Better late than never. The fascinating and inspirational life of gospel/soul music legend and civil rights heroine Mavis Staples and her family group, The Staple Singers, has finally been captured in film documentary form. Mavis! has earned positive reviews on the film fest circuit, including TIFF back in September, and it is now reaching screens across Canada (a run at Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema began on Nov. 13.
Given the well-deserved resurgence of interest in the now 75-year-old Mavis Staples, we felt it was timely to tunnel through the WORD archives, all the way back to May 2007. That is when long-time WORD contributor (and Staples fan) Kerry Doole interviewed Mavis for the magazine, an experience he remembers fondly.
The interview coincided with the release of one of the best albums of Mavis’ career, We’ll Never Turn Back. Since then, she has continued to put out high-quality albums, including 2010’s You Are Not Alone and 2013’s One True Vine. Those two albums were produced by Jeff Tweedy, leader of famed American roots-rockers Wilco, a connection that has helped introduce a younger audience to Staples.
Here’s how the story and interview went:
The phrase ‘living legend’ is oft misused, but it’s a totally accurate description of Mavis Staples. She found fame as a member of the first family of gospel, The Staples Singers, and her powerfully soulful voice was a core ingredient in their multi-platinum success in the ‘70s with more secular soul and r ‘n b material (hits like “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself” and “Let’s Do It Again”). The Staples Singers are inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but, more importantly, they were a major force in the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. They often shared stages with Dr. Martin Luther King, and their stirring renditions of ‘freedom songs’ helped give that movement an inspirational soundtrack.
With the death in 2000 of patriarch Pop Staples, their career ended, but, at 66, Mavis has just delivered the tour-de-force of her long solo career, We’ll Never Turn Back. Produced by Ry Cooder (a long-time Staples fan) and featuring the original Freedom Singers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, it finds Mavis revisiting the songs of the civil rights era. She and Cooder also update this material lyrically, giving it a contemporary relevance to post-Katrina America..
As Mavis told WORD in our recent interview, “this is an important album,” one that deserves and demands to be heard. This is how our conversation went.
WORD: Thanks for taking time out. I know there are a lot of demands on your time now, but for a good reason, right?
MAVIS: Yes, you’re the third interview today. I’m grateful, as I enjoy talking about my CD.
WORD: You must be gratified at the response to We’ll Never Turn Back.. I haven’t seen a single negative word.
MAVIS: I haven’t either. Everybody has given me some good praise about it, and I’m really grateful.
WORD: Sense during its making of is that you were onto something special?
MAVIS: When I heard Ry Cooder’s guitar, I felt we were onto something really special, let me tell you! And as we went on I did feel this was going to be a great record. Actually when Ry came to visit me at my home, so we could talk about the songs, that was when I realized, when he plugged his guitar into Pops’ amplifier. He started strumming, and I said this is going to be good. He’d asked me if I had one of Pops’ amplifiers here, and my brother brought it over. He rubbed his hand over it, and went ‘Pop Staples’ amp.’ He really admired Pops, and when I heard his strumming, it was exactly the same way Pops would do it. I thought ‘this is going to be good.’
WORD: Pops would be proud.
MAVIS: Oh yes, I know he’d be proud of this one.
WORD: To me, it has a fresh sound, not laboured. Does that reflect the way it was recorded?
MAVIS: Right. We never knew what we were going to sing when we went to the studio. We didn’t have a plan. I’d never done a session like that. I’ve always known what I’m going to sing before. I’ll have three songs at the hotel that I’ll rehearse the night before. But I’d go in, Ry would be there, we’d talk a little bit, and he’d go, ‘well, Mavis, what do you think about this one?’ I’d go let’s try it. Off we’d go into the studio and try something that in many cases made it onto the record. The engineer always had the machine on. That’s how it went, with all of us in the studio together. That’s the best way to record, when you can feed off each other.
WORD: Think it was important to have original material on there, or to update older songs?
MAVIS: When Ry came here, we chose the freedom songs that The Staple Singers never recorded. We performed those songs when we were in the movement, but we never recorded them. We had all of them except for “In The Mississippi River” and “My Own Eyes” [a new original]. We came with the gospel songs, Jesus Is On The Main Line,” “This Little Light Of Mine” and “99 And ½ ” and we rewrote them, putting freedom lyrics in there. We had our little plan (big laugh).
We were having lunch one day and we had this big table at the studio. The Freedom Singers had finished their lunch, and we heard them sing ‘in the Mississippi river,” then Rutha [Harris] had this cry, and my skin started raising. They kept on, and Charlie [Neblett] would sing ‘and you can count them one by one, it could be your son.’ I got up, Ry and I looked at each other, ‘what is that you’re singing?’ They said this is a song Marshall Jones wrote, and I said ‘we’ve got to put this down.’ He goes ‘well, he doesn’t like other people to sing his songs, we’d better call him. I said. Tell you what, let’s put the song down first, then call him
Ry agreed, and we put the song down. It wasn’t easy, hearing those words – I had to ask the Lord for some extra strength. When I sing a song I visualize it, so here I am visualizing them counting the bodies, of people who weren’t being looked for. They were dragging the m river and finding different bodies. It was really sad.
WORD: So singing these songs brought back vivid memories?
MAVIS: Yes, indeed. I don’t know if every singer does what I do, in visualizing the song. I visualize what is happening, like on ‘Down In Mississippi.’ I thought about those times when I was a kid, when my grandmother told me I couldn’t drink from that fountain, and integrating the cafeterias. I visualized those, and my ad libs just started coming to match the song
WORD: To the listener, the fact you were a participant then adds a resonance.
MAVIS: Yes I’d agree with that.
WORD: The album is not just an historical document, but is still relevant today. That’s sad, as it shows problems remain, doesn’t it?
MAVIS: Oh yes. It’s a history lesson, but a lesson for today too. It takes you on a journey, but brings you back to today. Dr. King made a lot of progress, but not everything is fixed. Like with Katrina. The bodies floating in the black water, these are black people standing on the roof. It’s about them not having any more respect than they have. They’re crying help us, and nobody is coming. All these black people crowded into the stadium, with no food or water. It’s hot in new Orleans. People actually died right there, young babies. You see all that, and you see a white comedian [Michael Richards] onstage in los Angeles just ranting the n word. You have a policeman in New York [the recent shooting of an innocent black man]. My sister and I can still get it, when we are traveling. It is just a shame that here in the 21st century we are still dealing with racism. It’s pitiful.
I want the kids, the young people, to hear this CD, so they know what we we’ve been through and how far we’ve come, for them to have the life they have today.
And I’m ashamed of them, embarrassed about them not having any more respect than they have. Like with these rappers calling the young girls the names they do. Where do they get that from? I wish I’d asked one of those rappers to do one of these songs with me. Maybe that could have got something over to the young people
They are our future and they need to know their heritage. They need to stop all this talking the young girls down and calling them names. Along with all of this racism, here we are as black people dealing with all that too.
WORD: A good message would be the title of your hit, ‘Respect Yourself.’
MAVIS: That’s right. Respect yourself. We had one little guy I thought was going to be positive, Kanye West. He was so happy that the Lord saved him in that accident that he made his record Jesus Walks. I thought he was going to keep up with that, to do that kind of rap, but he went backwards. He forgot how the lord brought him over. It was good he did it for that moment , but it would have been great if he kept it going.
WORD: You are carrying the torch for gospel and positive soul. Hopeful younger artists can carry on your work?
We don’t have any black history in the schools. I was here in the 50s and 60s, and the lord has kept me. What I’m seeing in the 21st century, I’m just trying to pass it onto them.
MAVIS: Yes I am. Most of this is for them. This is their future, they need to know. We don’t have any black history in the schools. I was here in the 50s and 60s, and the lord has kept me. What I’m seeing in the 21st century, I’m just trying to pass it onto them.
I had one of my teacher friends, and it was so pitiful. She came and said ‘I had a 17 yr old girl come to me, just when Sister Rosa Parks passed away and was so much in the news. This kid came and asked ‘who was she, what did she do? The teacher felt so crushed to hear that, from a senior in high school. The parents didn’t pass this on to their children. The ones who were there then should have passed it down. Dr King made it much better for us, they got their white collar jobs, they just forgot what we’d been through. They’re not letting their children know. That hurts, man. This is the lady that started it all, because she wouldn’t get up out of that seat. It’s hard. I do what I can. I hope my CD gets heard. I’ve told people, I’m not trying to make money. I wouldn’t care if people had to burn it and pass it on, just so it can be heard. This is a serious, important CD.
WORD: You’ve had ups and downs with record labels, but it seems you have a friendly home now, in Anti?
MAVIS: Yes. They really seem to be caring and I’m very happy over there.
WORD: Is it correct that label head Andy Kaulkin suggested this project?
MAVIS: Yes, he did. He said ‘The Staple Singers were singing freedom songs before they had a name. Mavis, I think you should sing some.’ I said ‘you think they want to hear them today?’ But no sooner had I got that out of my mouth, I said oh andy, I think you’ve got a good idea here.’ I just knew what I’d been singing. Freedom songs are ready for the world, they need to be heard. The Lord has kept me here and I’m going to do it.
WORD: Must be inspiring to do them live?
MAVIS: Yes I’ll be singing them in Toronto [at the Jazz festival, July 1]. I went to a place called Modesto in California, and somebody said ‘you’re not going to sing freedom songs there are you?’ You see. Modesto is a rich and hi-falutin place. I said ‘if they come to hear me sing, that’s what they’re going to hear. If they want to get up and walk out, they can do that. I won’t talk about them or be mad at them, I’ll pray for them.’
WORD: Is performance what you love most?
MAVIS: Yes, indeed. I live to sing my songs in front of an audience. It is such a good feeling to be accepted. You look out at their faces. I used to not be able to look out, you know,
When I was a kid I was so bashful, I’d look up at the ceiling. But to see those smiling faces is such a good feeling. You go out there and give your all. Pops taught me something I’ll never forget and which always gets me where I want to be with the audience. One time there, we were in New York. I was about 13 years old, and I saw some kids singing, my age, they were jumping across the stage and carrying on. When I got up to sing, then I did that. Pops grabbed me and said, ‘Mavis, what is wrong with you? I said ‘nothing, daddy.’ He said, ‘let me tell you something. You are singing sacred music. You don’t need no gimmicks or to clown. You be sincere in what you’re doing, and sing from your heart, because what comes from the heart reaches the heart. People will feel that.’ So anytime I’m about to go onstage, in my dressing room I go to my heart and I say a little prayer with my sister and the band, and then we go out and be accepted. I live for singing. My voice is my God-given gift. I don’t even know what key I sing in! This is my life.
WORD: One final question. There are references on the record to your God being one of freedom and tolerance. Does it upset you to see the name of God hi-jacked by intolerant and bigoted people?
MAVIS: I think God is for us all. We use God because God is for us all. We walk with God. He carries us on his shoulders. So, I am willing to share my God. I want everyone to know that God is good, all the time. Anytime you need him, you call on him. Like that song ‘Jesus Is on The Main Line.’ Tell him what you want. Call him anytime. I often tell people I have a royal telephone, and I can call him any time I please. The line is never busy.
I have enjoyed the chat. Come backstage and let’s speak to each other. Thank you so much.