Who Is Mavis Staples?
Mavis Staples was born July 10, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois. She began singing with her family, The Staple Singers, at local Chicago churches before signing with the gospel label Vee-Jay Records in 1953. The family put on a concert in Montgomery, Alabama, which Martin Luther King Jr. was attending. The group later had a number of soul hits and a No. 1 pop song with "Let's Do It Again," from the film soundtrack of the same name. Mavis also established a solo career while working with a range of artists, from Prince to Natalie Merchant.
Singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples was born on July 10, 1939, in Chicago, Illinois. Staples is the youngest of four children born to Oceola and Roebuck "Pops" Staples. In earlier days, Pops Staples worked at the infamous Dockery's Farm cotton plantation in Drew, Mississippi.
After a day of hard labor in the fields—for 10 cents a day—Pops took solace in the Delta blues, learning guitar from the great blues pioneer Charley Patton. In 1936, three years before Mavis was born, Pops moved to Chicago and landed a job in a meatpacking factory. He played in a gospel quartet called the Trumpet Jubilees throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, but eventually grew frustrated with his bandmates' lack of commitment to their music.
Mavis Staples recalled that when she was 8 years old, her father finally gave up on the Trumpet Jubilees and turned to his children to become his new bandmates. "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," Staples recalled.
Two years later, when Mavis was 10 years old, the family band made its debut singing at a local Chicago church. After they received an enormous ovation, Staples recalled her father saying, "Shucks, these people like us. We're going home to learn some more songs!" Although she was the youngest member of the band—a quartet consisting of Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Pops—Mavis soon became its lead singer with a logic-defying voice that more properly belonged to a woman several decades older and many times larger.
She recalled her father telling her, "Mavis, listen, your voice is a God-given gift. You know, you don't know music. You don't even know what key you sing in." Staples added, with a laugh, "And I still don't know what key I sing in."
The Staple Singers
In 1953, the Staple Singers dropped their first single, "These They Are," under the Royal label. The following year the group released the song "Sit Down Servant" on United, based in Chicago. Then in 1957, having signed with Vee-Jay Records, the Staple Singers scored their first major hit with "Uncloudy Day," with Staples' shockingly mature vocals reaching national audiences.
"I was a skinny little knock-kneed girl with a big voice that comes from my mother's side," she remembered. "Deejays would announce, 'This is little 15-year-old Mavis singing' and people would say it's gotta either be a man or a big lady. People were betting that I was not a little girl."
The Staple Singers toured the country and developed an impressive grassroots following, but they limited their concerts to weekends until Staples graduated from high school in 1957. They recorded two more national hits in the late 1950s: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "This May Be the Last Time," a song later adapted by The Rolling Stones. Sister Yvonne also took Pervis' place in the group in 1958 as he served in the military.
Singing for Civil Rights
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 in a 2004 Washington Post interview: "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 Singers 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. (The song was from the Curtis Mayfield-produced soundtrack for the film Let's Do It Again, starring Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Jimmie Walker.)
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.
That pattern finally changed with Staples' 2004 album Have a Little Faith, her first release following the death of her father in 2000. Have a Little Faith received rave reviews, paving the way for Staples to achieve a late career renaissance with the albums We'll Never Turn Back (2007) and Live: Hope at the Hideout (2008). Her most recent album, 2010's You Are Not Alone, won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.
In December 2016, Staples and her contribution to the music industry were celebrated at the 39th Kennedy Center Honors. In April 2018, she endured the loss of big sister and longtime collaborator, Yvonne.
Impact on Music
Mavis Staples will doubtlessly go down in history as one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, the breathtaking voice powering one of America's great 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 Americana of more recent years, Staples and her family have consistently created some of the best and most inspirational music of the past half-century.
And although Staples is closing in on her octogenarian years, she has no intention of giving up the calling that has consumed her since she was a child. "Ain't no stopping me, I will sing," Staples declared in a later interview. "You know, you'd have to come and scoop me off the stage. I'm gonna sing till I die."
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