gospel, soul, rhythm and blues
Mavis Staples will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, the breathtaking voice powering one of America’s most celebrated family bands, the Staple Singers. From the traditional gospel music of the 1950s to the 1960s protest songs that underscored some of the decade’s most dramatic social changes, from the self-empowerment anthems of the 1970s to the soulful love tunes and mature roots music of more recent years, Mavis Staples and her family consistently created some of the best and most inspirational music of the past half-century. Mavis is now in her late 70s, but she has no intention of giving up the calling that has been hers since childhood. “Ain’t no stopping me, I will sing,” Staples recently declared. “You know, you’d have to come and scoop me off the stage. I’m gonna sing till I die.”
In 1963, the Staples Singers delivered a concert in Montgomery, Alabama, where they met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I really like this man’s message,” Mavis’s father Roebuck “Pops” Staples said of King. “And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.” Thus the sound of a remarkable family of gospel and socially conscious soul singers, built around Pops’s loping guitar riffs and his daughter, Mavis’s, powerful vocals, became one of the leading voices of the Civil Rights movement, bringing their distinctive style to protest songs such as “March Up Freedom’s Highway,” about the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches, “Washington We’re Watching You,” “It’s a Long Walk to D.C.” and “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” in honor of the Little Rock Nine. The Staple Singers’s hits, such as “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “Let’s Do It Again,” have become standards in the gospel and rhythm and blues repertoire.
“My father gave us harmonies to sing that he and his brothers and sisters used to sing down in Mississippi, a kind of Delta and country sound. It was just so unique and different from everyone else’s,” Mavis recounted. “And the messages in our songs were special. We were singing songs of inspiration to uplift people. Music is so good like that—it can be healing, it can make you dance, sing, smile, or cry. It calms and it comforts.”
Family patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples was born on a cotton plantation near Winona, Mississippi, and played with local blues guitarists, now legendary, such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House. He married and moved to Chicago in 1935, finding work in the stockyards. Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, he played in a gospel quartet called the Trumpet Jubilees. Frustrated with his bandmates’ lack of commitment, in 1948 Roebuck and his wife, Oceola, formed the Staple Singers with their children.
Mavis Staples, born on July 10, 1939, was the youngest. She was eight years old, Staples remembered, when, “Pops finally came home one night, got the guitar out of the closet and called us in the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle and started giving us our parts.” Two years later, the quartet, originally consisting of Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Pops, made its debut at a local Chicago church. Mavis, with a logic-defying voice that more properly belonged to a woman several decades older and many times larger, soon became its lead singer.
The Staple Singers first recorded in the early 1950s with songs including 1955’s “This May Be the Last Time” (later covered by The Rolling Stones as “The Last Time“) and “Uncloudy Day.” In the 1970s, moving from traditional Delta-inflected gospel and engaged protest songs to empowerment anthems and soulful R&B love songs, the group achieved its greatest commercial success.
Beginning in 1969, Mavis also pursued a solo career. Over a remarkable career of six decades, she has moved with the times, yet never altered. Artists she has worked with include Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, George Jones, Natalie Merchant, Delbert McClinton, Elton John and Justin Timberlake. She is both a Rock and Roll and a Blues Hall of Famer, a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award winner, a National Heritage Fellowship Award recipient, and a Kennedy Center Honoree. Rolling Stone listed her as one of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” Her album, You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, won the Grammy® for Best Americana Album in 2011; in 2016 she won Best American Roots Performance for her song “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” Mavis was awarded the 2015 Woody Guthrie Prize, given to the artist who best exemplifies the spirit and life work of Woody Guthrie by speaking for the less fortunate and serving as a positive force for social change in America. She continues this legacy in her latest album, and third with Tweedy, If All I Was Was Black, her creative response to recent events.