For this months instalment, the singer whose career spans the protest music of the 60s to Arcade Fire and Gorillaz talks about the records that shaped her life and politics, from Mahalia Jackson and Dylan to Curtis Mayfield and her beloved friend Prince
Mavis Staples If All I Was Was Black
In a hotel room in Detroit, a 78-year-old woman is rasping down the phone. She cant quite hear every word I say, as she spent last night in a loud theatre with her old boyfriend, Bob: We talk about old times. Bob is Bob Dylan; Mavis Staples supported him on his most recent American tour.
Dylan asked Staples to marry him in 1964, shortly after they had kissed for the first time at the Newport folk festival; she said no, feeling that back then she couldnt marry a white man. Thats a long time ago, she says, in a clipped, no-nonsense fashion, shutting down any discussion of rekindled romance. These days, we just play and go back to our own lives. Were old now. As soon as the gigs over, Im going to bed to sleep.
Staples started making music with her family band, the Staple Singers, in 1948 before pop music really existed, but pop musicians are still clamouring to work with her in 2017. This year, she has featured on records by Arcade Fire and Gorillaz, and released her own album, If All I Was Was Black, its title track a simple, profoundly moving song about racism. (If all I was was black / Dont you wanna know me more than that?)
This record is all about hope, Staples explains. Her voice is guttural and deep that famous huskiness is something she has had since her childhood. How we can come together and fix things, and build bridges. If everyone heard these songs, whatever the colour of their skin, theyd fall in love with each other.
Mahalia Jackson How I Got Over
Staples was born in 1939, at that point the youngest of four children, on the musically thrilling south side of Chicago (Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls lived nearby). Staples mother, Oceola, worked in factories and as a cleaner, while her father, Roebuck (known as Pops), was in abattoirs and steel mills; he had been a sharecropper in Mississippi before that, where his grandparents had been slaves.
Pops sang in a male gospel harmony group, the Trumpet Jubilees, and played records by similar acts. Then he played the first song I ever heard sung by a woman. I was about seven, in the house with all my teddy bears, and I stopped I just couldnt believe it. Pops, whos that? Its Sister Mahalia Jackson, Mavis. Do you like her? Yes, sir, I do! He played her every day to me after that.
The Staple Singers covered How I Got Over early in their careers (it wasnt committed to vinyl). Staples also got to know Jackson, who also lived in Chicago, and took the younger singer under her wing. Shed give me advice to help my voice: Take off your damp clothes after shows, Mavis. Put warm ones on. Drink tea with honey in it. You want to be an old lady like me, dont you? Jackson would even call Oceola to check that Mavis was listening properly. Did that baby tell you what I told her? Yes, Maam! I thank her still. Shes why Im still singing now.
The Staple Singers Will the Circle Be Unbroken
This slow, misty spiritual was the first song Pops taught his children to sing, in a semicircle, on their beige living room carpet. Their first family rehearsals werent exactly born out of a divine calling, however; Pops bandmates wouldnt turn up to rehearsals, so he recruited new ones from home. A guitar bought from a pawn shop for $7 was his instrument, then he started teaching his children the parts. Mavis did the baritone lines even then. We didnt know we could sing. Pops taught us.
Their first concert was at Staples aunts church on Chicagos 33rd Street. We got three encores. I still remember that feeling. Family singing has always been Staples favourite thing. It felt like home. There was no need to feel self-conscious or afraid. Later, other family groups told her they had started singing together because of them, including the Jackson Five, the Pointer Sisters and Sly and the Family Stone.
Mavis released only three solo albums and a soundtrack in the 60s and 70s because she preferred singing with her family. Im only a solo artist now because most of my family are gone. My sister Yvonne is still here, but shes sick, with dementia I call her every day when Im away. [Staples older brother] Pervis stopped singing years ago. Pops died in 2000; Cleotha died in 2013. With family, you knew where you were going. It was joyous. It felt like security.
The Staple Singers Freedom Highway
One Sunday in 1963, while on tour, the Staple Singers went to hear Martin Luther King Jr preach in Montgomery, Alabama. It gave Pops an idea. He said: If he can preach it, we can sing it, Staples recalls. The group started writing and performing freedom songs, Freedom Highway being Staples favourite, the title track of their thrilling 1965 live album. A swinging, rocking, rolling song, it references the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was beaten, shot and thrown in Mississippis Tallahatchie river after flirting with a white woman: Found dead people in the forest / Tallahatchie river and lakes / The whole world is wondering whats wrong with the United States.
Staples gets noticeably upset talking about America in 2017. I still sing this song every night. Its still relevant. To think that so many years ago Dr King gave his life and here we are. It breaks my heart into pieces. She also remembers saying she would never see a black president in her lifetime. All that progress we made and now we have a liar in the White House who just spurts out hate. Ive just got to keep on singing my songs.
The Staple Singers Ill Take You There
Gospel is Staples favoured genre, but she has dabbled in everything, she laughs, including folk, pop and funk. Theres even reggae on the opening to Ill Take You There, a sample from Harry J Allstars The Liquidator, and it became the Staple Singers biggest hit. This was during their period on Stax Records, with whom they signed in 1970; quickly, the group were propelled out of pulpits and on to TV shows. I almost got put out of church. I did so many interviews saying that I wasnt singing the devils music. I mean, listen to the lyrics of Ill Take You There, not the beat: I know a place / Aint nobody cryin / Aint nobody worried. Where on earth else do you think Im taking you?
The Staple Singers did record a much more secular song straight after, however. Lets Do It Again was written by Curtis Mayfield and includes lyrics about getting down and a lady so fine. Pops wasnt keen. He said: Curtis, Im not going to sing that, Im a church man. I never forget Curtiss reply. Mavis laughs: Aw, Pops, the Lord wont mind.
Ill Take You There was also sampled on Salt-N-Pepas 1990 hit Lets Talk About Sex, which Staples doesnt mind either. Any time young people jump on my music, I love it. It lets you know theyre taking the messages. Plus, it means Im going to get a cheque!
Mavis Staples Blood Is Thicker Than Time
The Staple Singers impact on other pop musicians was significant. The Rolling Stones first single to have the Jagger/Richards writing credit was The Last Time, although it was clearly inspired by the Staple Singers 1958 recording of a gospel spiritual of a similar name. (Keith Richards admitted this in 2003: We were basically readapting a traditional gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers, but, luckily, the song itself goes back into the mists of time.) Michael Jackson took the word shamone from Ill Take You There and inserted it into Bad. Hed tell people hed borrowed it, Staples says. I was just trying to sing, Come on, but trying to be slick!
Then there was Prince. He signed Staples to his Paisley Park label after falling in love with her backing vocals on Nona Hendryxs 1987 single, Baby Go-Go, then watched the Staple Singers 1971 Soul to Soul movie about a concert they had played in Ghana. Ive been in love with Mavis since I saw that movie, he told Staples biographer Greg Kot in 2014. I would watch her [singing] its like when you see someone possessed.
He was so shy when we met; too timid to say a word, Staples recalls. She started writing to him instead and he put her words into songs. One of those lines (We went to church on Sunday mornin / All dressed up looking fine) begins a verse of Blood Is Thicker Than Time, which is her favourite song that he wrote for her.
They spoke and wrote to each other right up until Princes death last year. Staples struggles to talk about him today. He called her Mama, which had a deeper impact, as she didnt have any children of her own; her unhappy eight-year marriage to Chicago funeral director Arthur Leak ended in 1972 when he asked her to stop singing she would never stop singing. I still cant listen to an entire Prince song without breaking down. I was in Saint Paul, Minnesota, just last month [on the Dylan tour] and planned to go to his museum. But, on the day, I realised I wasnt ready yet. Id have needed someone to hold me up.
Mavis Staples You Are Not Alone
Staples met another important musician in her life, Wilco songwriter Jeff Tweedy, in 2008. Hes north side [Chicago] Tweedy-side but he brought all of Wilco down south to see us. Two weeks later, he contacted her manager, saying he would like to produce her new record, and they had their first meeting in a cafe. Hes bashful, too I cracked little jokes to break the ice. Then he talked about working as a teenager in a record shop and playing our songs, then we started talking about family we talked for two-and-a-half hours. We let each other into our lives.
Tweedy has made three solo records with Staples and finished off her fathers last recordings for an album, Dont Lose This, released in 2015. You Are Not Alone means a lot to Mavis, as it was the first song Tweedy wrote for her and its lyrics speak on deeper levels about friendship. (Youre not alone / Im with you / Im lonely too.) Tweedys children have also adopted Staples as their grandmother. I was all, one minute, kid, Ill be your auntie! Then I looked at myself, saw the lines and I thought, its about time. Tweedy knows her inside out, she says. He writes songs as if theyve come straight from my heart.
Arcade Fire & Mavis Staples I Give You Power
Staples met Arcade Fire at Lollapalooza in 2010 (they came to my dressing room all polite and introduced themselves), then in November that year they shared the bill on Later With Jools Holland. They have done more songs together: a version of Talking Heads Slippery People, which the Staple Singers made into a minor hit in the 80s (leading to Pops getting a role as a preacher in the Talking Heads movie, True Stories) and a live version of The Last Time together last year, which began with the Staple Singers 1961 original and ended in a Rolling Stones rock-out. She loved it: The crowd went crazy!
Staples was also delighted to be asked to sing on this song. This song is what we think about this president. I give you power, I can take it away. And the fact that they released this song on inauguration day I loved that.
Staples still loves new music she was pleased that the country artist Rhiannon Giddens released an album, Freedom Highway, inspired by the Staple Singers and she also has her eye on other collaborators. I love Chance the Rapper. What he does is a lot of gospel, really. Id love to do stuff with him. But for now, I Give You Power still speaks for her. That song is right on time. Ill keep singing it. Weve all just got to keep singing.
Mavis has curated a longer primer to her work, featuring the above alongside other favourite tracks from across her career; you can listen and subscribe to it in Spotify