Mavis Staples is one of the greatest singers of our time -- a gospel, soul, and R&B vocalist known for her rich, throaty voice. She began as the lead singer of The Staple Singers, a family gospel group formed by Pops Staples and several of his children. The Staple Singers achieved several hits with "Respect Yourself", "I'll Take You There" and "Let's Do It Again". They also became a musical voice of the American civil rights movement with their protest music.
She's reinvented her sound over the decades since The Staple Singers' introduction in 1950 and worked with Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Ry Cooder, and Bob Dylan. Her newest album, You Are Not Alone, was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program is one of our greatest singers, Mavis Staples. In her 50-plus-year career with The Staple Singers and as a solo artist, she has really and truly bridged genres from soul to gospel to R&B to country, and her latest record was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Mavis Staples, welcome to The Sound of Young America.
MAVIS STAPLES: Well thank you, thank you. I’m happy to be with you.
JESSE THORN: It’s such an honor to have you on the show.
MAVIS STAPLES: Thanks.
JESSE THORN: I wanted to start by asking you about when you first started singing. How and when did you start singing?
MAVIS STAPLES: I started singing in 1950. Pops was singing with an all-male group, The Trumpet Jubilees, and they were six guys. These guys - - Pops would go to rehearsal, go home and discuss it, there may be two of them there. The whole group just wouldn’t show up. Pops got so disgusted. He came home one night, went to the closet and pulled out a little guitar he bought at the pawn shop.
He called us children into the living room and sat us on the floor in a circle, and began giving us voices to sing that he and his sisters and brothers would sing down in Mississippi. There were ten of them - - I mean, there were 14 of them! I was cutting it short. The voices that he would give us were old time. When we first started recording people thought that we were old people; much older people, because of the songs that Pops was teaching us.
One night my Aunt Katie came through, and she said, “You all sound pretty good! I want you to sing at my church!” And we sang that Sunday, and people liked us, Pops realized they liked us and said, “We’re gonna write some more songs.” We started singing around Chicago, and one lady was there one night from Vee-Jay Records, Vivian Carter. She told Pops that you and those children need to be making records, and he said, “No, I’m not going to put them on record, I don’t know much about the records.”
He wouldn’t let us record until he learned more about the record business. Certain people would talk to him and help him. Sister Mahalia Jackson would give him information, The Soul Stirrers; he would get books to learn. After he thought that he had learned, I guess I was about 13 then, he let us record.
JESSE THORN: That’s The Staple Singers with “Sit Down Servant.” My guest is Mavis Staples.
The sound of those records, as you’ve alluded to, sounds like a whole new thing. It doesn’t sound like Mahalia Jackson or The Soul Stirrers.
MAVIS STAPLES: No, we were singing like Pops’ family. We weren’t singing like anyone else out there. We were different. Pops had his guitar, and he had a tremolo on the guitar. Nobody knew what that was. Elvis Presley told me one time, “I like the way your father plays the guitar. He plays a nervous guitar.” That was a tremolo. So no one had a guitar, we were the only ones singing with the guitar. Some of the ministers didn’t want Pops to bring his guitar in their churches. He would show them in the Bible where it says, “Praise him with strings. Praise him with tambourines and stringed instruments.” Written in the Bible. So they would change their minds and let us come in and sing in their churches. That was the best music of my life, just singing with my father’s guitar and our voices. We sang like that for years.
JESSE THORN: I want to hear a little bit of this beautiful song that you as a group first cut in 1957 that was your first hit, and was a monumental hit, called, “Uncloudy Day.”
MAVIS STAPLES: Uncloudy Day, yes indeed.
That particular song, Uncloudy Day, my voice was so heavy. I was singing, “Well, well, well, Lord they tell me now.” People would bet on me. The disc jockeys would say, “This is little Mavis Staples singing, a little 14 year old.” People would bet, actually bet their money that I was not a little girl. “No, that has to be a man or big fat lady. That’s not a little girl.” We would fool the people, we knew that they had bet when we get to these places, big auditoriums, about 5000 people. When we get to that part we’d sing this song down in harmony, and we would get to the part where I would come in. My brother would go like he was going up to the mic, and people would see him come up and say, You see, I told you that wasn’t a little girl. When they were doing all that, I would ease into the mic, and the place would just go wild.
JESSE THORN: I want to play a little bit of a song called, “Freedom Highway,” that you recorded in 1965.
In a world where it was controversial and you had to convince people to let your dad play guitar in a church concert, how did it come to be that The Staple Singers started singing not just traditional gospel music, but also protest music?
MAVIS STAPLES: We visited Dr. King’s church one Sunday morning. We happened to be in Montgomery, Alabama, working there that night. Pops called my sisters and I to his room and told us, “Listen you all, this man Martin is here. Martin Luther King. He has a church here, do you all want to go?” We said, yes, we want to go. We all went down to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and we were ushered in and seated. Someone let Dr. King know that we were in the service, and he acknowledged us. He said, “We’re glad to have Pops Staples and his daughters here this morning. We hope you enjoy the service.” Afterwards Dr. King would stand at the door and shake worshipers’ hands as we filed out. My sisters and I shook his hand, and then Pops stood and talked with him for a while.
We finally got back to the hotel and he called us into his room again after we were there for a while. He said, “Listen you all. I really like this man’s message. I really like his message. I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it.”
JESSE THORN: Were you already thinking about the movement? Was it something you were aware of before you went to church that day in Montgomery?
MAVIS STAPLES: No, I really wasn’t. There hadn’t been a whole lot done; hadn’t been a whole lot on the news about Dr. Martin Luther King. When he started the movement, we wanted to join. We wanted to be a part of it.
JESSE THORN: It’s such a huge change from what you were doing before. Very much in the same spirit, but still something that you didn’t have to do.
MAVIS STAPLES: Yes.
JESSE THORN: Was it scary at all?
MAVIS STAPLES: It was scary at times. We felt like what we were doing at first, before that, was strictly gospel songs. And you feel that you’re a servant. This was a cause that needed our voices. We felt comfortable when we were with our father. My sisters and I would go downtown in Jackson, Mississippi, and Pops would tell us, “Now you all go out on the town, but don’t start nothing; but, don’t take nothing either.” Pops wouldn’t take nothing. We had some young white boys - - we were riding in the car, and they would come over into us like they wanted to run us off the road. And Pops would just run right back into them. He wouldn’t give in to anything.
JESSE THORN: We’ll be back in a minute with more Mavis Staples. It’s The Sound of Young America from maximumfun.org and PRI.
It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is the great Mavis Staples. Her new album is You Are Not Alone, it’s produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. I want to play one of your first secular hits. You guys signed to Stax Records at the beginning of the 1970s, and this song is one of my personal favorites. It’s called, “Respect Yourself.”
MAVIS STAPLES: Yes, that’s still my favorite.
JESSE THORN: It’s such a beautiful song. I wonder if when you were making these records you were mindful of the kind of the kind of warmth that that song has; both in message and in its sound.
MAVIS STAPLES: We were very aware of the message of “Respect Yourself.” The sound was such a groove. When Pops would sing his part it was so comforting and so smooth. Pops could really sing. He would just take his time.
Mack Rice wrote that. When he came into the studio and told us to say that, “Dip deedly dee deedly dee dee.” Pops said, “Mack, we ain’t gonna say that. That doesn’t sound like The Staple Singers.” Matt says, “Pops, you have all the kids saying dip deedly dee.” Pops was laughing at him, and said, “Okay Matt, we’ll say it.” That song today is still, out of all of our songs, that’s my favorite. Respect Yourself.
JESSE THORN: You have all these beautiful songs that were, in a way, secular gospel songs. It always struck me as interesting that so many great R&B and soul artists started, and even throughout their career, sang gospel music. Usually they did it by taking out the Jesus part and putting in girl or baby or something like that. That wasn’t what your songs were. Your songs really felt like gospel music; not with a lover transposed in place of God, but just with humanism transposed in place of a specific religion.
MAVIS STAPLES: That was our purpose. We never wanted to get too far away from our gospel roots. Any song that we would sing was going to be a song full of inspiration; to help someone - - of truth and love. “I’ll Take You There,” it had that beat where people would dance, but still we’re talking about taking you to heaven. We’d tell you I know of a place where ain’t nobody cryin, ain’t nobody worries, ain’t no smiling faces lying to the races. So where else could we be taking you but to heaven?
The church people, because of that beat, they wanted to put us out of the church. The Staple Singers are singing the devil’s music. We had to let them know, you have to listen to our lyrics. They listened to that song after we did a thousand interviews explaining to them. We were finally invited back to church, and the very first song that was requested, right in the pulpit, was “I’ll Take You There.”
JESSE THORN: Sadly Stax Records ran aground in the mid-70s, and you and the group went back to Chicago and signed with Curtis Mayfield’s label and ended up working extensively with him over the course of a few years, both as The Staple Singers and you as a solo act. I want to play a little of your best hit recorded with Curtis Mayfield, “Let’s Do It Again.”
MAVIS STAPLES: And that was a movie score. That was the only secular song that The Staple Singers ever sang.
When Curtis told Pops, he said, “Okay Pops, this is your part.” And that part was, “I like you lady. So fine with your pretty hair.” Pops said, “Curtis man, I’m not going to say that. I’m not going to say that. I’m a church man!” Curtis begged and said, “Oh Pops, come on man. The Lord won’t mind!” We wanted to do it so bad. We wanted to hear our voices on big screens. So we started begging Pops. This is not like we’re switching over, it’s a movie score. Pops finally came on in and sang in the song.
It turned out to be really a fun song that we would sing. The ladies wanted to hear Pops sing that song! He was just in his glory. We told him, “See Daddy, aren’t you glad we sang Do It Again?”
JESSE THORN: Your new record is a collaboration, and before we talk about it I want to talk quickly about one other collaboration in your career. In 1989 you recorded this record with Prince. You actually recorded with Prince on other things as well.
MAVIS STAPLES: Yes.
JESSE THORN: Prince has quite a reputation, I don’t know if you’re aware.
MAVIS STAPLES: You know, when Prince called me - - I’d see Prince and I’d hear him, and I heard the songs that these girls were singing, “Oh you nasty boy.” And when he called me, he got Pops. Pops called me and said, “Mavis, Prince is looking for you.” I said dad, what prince? I don’t know no prince. He said, “Girl, the one they call Purple.” I said, what? Prince is looking for me? What does he want? He said, “Mavis, call the man and see what he wants.”
So the next morning I called the number, and Bob Cavallo, his manager, answered and said, “Yes Miss Staples. Prince wants to write for you, and record you and sign you to his label. I stopped him and said wait a minute, what would Prince write for me? I’ve heard the songs, like, “Albalonium,” and “Fantasy Singer” and what not. I can’t sing that stuff, I’m a woman, I need a song with substance. He said, oh, he’s very much aware of the nature of your talent, and he will be writing contemporary songs for you. When he told me that I said, okay.
He got started to writing. I had to write Prince letters, he wouldn’t talk to me. He was so shy. I thought, this kid is just painfully shy. I would talk and talk, he would just smile and roll his big eyes. I said, I’ve gotta do something. If we can’t communicate, how can he write for me? So I started writing Prince letters. I would write these 13 or 14 page legal pad letters. If Prince kept any of my letters, he has a big book, he has my life. I started writing from when I was a little girl and just moved it on up. The next CD that he wrote for me, which was The Voice, that record, in every song, has something from my letters. My letters are all through this record, The Voice. One he wrote me, “Blood is Thicker Than Time,” he wrote that as a tribute to my family. He has something about Moses in there. He wrote, “He went to church on Sunday morning, all dressed up looking mighty fine.”
JESSE THORN: Your most recent record, You Are Not Alone, is a collaboration with Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco. I want to play the title track, which Jeff Tweedy also wrote. Let’s take a listen to, “You Are Not Alone,” with my guest, Mavis Staples.
Besides both being Chicago folks, how did you come to meet Jeff Tweedy?
MAVIS STAPLES: He came to a concert I had at the Hideout. Hideout is a little funky club here on the south side of Chicago. Actually, we were recording that night. We were recording a live CD; it’s called Hope at the Hideout. Jeff Tweedy came upstairs to the dressing room to meet us and he introduced himself, and after about two weeks my manager asked if it was alright to give him my phone number. I told him yes, and we met at a restaurant over in Hyde Park, and talked.
He let me into his life, I let him into my life, and I found he worked at a record shop when he was a good and he had access to all of The Staple Singers’ old music. He knew us. And he was crazy about Pops. When he talked about, family that sold me. When he started talking about his father and his sons and his wife - - this was something that Pops always stressed to us: Family. Family is the strongest unit in the world.
When we left that restaurant I felt like I knew him, I felt that it was gonna be alright to work with him. He said, “Mavis, I have this title in my head. It’s called You Are Not Alone. And I write that song for you.” He started telling me some of the meat of it and why he wanted to write the song, and my skin started crawling. I said, Tweedy, write it!
JESSE THORN: There’s one song that I really want to ask you about. It’s a song written by one of my favorite songwriters, Randy Newman, called, “Losing You.” When I was researching songs on this album I came across Randy Newman describing how he came to write the song. He said that his brother is a doctor and had been treating another doctor, who was very young, 24 or 25 years old, who had died of a type of cancer that took him very quickly. Randy Newman’s brother was talking to the young man’s parents and found out that they had been holocaust survivors and had lost their families in the Holocaust. They said that they had had the time to create new lives after they lost their families, but they didn’t think that they would ever be able to replace their son who had died. They just didn’t have time to change their lives in that way.
MAVIS STAPLES: Oh, my. I’m glad you told me that.
JESSE THORN: It’s a pretty powerful song.
MAVIS STAPLES: It is powerful. It is powerful. When I heard it my mind went straight to my father. Who can I sing this song for? I could get over losing my husband. I’d been divorced, married and divorced. My dog - - that was really hard on me, but I got over it. I’ll never get over losing my father. That’s where my mind was when I sang it. I was singing it for Pops. I just thank him for writing that song. I’ll be thinking about Pops when I’m singing it and I get so welled up. I can hardly get through the song. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful song. I can understand why he wrote it for his friend like that. That’s a wonderful story.
JESSE THORN: Well Ms. Staples, thank you so much for taking this time to be on The Sound of Young America.
MAVIS STAPLES: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much!
JESSE THORN: Mavis Staples' new album is called, You Are Not Alone. Let’s hear, “Losing You,” from the record.