Mavis Staples Biography
Sounded Older Than to Listeners (15 ), Recorded Secular Music for Stax Labels
Best known as the lead vocalist of the Staple Singers, a family soul-gospel ensemble that flourished from the 1950s through the 1970s and beyond, Mavis Staples has also released a series of albums as a solo artist. Her voice, not a gospel power-house, was instantly compelling with its deep-like-a-river quality of moral conviction. Over her long career, Staples won other musicians, including Bob Dylan and Prince as admirers, and her solo work, which had never quite found its course among the shifting winds of musical fashion, won new recognition with the release of her 2004 album, Have a Little Faith. In 2005 Staples was set to accept a Grammy award for lifetime achievement on behalf of the Staple Singers, of whom she was the last surviving original member.
Mavis Staples was born in Chicago, Illinois, on July 10, 1939 (or, according to some sources, 1940). Her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, had grown up on Mississippi's Dockery Plantation, a key site in the development of the blues, and had learned to play the guitar from the great early bluesman Charley Patton. After he moved north to Chicago in 1936 he began to organize gospel quartets after finishing work at a meatpacking plant, and it was gospel that Mavis Staples heard at home. "He used to play records by the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Sisters, the Blind Boys of Mississippi as well as the Blind Boys of Alabama, but after I heard [gospel great] Mahalia [Jackson] sing 'Move On Up a Little Higher,' I had to play her music every day," Staples told Greg Quill of the Toronto Star.
Sounded Older Than
to Listeners (15 )
Pops Staples, dissatisfied with the attendance habits of his group the Trumpet Jubilees, recruited his son Pervis and daughters Mavis, Cleo, and Yvonne to form the Staple Singers around 1948. The first song they learned together was the country classic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and it would always be among their trademark numbers. The group began performing in Chicago churches and then on a weekly radio program. In 1953 they made a 78 rpm record, "Sit Down Servant," and three years later they scored their first national hit, "Uncloudy Day," after signing with the Chicago blues powerhouse Vee Jay. The Staple Singers stood out not only because of the shimmering electric guitar of Pops Staples, but also because of Mavis's lead vocals. "I was a skinny little knock-kneed girl with a big voice that comes from my mother's side," Staples recalled to Washington Post writer Richard Harrington. "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."
Staples considered going to nursing school, but finally chose to stay with the family group; she often told a story of how her father, one of 14 children, would put 14 pencils together to show his own children how hard they were to break as compared with breaking each one individually. In the 1960s, some said, the Staple Singers provided the soundtrack to the civil rights revolution. African-American groups found common cause with white folk performers as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached the gospel of equal rights across the South.
"I really like this man's message and I think if he can preach it, we can sing it," Pops Staples told his children, as Mavis recalled to Harrington in the Washington Post. The Staple Singers performed with the then-acoustic folk musician Bob Dylan and began to record his songs, including the blistering antiwar anthem "Masters of War." Dylan, for his part, had been a Staple Singers fan ever since he heard their recordings on Nashville AM radio powerhouse WLAC as a 12-year-old in Minnesota. A romance sprang up between Dylan and Mavis Staples, although it was not publicly revealed until many years later. Dylan proposed marriage at one point but was turned down even though Pops Staples backed the union. The two remained friends, and Staples later regretted her decision. "It was really too bad," she told Harrington. "I often wonder when I see Bobby's son Jakob, how would our son have looked and how would he have sounded."
Recorded Secular Music for
Staples made her solo recording debut in 1969 on the Volt imprint of Memphis's Stax label, with the secular Mavis Staples album and its 1970 Stax followup Only for the Lonely. These albums, with compositional contributions from the Stax songwriting staff, had only moderate success, but the Staple Singers, also recording for Stax by that time, reached the peak of their commercial success in the early 1970s. Staples had a hand in composing several of the group's top hits, including the chart-topping and widely familiar "I'll Take You There" (1972)—a song that seemed to distill into funky gospel cadences the hopeful atmosphere of the civil rights era. In 1974 the group moved to the Chicago-based Curtom label, headed by soul singer Curtis Mayfield, and the following year they scored another number one hit with "Let's Do It Again."
After recording a soundtrack album, A Piece of the Action, for Curtom in 1977, Staples made another try at a solo career with the album Mavis Staples. Produced by former Motown songwriters Eddie and Brian Holland along with Stax veteran Steve Cropper, and featuring songwriting contributions from Aretha Franklin's younger sister Carolyn, the album spawned only one single that reached the lower levels of the R&B charts. Delayed for several years, the album tanked after its 1984 release on the HDH label, but it remained a personal favorite for Staples.
By the late 1980s, with no recording contract on the horizon, Staples was living in Chicago and facing tax problems and overdue bills. Things turned around when another fan from the pop world, the funk- and rock-influenced Prince, offered her a seven-year contract on his Minneapolis-based Paisley Park label. When asked how it felt to be working with Prince, Staples often directed the questioner to ask Prince how it felt to be working with Mavis Staples. Prince tailored his songwriting to Staples on the two albums she recorded for him, Time Waits for No One (1989) and The Voice (1993). He avoided the sexual themes of much of his own music, but the albums did not sell well with either youthful urban fans or with the traditional Staple Singers base that was leery of Prince's influence. Still, the two albums earned strongly positive reviews and kept Staples in the public eye, leading to guest slots on 1994's Rhythm, Country & Blues collection and other album releases.
Prepared Final Staple Singers Album
In 1996 Staples recorded Spirituals & Gospel, a tribute to her idol Mahalia Jackson. She entered the studio in Memphis as producer in 1997 to record a final Pops Staples album. "These were old songs he sang as a boy, and I asked him to record them as simply as possible, just his voice and guitar," Staples told the Toronto Star. "I could add other stuff after his work was done." Pops Staples fell ill that year and died in 2000, and Staples also faced the deteriorating health of her sister Cleo, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She continued to work periodically on the Pops Staples album, which was slated for release in 2005.
Chicago songwriter Joe Tullio, who lost two friends in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, asked Staples to perform "In Times Like These," a song he had written about the event. The request resonated with Staples' own feelings. "I wanted to sing songs that would be uplifting and healing," she told Keith Spera of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "We're living in troubled times. So many people are living in fear." The result was the album Have a Little Faith, financed and mostly co-written by Staples herself. Staples' sister Yvonne was drafted to sing harmony, for Staples said that she still listened for her sister Cleo's voice when she sang. After shopping the project to various companies, Staples reached an agreement with the blues-oriented Chicago label Alligator.
Have a Little Faith appeared in 2004; one of its selections, "I Still Believe in You," became the theme song for the successful World Series drive of baseball's Boston Red Sox that year, and Staples was picked to sing "America the Beautiful" at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The album also included "Pops Recipe," a tribute to Pops Staples, and a new version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Staples earned a Grammy nomination in 2003 for her duet with Bob Dylan on "Gotta Change My Way of Thinking," and she added three more in 2004 for her contributions to Dr. John's N'awlinz: Dis Dat or D'uddah and to Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster. Perhaps more popular than she had ever been, Staples told Jet that "Nobody is going to send me out to pasture. My voice is my gift from God, and I'm going to use it."
Mavis Staples, Volt, 1969.
Only for the Lonely, Stax, 1970.
A Piece of the Action, Curtom, 1977.
Mavis Staples, HDH, 1984.
Time Waits for No One, Paisley Park, 1987.
The Voice, NPG, 1993.
Spirituals & Gospel, Verve, 1996.
Have a Little Faith, Alligator, 2004.
Contemporary Musicians, vol. 13, Gale, 1994.
Billboard, September 4, 1993, p. 21.
Jet, November 22, 2004, p. 38.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 6, 2004, p. E1.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), January 14, 2005, p. E1.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), September 24, 2004, p. 31.
Toronto Star, December 19, 2004, p. C2.
Washington Post, October 31, 2004, p. N1.
"Mavis Staples," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (January 24, 2005).
"Mavis Staples," Alligator Records, www.alligator.com/artists/bio.cfm?ArtistID=076 (January 24, 2005).
Mavis Staples, www.mavisstaples.com (February 8, 2005).
"Mavis Staples," The Rosebud Agency, www.rosebudus.com/staples (February 8, 2005).
"Staple Singers," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id=195 (January 24, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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