Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Interview: Mavis Staples

October 21, 2008


Well Lord, I’m still on the case. I’m still doing what Dr. King and Pops want me to do. I’m still on that freedom highway, and I’m going to walk on it until Dr. King’s dream is realized.”

When Mavis Staples sang in an a cappella choir in grade school, her low singing voice was criticized by her teacher, who would say, “You’re in the basement, Mavis, you’re singing with the boys.” The constant harping made her so mad she eventually quit.

Thankfully that teacher’s opinion wasn’t the final word. Her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who learned guitar alongside blues legends like Charley Patton while growing up on a Mississippi plantation, made Mavis the lead in the family gospel group the Staple Singers, which started performing in Chicago in 1950. Over the course of the next few decades, that deep, roughhewn voice has been recognized as a gospel and soul treasure. The Staple Singers became a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., their music long associated with the Civil Rights struggle. Mavis later cut a solo album for Stax, had her music produced by both Prince and Curtis Mayfield and was even proposed to by Bob Dylan (“Somehow that rumor got out on this doggone internet,” she said.) Earlier this summer, Mavis recorded an album, Live: Hope at the Hideout, a timely selection of protest songs and anthems set to come out on Election Day. We spoke with the singer about her early career and her continued motivation to perform what she’s called “good news music.”

Pitchfork: Did singing and recording the new album at the Hideout remind you of the small clubs you played at when you were just starting out?
Mavis Staples: Oh yes, it did. It reminded me of places in New York, it reminded me of Club 47 in Cambridge. There is a great feeling in a small venue, with the closeness of the people and the intimacy. Those are the best. You just feel the whole scene better.

Pitchfork: I always thought it was so amazing that you and your siblings were performing in music clubs as teenagers with your dad, Pops, who managed to be a bandleader but also a good role model. Lots of parents today with children who are musicians tend to not do that so well.
MS: Our father and mom kept the role of mother and father while we were singing. When we would first go on the road, they would let us know, you stay humble. These people running up to you telling you how great you are, don’t let that go to your head. Low is the way. Pops even wrote a song called “Low Is the Way”. You stay low, not high and mighty. You don’t forget this is your gift from God, if you abuse it, it’ll be taken away from you. We were a close-knit family from day one. Our father, on Saturdays, he would take us to the movies, and make us peanut brittle candy then on Sunday mornings he would take us to church. My mother saw that he wanted to be with the children, so she just let him have it, you know? So we were with our father most of the time. Our mother was our spiritual guidance. She would pray with us and was the best cook in the world. We were taught to love our sisters and brothers, to love our neighbors, to listen to our neighbors, to respect elders. Thank the Lord we never got on the star trip. We stayed everyday people.

Pitchfork: You spent summers in Mississippi when you were growing up. How important was that in forming your outlook both spiritually and as a musician?
MS: I was very fortunate as a little girl to be able to be in Mississippi at a young age. Pops had so many children he couldn’t keep shoes on us, you know, so he sent the two youngest ones, my sister Yvonne and I, down to Mississippi to stay with our grandma. And she was even more determined than Pops to keep us focused. She would take us to her church, Jerusalem Baptist Church. Know the song about the church on the hill? That was her church. We’d walk for miles down the highway on gravel roads to get there. We’d walk every Sunday morning, every Wednesday night and every Friday night. Just the people singing and clapping their hands and patting their feet– you talk about a good sound. I kept that and carried that with me all my life. I’ll never forget it. I look at these kids today, there’s no way they can experience that today. I cherish it. I think that played a big part in our lives as singers.
It was great traveling in Mississippi, eating the food down there, but I got tired of it. My grandmother would put those switches to my leg all the time. One day, when I was about eight years old, some kids pushed me on stage at school during a talent show because they knew I could sing. I had been hearing this song by Ella and Buddy Johnson, “Since I Fell For You”, playing on the jukeboxes when I walked to school in the morning. So that’s what came out of my mouth. My uncle was 16, in junior high, and he heard me singing and snatched me off the stage. I thought he was happy and was going to pat me on the head and say I was good. But he took me home and told my grandmother this youngin’ was at school singing the blues.

Pitchfork: You got in trouble?
MS: Yeah. She said, “You were at the schoolhouse singing the blues, eh? Go and get me some switches.” And Lord, she put those switches to my leg. Every hit she said, “You don’t sing the blues in this family! You sing church songs in this family!” So, I started writing letters home to my mother, saying that I wanted to come home, grandma won’t let me sing. But I loved that song so much, that when I was 21 years old, I recorded it anyways.

Pitchfork: It’s funny thinking about Mavis Staples getting in trouble for singing.
MS: [laughs] Yeah, and she sent me back to school with those little red welts on my legs. I would get in fights a lot, too. My voice was so heavy, kids would say you sound like a boy, so I would start beating them up.

Pitchfork: Didn’t you get that same response when you started singing with the Staple Singers? That voice is so heavy and deep, how could it come from a teenage girl?
MS: I would enjoy it when pops would give me those songs with bass. Our very first song, “Uncloudy Day”, was a smash hit. We’d go to places like Memphis and Durham and the DJ would say a 15-year-old girl is singing this song. And people would say that can’t be a teenage girl. They would actually bet that I was not a little girl. So when we played live and my bass part came in, my brother Pervis would step up like he was going to sing that part, and the people would go wild. I told you that was no little girl. And why they were going crazy over that, I would ease up to the mic and start singing. We would have so much fun.

Pitchfork: Before you started singing with your family, you were too young to sing in the church choir, right?
MS: Yes. Everyone come out of the church choir except me.

Pitchfork: Your father that was born on a cotton plantation, and now there’s an African-American presidential candidate who attended your own church, Trinity United. What does that mean to you?
MS: I have to pinch myself sometimes. It’s unbelievable, but it’s not. Because I know that this would not be happening if it hadn’t been for Dr. Martin Luther King. He opened the doors for all of this. I don’t know if he’s going to be president or not. You have to wait it out. But it makes me feel like everything we’ve done has not been in vain. I’ll tell you, if I wasn’t my age, I would turn a flip. I would do some cartwheels. That’s how I feel. I look at this young man and think about Dr. King, I say, “Lord, Dr. King would be so happy.” There’s something about him, he’s just special. When I see him come on, I just perk right up, I just start feeling good and bubbly inside. I just pray that things go OK and that the people come in and vote for him, and that we’ll finally have a black man in the White House.

Pitchfork: Having attended the same church, have you met him or talked with him?
MS: I was not fortunate enough to run into Obama. We were at the same church per se, but I would never be there when he was there. I tried to meet him. I had an appointment with him, when we went to see Congressman John Lewis, but something happened that morning, he had to push his meeting up, so we had to cancel. I tell you, I would like to meet him. He is not hard to look at, either. He’s easy on the eyes. He makes the eyes happy. He’s a good-looking dude.

Pitchfork: Maybe now that he knows you want to meet him…
MS: Yeah, somebody put an SOS out. Because they do use my song. I’ve heard them use “I’ll Take You There” a few times. Hopefully he knows who it is singing the song. I’ll definitely go sing it for him. But I’ll make sure to be careful around Michelle. [laughs] Because you know, he reminds me of Sam Cooke.

Pitchfork: Maybe Michelle was the one moving around the meeting.
MS: Well, I’m old enough to be Obama’s grandmom. But I still like seeing good-looking things. Nothing wrong with that. Pops, he had white hair, he used to say there’s snow on the top of the building, but the fire is still burning in the oven, or something like that.

Pitchfork: Pops told songwriters who were writing for the Staples that they should look at the headlines. Did that approach affect the songs that you picked for this album?
MS: Yes, Pops said that because we wanted to sing about what was happening in the world. So when I joined Anti and wanted to make a record, and we were talking about these freedom songs, I was thinking about Katrina. There’s still injustice happening in my world. I sing my song at concerts and I’m so grateful that the people are ready to hear them. Well Lord, I’m still on the case. I’m still doing what Dr. King and Pops want me to do. I’m still on that freedom highway, and I’m going to walk on it until Dr. King’s dream is realized.

Pitchfork: What do kids need to know about Dr. King that they don’t know now?
MS: They need to know that he was a man of conviction. And also, he was a human being. I don’t know if they realize that. He was jovial and he was humorous. I loved to hear his laughter. He always seemed so serious or sad, and when I would hear him laugh, I would say Dr. King was happy. The kids need to know here was a man who went out and risked his life to make it a better place for them, went to jail, was beat down and stabbed.

Pitchfork: Were you with him when he marched through Chicago?
MS: Oh yes, oh Lord, yes. Dr. King said Chicago was the worst place he visited. It was worse than Mississippi and Alabama. It was so hurtful and embarrassing. Dr. King was here in our city.

Pitchfork: You sister Yvonne still sings with you, and was on Hope at the Hideout. Is it important to have her with you on stage?
MS: Yeah, she goes with me. She tries not to sing. But I tried to do three or four shows without any Staples, and I said, Yvonne, you’re going to have to sing. I need to hear at least one Staples voice on stage. My other sister Cleotha has Alzheimer’s, so she can’t sing anymore, and Pops is gone. After he passed, I would wander around the house all day shivering, I didn’t know what to do. But I finally got strength and slowly, I got it started. Now I know Pops and Dr. King are happy, they probably having a good old time, Pops playing that guitar, mom making sweet potato pies, all them having a great time. I tell you, I just had a wonderful life, and I couldn’t ask for anything else.

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