As a young girl, Mavis Staples learned to sing at the feet of her father, Pops Staples, who looked to his own family for a creative outlet when he became disenchanted with the lack of dedication he was feeling from members of his own band. Once Mavis’ singular voice was lifted, it has never returned to earth.
From a young age, Mavis had “it.” The power, the dedication, the emotional engagement that is needed to transform a song into a work of art has always been something she has instinctively understood. Pops knew it, and often told her that while she didn’t know anything about music or even what key she was singing in, (she claims she still doesn’t), her voice was a God-given gift. She describes herself as a knock-kneed little girl that no one could believe was the source of that huge voice.
Her career spans numerous decades and genres. Her first true love is gospel. The Staples Singers debuted in church in the 1950s and recorded gospel hits that made them the best-known spiritual group in the country. As the 1960s progressed, the group turned their attention to the burgeoning civil rights movement, lending their message songs in support and unity. Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King after a 1963 show inspired their activist direction for much of the decade. “We sing about what's happening in the world today, and whatever's wrong we try to fix it through a song," Mavis recalls her father saying.
From gospel and protest songs, the Staples moved toward popular music and enjoyed great success in the early 1970s with radio hits “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,” and “Let’s Do It Again,” catchy songs brimming with soul. All through her work with the group, Mavis also maintained a solo career, and now in what would be the professional twilight for many, she’s never been more popular and acclaimed. Her 2010 album, You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, earned her a Grammy for best Americana Album. Her latest record, Livin’ On A High Note, is a testament to her influence on the young songwriters such as Neko Case, Benjamin Booker, Nick Cave and others who penned the album’s material specifically for her. “These songwriters gave me a challenge,” Mavis said. “They gave me that feeling of, ‘Hey, I can hang! I can still do this!’”
Yes, Ms. Staples, you certainly can. We can’t wait to bask in her light.