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Mavis Staples is best known for her extensive gospel career with the Staples Singers.
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In 1963, with their celebrity rising thanks to a nationwide folk and blues revival, the Staple Singers delivered a concert in Montgomery, Alabama, that was attended by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and they had the opportunity to speak with the civil rights leader after the show. The meeting had a profound effect on the group's direction,
and for the next several years they wrote songs exclusively in support of the American civil rights movement. "I really like this man's message," Pops Staples said of King. "And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.'' The Staple Singers' civil rights songs included "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. "We sing about what's happening in the world today, and whatever's wrong we try to fix it through a song," Staples recalled her father explaining. "We're living in dark times, troubled times; we wanted to spread a ray of light on the world."
Around the same time, Mavis Staples carried on a romance with folk legend Bob Dylan. Dylan had long admired The Staple Singers, covering their song "Dying Man's Prayer" in 1962, and the Staple Singers had in turn recorded several Dylan compositions. In the late 1960s, Dylan proposed marriage to Staples; although they had dated for seven years, she turned him down. Although Staples has since come to regret her decision not to marry Dylan, she explained her reasoning at the time: "We had gotten with Dr. King and I was young and stupid, and I was thinking Dr. King wouldn't want me to marry a white guy." Dylan has referred to Staples ever since as "the love that I lost."
Staples was briefly married to a mortician named A.R. Leak, Sr. in the early 1970s, but the pair divorced when Leak demanded that she give up her music career to stay home. "He wanted me to stop singing!" Staples recalled with incredulity. "And I told him I was singing before I met him. It was just a man thing, just want me at home. No way! I keep my songs and I continue to sing, and I let you go."
The Staple Sisters achieved their greatest success in the early 1970s as they moved away from traditional gospel and protest songs to record empowerment anthems such as "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There" and soulful R&B love songs like "Let's Do It Again," their only song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart. Although their popularity waned somewhat in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Staple Singers continued to score modest R&B hits with songs like "I Honestly Love You," "H-A-T-E (Don't Live Here Anymore)," "Slippery People" and "Nobody Can Make It on Their Own."
Beginning with her 1969 self-titled debut solo album, Mavis Staples also maintained a solo career simultaneously while she worked with the Staple Singers. And while she released eight solo albums during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, all of which received high praise from those critics who noticed, none of her solo material found much of an audience.
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American society experienced a revolution in the late 1960s and early 70s, especially for African-Americans and women. Janis Joplin was the finest white blues singer of her generation; female singer-songwriters like Carole King and Joni Mitchell shared their innermost thoughts and feelings; Aretha Franklin emerged as the Queen of Soul; and Bonnie Raitt established herself as both a strong vocalist and a brilliant guitarist. Through their music, the women of this era created the soundtrack of social progress.
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