons Spencer and Sammy were calling her and her sister "Grandma Mavis" and "Grandma Yvonne" by the end of the session.
Staples also basked in the affirmation that comes from being courted by a young producer -- and frames it in familial terms. "I'm old enough to be [Tweedy's] mother. Maybe his grandmother," she says. "I'm just flattered these youngsters were listening to me. The Staple Singers didn't play no youngsters' songs."
This wasn't, however, the first time a young hotshot came calling. In the late '80s, a teeny-tiny man with a great big ego came waltzing backstage after a Staple Singers show at the Los Angeles Forum in hopes of producing Mavis. His name was Prince.
"I told my sisters, 'When I meet this little guy, I'm going to be cool,' " Staples says. "Well, we get offstage and here comes Prince walking towards me in the white suit, the Lucite cane and the white boots. Cool went out the window!"
But as enthused as she was to meet him, she could hardly get Prince to speak. Peppered with questions, his eccentric purpleness spoke only in coy smiles and cryptic eye-rolls. Staples wasn't sure how to proceed. "I got back to the hotel and thought, 'How is he going to write for me if we can't communicate?' "
So she picked up a pen and started writing him letters. "Legal-pad letters," she says, "13 and 14 pages. I started from my childhood. . . . If Prince still has all my letters, he has a big fat book on me."
Having been given a window into her life, Prince began writing songs for Staples and their partnership resulted in two albums for Prince's Paisley Park label. Since then she's worked closely with Ry Cooder and Bob Dylan -- who once asked Pops for Mavis's hand in marriage.
But Staples lost her greatest collaborator when her father died in 2000. "I tried to stop [singing] when Pops passed," Staples says. "I didn't know how I was going to make it. You talk about a pitiful child? I was pitiful. I was down. I couldn't get up off the couch. . . . I had been singing with my father for over 50 years and now he was gone."
She credits her sister Yvonne with nudging her back onto the stage, assuring her that Pops would want the same for her. There were other people out there for her to work with. People she could trust. People like Jeff Tweedy.
"I feel the good in him," Staples says of her new colleague. "And I live from feel. Whatever my heart tells me, that's the direction I go."
--Chris Richards, Sept. 2010