Mavis Staples is down the line from her home in Chicago, talking about the first time she met gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, her girlhood idol turned mentor and friend.
“She looked like a giant princess to me,” Staples reminisces, lost in a moment 65 years ago. Then she laughs. “And I said, ‘Hello, Miss Sister Mahalia Jackson!’ because I thought her first name was Sister.”
The 72-year-old Staples, whose career was forged in the civil rights era, is a sonorous, underrated vocalist and a legend in her own right. She’s likely related her Mahalia Jackson story hundreds of times, but it sounds like a revelation because of her love of telling it. This exuberance, in addition to her historical importance, are part of the reason she’s enjoyed a long, successful career.
Of course, collaborations with generational icons Prince, John Scofield and, on 2010’s You Are Not Alone, Jeff Tweedy, also help.
“Tweedy has kept my music so close to the Staple Singers music,” she says of her former family band. “The sound, the fuzzy guitar, is different, but I’m singing a gospel – the same thing I’ve been singing my whole life. It just has a Tweedy touch, which makes it more interesting and now.”
If her collaborators skew toward reverential when working with her, it’s because of the deep imprint left on popular music by the Staple Singers. Led by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, they challenged the gospel status quo in the 50s by bringing guitar to church music. “I was so young, I didn’t realize people thought our music was different from everyone else’s. But now I realize that no one was using a guitar when we started singing.”
Staples’s solo career began in 1969, when she was 30, and she sees it as an extension of the contemporaneous, courageous folk of the family band.
“Pops would tell the writers that we wanted to sing about what was happening in the world. If there was something wrong, we wanted to fix it through our music,” she says, adding that she always includes freedom songs in her live set.
“That idea is still with me. I’m still here, and I’m going to carry that on.”—ANUPA MISTRY