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The Gospel of Mavis

On February 5, grammy-winning Mavis Staples will appear at the UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium.

photos by Chris Strong

 

On February 5, Mavis Staples will appear at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Kenan Auditorium, bringing not only her deep, expressive voice but her heritage as part of one of the most influential gospel groups of all time: The Staple Singers.

When Mavis was eleven, she began singing with her father, Roebuck (Pops) Staples, and siblings Cleotha, Yvonne, and Pervis in Chicago-area churches.

In 1957, when Mavis graduated from high school, Pops took his family on the road, and the group distinguished itself not only in the world of gospel music but also in the folk revival and civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. A number of their singles, such as “Respect Yourself,” “For What It’s Worth,” and “I’ll Take You There” became hits on both the R&B and pop charts. In 1999, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Their sound was built around Pops’ rhythmic guitar and high tenor and, increasingly, around Mavis’ vocals.

Over the years, the group’s makeup changed.

Early-on, Pervis left to join the military, and Yvonne, who had never wanted a singing career, replaced him. She is still singing backup with Mavis. Cleotha married and stopped touring. Pops died in 2000.

Mavis, who won a Grammy in 2011, talked recently with WILMA from her office in Chicago about her lengthy career and her upcoming, first-ever visit to Wilmington.

“My voice comes from my mother’s side of the family,” says Mavis, now 73. “My mother and her mother had strong voices. I used to have to fight about that. Other kids would tell me, ‘You sound like a boy.’ I used to hate to come to rehearsal, but Pops would always fix me right.

He finally told me, ‘Your voice is a gift from God. If you don’t use it, he’ll take it back.’ After that, I was always the first one in rehearsal, waiting for Pops and his guitar. I am so grateful that, at this time in my life, after all these years, people still want to hear me. I’m still making new fans, new friends.”

Pops didn’t want to limit the kind of music his family sang, as long as the message was a good one.

“There was a time when my father would tell the writers, ‘Don’t categorize us.’ We were called to sing at folk festivals, blues festivals. I asked, ‘Daddy, why do these folks want us to come and sing? We don’t sing no blues.’

He said, ‘Listen, you’ll hear every kind of music in our songs.’ We sang gospel for years but didn’t know that our father knew Charlie Patton, an old blues guy. Pops took off from that. When we came out with “I’ll Take You There,” our church wanted to put us out. By that time, we had a rhythm section. Our music had such a beat, we moved over to R&B radio, and kids would dance to our music.

The church said The Staple Singers were playing the devil’s music. We had to do so many interviews to counteract that charge. ‘Where else could we be taking you but to heaven?’ Pops said. ‘The devil ain’t got no music.’ We were invited back to church, and the first song they requested we sing was “I’ll Take You There.”

Mavis laughingly recalls one time when her own taste in music strayed too far from the family’s values.

“One day when I was eight and living with my grandmother in Mississippi, I was walking down the street and heard a jukebox playing “Since I Fell for You.”

I loved that song. The children in school knew I loved to sing, and when we were practicing for a variety show, they pushed me on stage, and I sang that song. My uncle heard about it and went over to the school and snatched me off the stage, walked me home to my grandmother, and said, ‘This child is on the stage singing the blues.’

My grandmother told me, ‘Go get me some switches,’ and I did. Every time she hit my legs with those switches, she said, ‘You don’t sing the blues; you sing church songs.’

When I got to be twenty-one years old, I recorded “Since I Fell for You.” By that time, my grandmother was living with us in Chicago. My grandmother said, ‘You little bugger, you never forgot that song, did you?’

Mavis has stretched herself musically by collaborating with other musicians, such as Bob Dylan (who famously proposed to her when they were both teenagers), Bonnie Raitt, and Prince. The Staple Singers’ covers of “The Weight” and “For What It’s Worth” became huge hits. Her 2011 Grammy-winning album, You Are Not Alone, was produced by her close friend, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.

“I am so blessed. Bonnie Raitt took me to places I’d never been, like The Greek Theatre, and I thought I had been everywhere. With Jeff Tweedy, I get to sing to college students. Now we’re coming to Wilmington for the first time. I’m excited. I can’t say enough how grateful I am, that after a lifetime of singing God’s praises, message songs, freedom songs, people still want to hear me.”

She’ll be on stage with many of her musical friends at the February 8 MusiCares concert honoring Bruce Springsteen as the MusiCares Person of the Year. When she was invited, she asked UNCW if her concert, scheduled for February 7, could be rescheduled. The date was pushed up a couple of days.

“I am so grateful the college would change the date of my concert to allow me to perform at the MusiCares benefit. It’s an organization we have for artists that need medical care; it helps artists get through life.”

After decades of singing, Mavis has no plans to slow down.

“I’m now back in the studio again, working on a new CD. It’s going to have a mixture of songs, but songs of inspiration, positive, and informative message. I started as a strictly gospel singer. Today, I am a gospel singer; that’s home for me. If I sing a love song, you’re going to hear some gospel in it.

My father taught me years ago: ‘Let me tell you something – you are singing God’s music. You don’t need gimmicks, you don’t need to clown. Sing from your heart. Be sincere. What comes from the heart reaches the heart.’

I’ve never forgotten that. Before going on stage, I go to my heart and meditate a little bit.

I live the life I sing about. I’ve been married and divorced. I want to sing about that life. I’ve had a wonderful life, and I’m writing my book now. It will be finished next year.

People ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ Please don’t mention that word to me – it’s not in my vocabulary. I will, hopefully, sing until I die. 

I love to see people smiling. Smiling, sometimes tearing up. My fans keep me going.”

She has also remained true to The Staple Singers’ musical legacy.

“I remember when Tweedy walked into the studio wearing iPod headphones. He was listening to (The Staple Singers) music from the 50s and 60s. He said, ‘How would you like to do these songs?’ They were songs like “You Don’t Knock,” “Downward Road,” and “Too Close.”

Those songs took me back to that place. I could see Pops teaching us those songs and felt like Pops was there with us, and Cleety (Cleotha) was there.

Those were the basics, where we started – just my father’s guitar, no rhythm section. I’ve never really left those times. I still believe that that music was the best music of our lives.”

 

MAVIS STAPLES ON STAGE

8 p.m., February 5

UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium

Tickets: $25-35; reserved seating

Call: 962-3500 or (800) 732-3643

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