By Chris Parker
Mavis Staples is playing at the Greenwich Odeum Saturday night (March 11).
Author’s note: I have written about music for over 30 years and interviewed hundreds of musicians, only encountering a handful as charming and delightful as Mavis Staples. (Neko Case and Christine McVie come to mind.) Her personality is as big, passionate and inspiring as her voice, and her conversation feels like it’s between friends.
The following interview was done for the Metro Times in Detroit in 2010 when Staples was supporting her first album with Jeff Tweedy, We Are Not Alone. She’d record two more with him, 2013’s One True Vine and an album of Tweedy-penned tunes, 2017’s If All I Was Was Black. She’s also recorded with M. Ward (2017’s Livin’ On A High Note) and Ben Harper (2019’s We Get By), while last year brought a set with The Band’s Levon Helm recorded in 2011, when he recorded Carry Me Home on the heels of his own late career renaissance before passing just a year later.
She’s deeply entwined with the history of our country, as her family rose to prominence first through the civil rights movement, for whom Pop Staples (her father) penned the anthem, “Freedom Highway,” written for voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, led by close family friend, Martin Luther King. The Staples Singers had eight top 40 singles between 1971 and 1975, including “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
After a fallow period through the ‘80s, Staples returned with two albums produced by the artist once known as Prince, 1989’s Time Waits For No One and 1993’s The Voice, and a 1996 album dedicated to Mahalia Jackson. Then, in the wake of Americana taking off, Mavis signed to Anti-, the artier adult imprint of punk label Epitaph and home to Tom Waits, Antibalas, Bob Mould and Bettye LaVette among others. She released Have a Little Faith in 2004 and 2007’s civil rights-themed, We’ll Never Turn Back with Ry Cooder, which received strong critical notices and was on several critic’s Best Of lists that year.
CP: What did Mahalia Jackson mean to you?
Staples: Mahalia Jackson was my idol. Pops would play Sister Mahalia Jackson records, and one time he played her record. He normally would play all these male groups, quartets, like the Soul Stirrers and the Blind Boys, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. But one day I was back in my little play area, I was about 8 years old, and I heard this lady’s voice and it was the very first lady’s voice I’d heard and it moved me up into the living room where Pops was. I’d sit on the floor and listened to her finish the song and asked, “Who was that, daddy?” He said, “Mavis, that’s Sister Mahalia Jackson.” He said, “You like her, don’t you.” I said, “Yes sir, I like her.” And he would have to play Sister Mahalia for me practically every day when he’d come home from work. One day he came home and said, “Mavis, guess what? They want us to come down to Tabernacle Baptist Church on Monday night to open up for Sister Mahalia Jackson.” Man, my little heart almost came out of my chest. I was just so excited. The bad thing was I had to wait over the weekend. This was a Friday. I would walk around the house talking about what I was going to say to her and I was mimicking singing her songs. My father told my mother “Stop the baby here.” My mother would tell me, “Mavis, don’t get on her nerves.” [Laughs] I said, “Momma, I’m not going to get on her nerves.” They actually had my sisters watching me.
That Monday night when we got there, we found out Sister Mahalia Jackson was going to be in the same dressing room with us. So they were watching me and I was watching the door and as soon as that door opened I made a beeline. They couldn’t catch me. I got over to her. She was tall and looked like a princess to me. She had on this long brocade, cream-colored gown. I’ll never forget it.
I walked up to her and said, “Hello Miss Sister Mahalia Jackson.” And she laughed, and she said, “How are you, baby?” What she was laughing about, I found out later, was that I thought her first name was Sister. [Laughs] I said, “I’m fine, my name is Mavis, and I sing too.” And she said, “Oh you do, huh? I want to hear you sing.” And I said, “Oh, you’ll hear me, because I sing loud.” And then my sisters got over there and got me.
When we went on stage and came back to the dressing room she said, “You’re a good little old singer.” I said, “Thank you.”
Us kids, we’d always sneak our jump ropes to church. We didn’t want to hear the preacher. We liked to hear the singing. So we would go outside and jump rope. So I started on my way outside and she said, “Wait a minute, where you going?” I said, “I’m going outside to jump rope.” She said, “You come here.” She touched my neck and my chest and said, “Don’t you know that you’re damp?” I said, “No, ma’am.” She said, “Yes you are, and you don’t go out in the air right after you sing like that. You want to get to be an old lady like me and sing a long time, don’t you?” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She said, “When you go home you tell momma to get you one of your brothers’ T-shirts and you take all this stuff off.”
She snapped my little training bra. [Laughs] She said, “You take all this stuff off and get dry and put on that dry T-shirt, then you go out.”
She even called my mother. “Did that baby tell you what I said?” and Momma told her, “Yeah, sister.”
But I tell you, to this day, I have a dry T-shirt — it’s not my brother’s, it’s my own T-shirt. And that’s why I call Sister Mahalia Jackson my mentor, my friend and my teacher, because she taught me how to take care of my voice. I get dry before I go out in the air.
And the last time I saw my friend, because she actually started coming to our house, she got real friendly with my mom. And we would have barbeque every Fourth of July and my momma and my sister would be up 5 a.m. in the morning getting the barbecue started and our backyard would be full of people. And Sister Mahalia would come over and my momma would make this homemade banana ice cream and she loved it. She would always tell me, “Come over here, baby, get me a little more ice cream.” I was just so happy.
The last time I saw her was in 1969. We were doing a gospel festival outdoors in Harlem. I would always try to get right next to her. So I did, I sat right next to her on stage. We had already sang. She leaned over to me and said, “Baby, Malie [her nickname] don’t feel too good today, I need you to help me sing this song,” and I said, “Yes, ma’am, I’ll help you.” I didn’t even know what the song was. I was always so goo-goo, ga-ga over her.
As soon as her accompanist started, I knew what the song was because I was a church girl, and she said, “You go on, baby, you start,” and I went over to the mic and started singing that song, and just about as I got to the bottom of the verse somebody helped her up to the microphone. There I was on the same microphone with this great lady. I just didn’t know what to do with myself.
She would sing what she could and she would put the mic over to me, and, boy, I got back home I told everyone I’d been singing with Sister Mahalia Jackson. “Oh, you didn’t sing with Sister Mahalia Jackson.” I almost got into fights. I was so proud. That’s what she was to me, the greatest gospel singer that ever lived and I had a chance to sing with her.
She didn’t live too far from us. She had a big house. My father had bought a four-flat building we lived in. That house is still beautiful; we pass by every now and then. It’s still beautiful. I think a minister lives in there and keeps the lawn all pretty. It’s very nice.
CP:What’s this about Bob Dylan asking your dad for your hand in marriage?
Staples: I can’t get away from that. I was doing an interview in Cleveland, Ohio, a long time ago and after the interview, a disc jockey, he popped up, “Miss Staples, what about you and Bob Dylan, this marriage proposal.” I said, “Where did you get that from?” He said, “The internet.” I said, “That doggone internet, it’s just in everybody’s business.” From that point on it was out. I never would’ve told anybody about it. But it was out. Bobby, we met when we were teenagers. We were young and he was cute. He had all this curly hair. And I was little, tiny and cute. He made the move. I think he was about 16 and I was 17, I was a year older. [Editor: She may have been older. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was released in ’63, when he turned 22.] His manager told him, “I want you to meet the Staple Singers.” And he said, “I already know the Staple Singers. I’ve been listening to the Staple Singers since I was 12 years old.” And Pops says, “How you know us?” And he said, “I listen to Randy.” Randy was a station that came out of Nashville, Tenn. It was a 50,000-watt station. [The show, Randy’s Record Hi-Lights was on WLAC, sponsored by Randy’s Record Shop, allegedly the world’s largest mail order record shop then.] We’d were playing all night, and he would play us all the time. Bob told Pops, “You have a really velvety voice, real smooth, and Mavis, she growls from time to time.” [Laughs] And then Bob, he went on and quoted a verse I sing in the song, “Sit Down Servant.” He says, “Mavis says, ‘Yonder comes young David, with his rocking sling/don’t want to meet him, he’s a dangerous man.'” We were just amazed.
We were doing a television show together, and when he started singing, Pops told us, “Wait. Listen to what that kid is saying — ‘How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?'” Pops would tell us stories about down in Mississippi how he couldn’t walk on the same side of the street with the white person. If he was walking down the street and a white person was coming toward him he would have to cross over. He said, “We can sing that song.”
And lo and behold, Pops could relate to it so we came home and learned it. “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Bob was — there was a long line of people — a lot of people were on this television show. And there was a line for us to have lunch. So we were all in line to get lunch and Bobby was way in the back of the line, and all of a sudden you heard, “Pops, I want to marry Mavis.” And everybody started laughing. And I was shocked, we hadn’t even started courting yet. And Pops yelled back “Don’t tell me, tell Mavis.” And oh, man.
When we got together, we were always — people started calling us to these folk festivals and we would always meet up at these folk festivals and that’s when he let me know he liked me. And we started courting, and we would — when we weren’t together we would write letters. I wish I still had some of Bobby’s letters. It was so long ago. But we would talk on the phone and we were always happy when we were on the same show.
Because he couldn’t travel to where I was and I couldn’t go to where he was. I was too young. But I think Newport was the first one, and, oh man, Bobby would stay in our room with my sister and I, and we’d just talk, and we’d hug and kiss. We were courting.
We’re still friends and every time I see him we’re always happy to see each other. And I actually recorded with him, I think in ’99 and we were nominated for a Grammy for that song. [Actually 2003’s “Gotta Change My Way of Thinking” off Gotta Serve Somebody: Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan]
When he comes to Chicago, if I’m here in town, I make it to the concert. Lately, he hasn’t been coming to Chicago, he’ll go to someplace like South Bend, Indiana. He was the love of my life, he was my first love. I often wonder if we had gotten married what our kids would be. We’d start us a group, if we had three we coulda had a trio.
CP: I wonder how those voices would’ve come together.
Staples: Oh, you mean in the kids. That would’ve been scandalous. Those kids would’ve rocked the world.
Now, I run into his son, Jakob … my sister Yvonne told him one time, “You know Mavis was almost your mother,” and he says, “I know all about that.” But he’s a sweetheart. He came up to me in Memphis, and he said, “Ms. Staples, would you sing a song with me.” And I said, “Yeah, Jakob, what do you want to sing?” He said, “I wanted to sing ‘The Wait,’ but you’ve already sang that.” [Laughs] We had sung it before him. He said, “How about ‘People Get Ready.'” I said, “That’s a good one. That’d be good.” And we sang “People Get Ready” together. I haven’t seen Jakob in a while but I understand he has a really good new CD now.
CP: You grew up with segregation. What is it in your opinion that keeps us from seeing the similarities instead of the differences between all races, and how far do you think we’ve come as country in the time you’ve been alive?
Staples: I feel like we’ve come a mighty long way. We have a black president. That’s part of Dr. King’s dream. There were times when we couldn’t stay in hotels and couldn’t go in restaurants. We’ve come a long way.
We came a long way before Dr. King passed away, but we’ve tried to keep going. And this is why I still sing these songs. The last album I made was Never Turn Back, with Ry Cooder, was all freedom songs and protest songs. I feel that the Lord enabled me to still be here, that I should continue to do everything I can that we were doing back then in the ’60s, and the only way I can do it is through my songs.
There’s still so much more to be done. I see these tea party people, they’re so angry. And they have signs that have anger written on them. They go so far to use the N-word. You can march and protest all you want, but be civil about it. Dr. King, we would march all day long and we would sing our songs. We would march and sing. That’s what kept us motivated and kept us inspired. We stayed happy. We stayed happy. If someone spat on us, we’d keep on marching. They would be calling us names, but we’d keep on. We’d look straight ahead and keep on marching to get it done — that’s why we came so far. Because of Dr. King’s non-violence, and because we kept our heads, we didn’t get angry.
What we’ll do is pray for you all. You want to be like that? We’re going to stay on straight street. This is the way we do it. And this is how we have come this far. We’ve come a long way but there’s still a lot to be done.
I even have asked the president of the [record] company and my managers, to set me up some workshops in the schools. Where I can go into the schools and talk to the children, answer their questions and let them know what it was like. And why you all are having such a good, easy way today. It’s because of the civil rights movement.
Some places I go and sing, the promoters will have a workshop. And I’m always happy to participate. Because, like I say, I was there then and I’m still here now. And I’m grateful I can continue to do what Dr. King wanted us to do. That highway we marched from Selma to Montgomery? I’m still on that highway.
I’m going to be there and I’m going to continue until Dr. King’s dream has been realized, as long as I’m here. I’ll be watching on that highway, freedom’s highway.
CP: It reminds me of this song I think about just about every day, by this Los Angeles band X, called “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.” The chorus is, “Everybody wants to be on the road, everybody yelling hurry up hurry. But I’m waiting for you, and I must go slow, and I must not think bad thoughts, what is this world coming to?”
Staples: Wow. That’s heavy. That is heavy. I’ll tell you that’s nice, yes indeed. I need to meet them. I’m writing that down. I’m going to try to get a hold of them, and if not, I’m going to try and sing their song.
CP: From what we’ve heard, this album you did with Jeff Tweedy was as emotionally rewarding, and personally connecting, as anything you’ve done in a while.
Staples: Oh yes. It was just so refreshing and so exciting to be working with this young man. He’s very witty and intelligent. He’s personality plus. He’s comical. I just had a good time in that studio, the Wilco Loft. Tweedy – what happened was he came to a concert we were having, on the North Side of Chicago, at a place called the Hideout, and we were actually doing a live CD that night. So we titled that CD, Hope At the Hideout.
He came backstage to the dressing room before the show and started to meet us. Then he came backstage afterwards, and he was all smiles: “Oh I enjoyed it, it was great.”
So it was maybe a week and a half later, my manager called and he’s “Mavis, Jeff Tweedy wants to produce your next record.” And I said, “Aw shucks, don’t be jiving me. Jeff Tweedy from Wilco wants to produce me?” “Yeah, he does, he enjoyed the show.” So time went on and the next thing I know he and I had a couple telephone conversations, and he came over to the South Side and we met in Hyde Park, and had lunch and we talked, we got to know each other. I saw that we had a lot in common. We’re both family people and we both love Pop Staples, he’s crazy about him. And we bonded.
We got to know each other, and we sat there and talked for maybe two and a half hours, and then the next meeting was at the Wilco Loft. I went over there on the North Side and he had songs he wanted me to hear. Songs he thought would be good for the CD. He had about 12 songs. And we came away with seven or eight that we wanted to do. I mean — then when we got started in the studio.
He had all of the Staple Singers ’50s and ’60s songs on his iPod and he came to me and said, “Mavis,” he goes, “I keep listening to these all the time. [Laughs] So what do you think about doing some of these songs.” I said, “Oh, I’d love to do that. Those were the best songs of our lives.”
We were only singing with my father’s guitar. We didn’t have any rhythm section. I said, “I’d love to do some of those songs.” We ended up choosing three — three songs that Pops wrote, which were “Don’t Knock,” and the “Downward Road (Is Crowded),” and “Too Close (To Heaven).”
So we ended up doing those and then after that Tweedy started writing. He had let me know from this second meeting at the loft, he said, “Mavis, this title is going around and around in my head, something I want to sing. I want to do this song, called ‘You Are Not Alone.'” I said, “All right.” He said, “I know it would be good for you, because I know what I want to say, but I don’t have the lyrics yet.” But he wrote that song while we were recording. He wrote that one, and “In Christ (There is No East or West)” and the last one, which was the last song I put down, “Only the Lord Knows.”
I said, “Oh my God, you’re writing songs especially for me.” He said, “Yes.” I told him, “You can’t stop. We have to do this again.”
But the songs he wrote are awesome. One of them, “Only the Lord Knows,” I told him, “That sounds like something that Pops wrote back in the day.” He said “You mean I’m writing songs that sound like something Pop Staples wrote?” He just loved that. He said, “I can stick my chest out.”
The session was just so refreshing and so beautiful. So much love. He asked me, “Now, Mavis, where do you want to do this, where should we go.” I said, “What’s wrong with right here? I like your studio.” He said, “You want to do it here?” I said, “Yeah!” Because it’s really warm and funky.
It’s not one of those big wide-open and cold studios. You first walk in to a sea of guitars. I said, “You play all these guitars?” He said, “I get around to it.” [Chuckles] The best thing he did, this is something that happened in this session — something I’ve never seen before —is he had catering. It gets to be a problem when you start writing down what everybody wants to eat, and they send the runner to get the food. Tweedy had a caterer come in to fix our food every day. Another thing he had for me was a teleprompter. I’ve never seen a teleprompter in a studio. I always have to put my songs on the music stand, you know, because you don’t know all your songs by heart when you’re recording. He had this teleprompter going with my lyrics on it. He said, “Mavis you’re special, you get special treatment.”
And he had some songs that he had chosen like really classic gospel songs – two of them that Pops used to play for me when I was a kid. I said, “Tweedy, Where did you get these songs?” One was “Wonderful Savior,” and “Creep along Moses.” I said, “These songs, this is the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers; these songs were recorded before I was probably born. Back in the ’30s and ’40s. You’re taking me back to my childhood.” But I love these songs. I never thought I’d be singing these.
We started recording in December, and this was the coldest winter Chicago ever had. So he gets this idea: “Mavis we’re going to go in the stairwell, we’re going to go in the corridor and sing this.” I said, “Not me.” Man, it’s cold out there. I mean it was freezing. He said, “Somebody get Mavis a cap and a scarf and a coat. Get her some gloves too.”
It sounded so good, so good. I told him, “Don’t we need to do that again?” [Laughs] I tell you my heart was just so happy. This session was just a lovefest. It was like a family reunion. All these guys are family men. They would come through every now and then, they’d bring their little babies. And I love children. Tweedy has two sons, Spencer and Sammy, and Spencer has his own little band, he’s 14. And Sammy’s 10. Spencer’s a drummer, and he’s a photographer. He had his camera, he’d be taking pictures. You’ll probably see a lot of his pictures in the album cover or on the promotion stuff because he took a lot of pictures. They’re great kids.
So I tell you I had the time of my life putting this CD down. The good thing was that he kept me in my comfort zone. All these songs are still about the world today. The poverty, the jobs, the welfare, and all that, and hopefully making it a better place through these songs.
One song he chose was by Little Milton [“We’re Gonna Make It”]. I was surprised. Milton was a blues guy. I used to love it when I heard Little Milton singing it, and the lyrics are “We may not have a cent to pay the rent, but we’re going to make it. I might have to stand on the welfare line, but we’re going to make it.” These songs that he chose — he was on cue.
CP: It sounds like a really fortuitous collaboration, in many ways.
Staples: It was great. And I’m telling you, I was kind of sad when we did the last song. I didn’t want this session to end. That’s how good it was. That’s how much I enjoyed singing these songs. And what’s so different. The songs are meaningful like what I’ve always sang, but the tempos and the music — I’ve never sang in some of these tempos before. And it was a welcome change. And singing Pops’ songs. That took me back, I reminisced and visualized how old I was when I was singing them. [Laughs] We had to bring the keys down. It’s too high for me up there, we have to come down because it’s been some years. These songs were in the ’50s and ’60s.
This Q &A originally ran in the Detroit Metro Times on Jul 14, 2010. Writer Chris Parker lives in Providence.
Nice interview. Especially love the Bob Dylan story! Looking forward to the show this weekend. The Greenwich Odeum has some amazing talent!