"Have a Little Faith" is the title of Mavis Staples' new album and it's inspirational.
That will not surprise anyone who has been listening to Staples' majestic contralto for the past half-century, from her teenage roots as lead vocalist for the Staple Singers, one of the most successful gospel groups of all time and vibrant voices of the civil rights movement, to a series of solo albums that seldom received the attention they deserved, to spectacular guest spots on current albums by Dr. John and Los Lobos and tribute albums to Johnny Paycheck, Stephen Foster and Bob Dylan, who, as it happens, once asked Mavis Staples to marry him.
Staples, who performs at the Birchmere on Friday, is also appearing on screens big and small, in new versions of the historic '70s music documentaries "Wattstax" and "Soul to Soul" and in the Martin Scorsese-produced "Lightning in a Bottle," a concert film recorded at 2003's Year of the Blues extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall. She performed "America the Beautiful" at the Democratic National Convention before John Kerry's acceptance speech.
Resting up in her hotel suite during an off-day between Apollo Theater concerts with another pretty good singer, the Rev. Al Green, the 65-year-old legend says she's just staying the course.
"I'm doing the same thing on this CD that the Staple Singers have been doing all along," she explains. "I couldn't get away from that: That's what I sing, that's what we've been about all these years. Pops" -- family patriarch Roebuck Staples -- "would tell songwriters, 'If you want to write for the Staple Singers, read the headlines.' We sing about what's happening in the world today, and whatever's wrong we try to fix it through a song. We're living in dark times, troubled times; we wanted to spread a ray of light on the world."
In many ways, "Have a Little Faith" is not just a Mavis Staples album, it's also a Pops Staples album. His gospel-blues guitar work underscores "I Wanna Thank You" and "There's a Devil on the Loose," recorded in 1997 before his health took a turn for the worse (he died in 2000, just before his 86th birthday). The album also features Mavis revisiting two Staple Singers staples, "A Dying Man's Plea" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," songs Pops once sang lead on.
The latter happens to be the very first song he taught his children in the late '40s as they gathered around him on the floor of the family's living room in Chicago. Just last month -- almost six decades after her first encounter with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" -- Staples found herself in Nashville at the Americana Honors & Awards, singing the Carter Family classic to Janette Carter, the 81-year-old daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter and niece of Maybelle Carter.
The Carter Family, the Staple Singers -- family tradition and American music don't get much better than that.
An unbreakable family circle is particularly evident on "Pops Recipe," a wonderfully insistent biographical homage and distillation of life lessons Pops instilled in his progeny: "Accept responsibility . . . don't forget humility . . . serve your artistry . . . don't subscribe to bigotry, hypocrisy, duplicity . . . respect humanity."
"That was his recipe for raising us," Staples explains warmly. Actually, she recollects everything warmly, in a rich Mississippi accent absorbed from her mother and never diminished despite decades of Chicago living.
"Pops also showed us how his father made a parable of the family unit if you stick together," Staples adds. "There were 14 of them, so he took 14 pencils, put them together and tried to break them -- said he couldn't break them. Then he took one pencil and snapped it in two and said, 'This is what happens to you when you try to go out away from your family. If you stay together, you'll be strong. Nobody can break you, nobody can tear you apart.' "
In the Beginning
The Staple Singers sound had its roots in Pops Staples' coming of age on the infamous Dockery's Farm cotton plantation in Drew, Miss.
"He gave us the voices that he and his sisters and brothers used to sing," Staples explains. "Pops would tell me that after dinner they'd go out on the gallery [porch] and sing, and after a while you'd see people coming all across the fields to their back yard; when they'd finish, it would be full of people. I said, 'Pops, you all should have raised an offering!' "
At Dockery's Farm, Pops learned guitar from Charley Patton, one of the architects of the Delta blues. He also worked for just 10 cents a day, and so joined the massive northward migration of African Americans, arriving in Chicago in 1936 with his wife, Oceala, and children Pervis and Cleotha, followed a few years later by the births of Yvonne and Mavis. For years, while Pops worked at a meatpacking plant, he sang in a traditional gospel quartet, the Trumpet Jubilees, but he grew increasingly frustrated when group members failed to show up for rehearsals.
"Pops finally came home one night, got the guitar out of the closet and called us in the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle and started giving us our parts," Staples recalls. She was 8 years old. Two years later, the Staple Singers made their debut in a Chicago church.
"Our sound was so unique," she says in severe understatement. First there was Pops's throbbing, tremolo-laden electric guitar, instantly identifiable for its bluesy underpinning. And there was the meld of traditional quartet vocals and the more modern unison leads of jubilee-style gospel ensembles. The Staple Singers' first recording, "Sit Down Servant," was released on a small label in 1953. By 1956, they had a national hit, when Vee Jay released "Uncloudy Day." Mavis Staples notes it "sold like R&B," in great part because of her confoundingly adult vocals.
"I was a skinny little knock-kneed girl with a big voice that comes from my mother's side," she says, chuckling. "Deejays would announce, 'This is little 15-year-old Mavis singing' and people would say it's gotta either be a man or a big lady. People were betting that I was not a little girl."
The Staple Singers followed with the first of many recordings of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and other hits including "This May Be the Last Time" (covered, with different lyrics, by the Rolling Stones) and began traveling, but only on weekends because Mavis had to finish high school.
"I missed every Monday in school," she says with a laugh, "because all the gospel shows were on Sunday. When I'd get home, Pops always gave me a little more lunch money because I was the lead singer."
Early on, she learned an important lesson, one that still resonates in her singing, which is notable for its subtlety and restraint, for inner fire rather than pointless ornamentation.
"We came to New York for a show and I saw kids my age and they were jumping around and singing at the top of their voices, and it looked like they were having so much fun," Staples recalls. "Well, when we got up to sing, I did that, too. Pops got me back in that dressing room and said, 'Mavis, what is wrong with you?' And he told me, 'You don't need no gimmick, you don't need to clown, you don't need to sing at the top of your voice.'
"He said, 'Be sincere in what you're doing and sing from your heart, because what comes from the heart reaches the heart.' He said, 'Make the message plain because you want to give people something, and if you get up there hollering and screaming, they ain't gonna remember nothin' you said, or hear anything you said.' Pops taught me the way to sing."
Having established themselves on the gospel circuit, the Staple Singers began to expand their following in the early '60s when they were embraced as part of the folk and blues revival while also becoming crucial to the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Staples recalls the family's first encounter with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., after a Saturday night concert in Montgomery, Ala., in 1963.
After church the next day, Pops told his children, " 'I really like this man's message and I think if he can preach it, we can sing it,' '' Staples recalls. "And we began writing songs. The first one was 'March Up Freedom's Highway' for the march from Selma to Montgomery. It felt like we were supposed to be there, like we were supposed to be singing these songs."
There would be others, including "Washington We're Watching You" and "It's a Long Walk to D.C." ("But I've got my marchin' shoes on," Staples sings, something she often does to underscore a memory). "Why Am I Treated So Bad" was written after watching television coverage of the black students known as the Little Rock Nine, who were denied entry to Central High School. It would become one of King's favorites.
Bobby and Mavis
On his 1962 debut album, Bob Dylan had a version of the Staple Singers' "Dying Man's Prayer," the 1927 Blind Lemon Jefferson blues also known as "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." In 1964, the Staple Singers became the first black group to cover Dylan when "Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" appeared on "This Little Light."
"We met Dylan right here in New York," Staples notes. "We came here to do a television show for Westinghouse and somebody introduced him to us, and he said, 'I know the Staple Singers.' And I said, 'How do you know us?' and he said, 'I've been listening to the Staple Singers since I was 12 years old!' "
Dylan said that as a boy in Minnesota, he heard Randy Wood's show on Nashville's high-wattage WLAC. He "even quoted verses from 'Sit Down Servant,' said, 'Pops, you have this velvet voice and Mavis, you have this big, robust voice . . .
"We didn't know [Dylan], but that's when we started checking out his songs," Staples adds. "Pops said, 'This little guy, he writes some good stuff, we can sing some of this stuff.' "
For years, she kept the romantic element of the relationship private, though several Dylan biographies recount an episode at the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan yelled, "Pops, I want to marry Mavis!" To which Pops replied, "What you telling me for, tell Mavis!"
Laughing at the memory, Staples says, "I thought he was just jiving, but he was serious. For a long time, people asked, but I didn't want to put his business in the street. But Bobby and I are now up in age and movin' on so, yes, we courted for about seven years, and it was my fault that we didn't go on and get married. We had gotten with Dr. King and I was young and stupid, and I was thinking Dr. King wouldn't want me to marry a white guy.
"Finally I told Daddy and he said, 'Mavis, what is wrong with you? Do you see all the white people marching with us?'
"I just wasn't thinking, I just knew what our purpose was in the movement and thinking I'd better stay black. It was really too bad. I often wonder when I see Bobby's son Jakob [of the Wallflowers], how would our son have looked and how would he have sounded."
Dylan, she says, "was the love that I lost."
They remain friends and last year finally recorded together on "Gotta Serve Somebody," a gospel-focused tribute to the songs Dylan wrote during his born-again Christian period. Dylan sings a revamped blues-rock version of "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," kicking it off with rough vocals before interrupting the song to tell the band, "Why, look, someone's coming up the road, boys. . . . Hey, it's Mavis Staples of gospel's legendary Staple Singers."
A conversation ensues:
Dylan: "Mavis, I've had the blues."
Staples: "Oh, Bobby, don't tell me you got the blues."
Dylan: "Yeah, I've been up all night, laying in bed, having insomnia, reading Snooze-week."
Staples: "Snooze-week? That ain't gonna get rid of no blues. Let's do some singing."
Which they do, in fine, fiery style.
'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."
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.