On the very short, exclusive list of vocalists who can cross any genre seamlessly and pour every ounce of heart and soul into each beautifully uttered note is Mavis Staples. Under the leadership and tutelage of her father and band leader, Roebuck Staples (better known as simply "Pops"), Chicago born and bred Mavis and her sisters Cleotha and Yvonne rose to prominence between the late 1960s and early 1970s thanks to the uplifting messages their music delivered in a particularly trying time in history. Deeply entrenched in the ongoing struggle for civil rights and equality, The Staple Singers and their soulful blend of gospel-based rhythm and blues served as the backdrop for positive, forward-thinking individuals who fought the good fight and recognized the power of positivity. Uplifting tunes like "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself," which have gone on to become timeless anthems, were crucial messages at the time of their respective releases. Besides the weighty, intelligent sentiments they conveyed, the real allure of these classic hit singles is the rich, husky, honey-soaked soothing vocals of Mavis. As unforgettable and endearing as any singer of her time, Mavis' gift is the familiarity and the ease in which she croons and coos. It's safe to say that anyone who has ever been within earshot of Mavis Staples or heard any one of her innumerable dynamic recordings won't soon to forget the impression she casts.
Now 73 and in the throes of a successful solo career, signed to hip indie label Anti- Records and teaming with Wilco mastermind Jeff Tweedy on her superb 2010 release You Are Not Alone and on a forthcoming new record (more on that later), Mavis seems energized and excited about her current projects and her continued delivery of the messages her now-deceased father imparted.
I had the pure delight of chatting with Mavis from her Chicago home as she geared up for a tour that finds her visiting St. Petersburg's gorgeous Mahaffey Theater on Saturday night. It was difficult to conceal the sheer glee and excitement I was feeling at the opportunity to speak to one of my absolute all-time favorite vocalists. As I tastefully and respectfully started our phone conversation by gushing a bit and letting Ms. Staples in on my adulation, iI was greeted with that unmistakable rich voice in turn thanking me: "Oh thank you..." Mavis replied. "Thanks for taking the time out to talk to this ol' girl!" She set the tone and broke the ice and I knew our conversation would be one I wouldn't soon forget.
First I asked Mavis about the Staples Singers' significant role in what was referred to as the "message music" of their heyday, whose decision it was to choose that path, and if it was a conscious effort.
"Oh, that was daddy's idea. We had never heard folk songs before, but we started hearing Bob Dylan songs and his messages, and daddy said 'we can sing that!'" She pointed out the Dylan classic "Blowin' in the Wind" as the one with the message that really moved Pops, and began to sing the well-known first line of the tune in her signature soulful warble — "How many roads most a man walk down / Before you call him a man?" — before talking about the days when her father, growing up as a young black man, was forced to cross the street and take the opposite sidewalk if a white man happened to start walking on his side. The first line of the song resonated with Pops and helped to bring about the shift messages he chose to deliver from then on with his and his family's music.
Adopting and incorporating the deep, insightful messages of Dylan and Joni Mitchell, the Staples became their unlikely contemporaries. "Yes!" she remembered with delight. "We were invited to the Newport Folk Festival around all the flower children. We really fit in with them." The group went on to record several Dylan-penned numbers as smothered in their own unique blend of gospel-tinged brilliance. Obviously an honor for Dylan himself, who has many times gone on record as a staunch fan of Mavis and her family's recorded output.
At a time when musical genres and palettes weren't as fiercely divided as they are today, Pops had the brilliant realization that it wasn't the time to stick to a single style. "'Don't categorize us' Pops would tell the songwriters. He knew the blues and he wanted us to play every kind of music," Mavis said, a decision that helped carry the Staples to many different corners of the world and a variety of musical stages.
Respect and admiration beamed through the phone line whenever Mavis brought up the love and leadership her beloved father shone on her. She giggled as she recalled stories about Pops saving up enough from his 10-cent-a-day job ("He said that was a lot of money back then!" she chortled) and teaching himself to play guitar as a contemporary of blues legend Charley Patton. She charmingly recounts growing up down the street from another blues heavyweight, Howlin' Wolf, and hips me to the fact that Pops sang at the funeral of blues great Muddy Waters. Each and every recollection of her father and his colorful life is related with nothing but pure fondness. "I couldn't have asked for a better life," Mavis sighed, her heartfelt tone making it obvious that she's brutally sincere.