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The Gospel According to Mavis

'Faith' and Family

Doing some singing has always been Mavis Staples' release and renewal. She did it with the Staple Singers when they changed from protest songs to the message music of the early '70s, the era of empowerment anthems like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There." By then they were at Stax, adopting a more commercial sound and marketed to mainstream radio with hits including "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" and Curtis Mayfield's "Let's Do It Again." Staples also established a solo identity at Stax with her 1969 eponymous debut and 1970's "Only for the Lonely."

Doing those secular albums, Staples explains, was about expressing herself. "Being a singer, you want to sing about your life," she says. "I'd gotten to be a woman, I was married and divorced, and heartbroken, and I wanted to sing some of those songs."


Mavis Staples and family in the 1973 documentary "Wattstax," above. Mavis (far left) with father Roebuck "Pops" and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne at RFK Stadium in 1976. (Stax/fantasy Inc.)

Staples did only one solo tour, however, in 1969; her commitment was always to the Staple Singers. She did continue recording solo albums, including two fine Prince-produced projects in 1989 and 1993 -- he called her "the epitome of soul" -- and 1996's exquisite "Spirituals & Gospel," a tribute to her idol and mentor Mahalia Jackson.

But after Pops Staples' death came more bad news: sister Cleotha's Alzheimer's disease had progressed to the point that Staples took a year off (their condos are in the same Chicago apartment complex).

Then in early 2002, "Have a Little Faith" began to take shape after a call from songwriter Jim Tullio, who'd lost two close friends in the 9/11 tragedy. He had written "In Times Like These" and hoped Staples would record it. Three days later, she did, in a single take.

The album, which Tullio produced and Staples financed, includes other inspirational songs, among them "God Is Not Sleeping" and "Step Into the Light" (featuring the venerable Dixie Hummingbirds).

But a youth-obsessed record industry showed little interest: Staples was turned down by a dozen labels before finding a home right in Chicago with Alligator Records, a label best known for its blues roster. Label owner Bruce Iglauer was the only record exec to call and leave a message expressing enthusiasm and eagerness for the album.

"I want to go with the people who want me," Staples says. "I know that I have to sing. My voice is my gift from God and if I don't use it, then I'm abusing a blessing.

"But it's not easy when you sing with your family for more than 50 years and now all of sudden I'm out there by myself," she says. "I still listen for Cleetie's voice when I sing."

So she drafted sister Yvonne. "I needed to hear one Staple voice," Mavis says. "I have to be strong with it," and in the end, nothing is stronger than family.


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