Aflame with joy and soaked in the blues, Mavis Staples' one-of-a-kind voice has resonated with listeners for more than 60 years. On Aug. 23, that voice will echo from Fort Wayne's Foellinger Outdoor Theatre, along with Staples' timeless message of freedom and hope.
“When I come out there on the stage, I'm coming with my heart,” Staples says. “I just love what I do, and I mean what I say. I live the life I sing about.”
The life Staples sings about has been a rich one. She's best known as the lead vocalist for the Staple Singers, an immensely popular gospel group whose other members included her father, brother, and two older sisters. In the 1960s the Staples nourished the civil rights movement with fiery protest songs, and in the '70s the group topped the charts with the inspirational R&B classics “Respect Yourself” and “I'll Take You There.” In 1999 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Since then, Staples has enjoyed a resurgent solo career, including a Grammy win in 2011. But the legacy of her years with the Staple Singers runs deep.
“I still take them on stage with me, every show I do,” Staples says in a telephone interview. “I don't forget from whence I came – the family.”
THE BONDS OF FAMILY
Staples started singing with her family when she was 8 years old. Drawing on the sounds of his native Mississippi, her father, Pops, was the driving force behind the group, and he instilled beliefs and musical values in Staples that she draws on to this day.
“You know, my father taught me years ago: 'Mavis, sing from your heart. … What comes from the heart reaches the heart. So if you sing from your heart, you'll reach the people. And make it plain. Believe in what you're singing about.' And I do,” says Staples.
“He let me know that you don't need gimmicks, you don't need to clown, don't need to sing as loud as you can. Just sing from your heart. And I tell you, I've never forgotten that.”
Staples also draws on the family legacy when deciding which songs to sing.
“Well, I have to have a song with a positive message,” she says. “That's what the Staple Singers have always been about, singing songs of inspiration, informative and positive. Something to give you a reason to get up in the morning. Something that can help the world and help the people. That's what I look for when someone gives me a song – something that I have lived and somewhere I want to go. I want to rise a little higher. … I've got to be able to feel it myself before I want anyone else to feel it.”
The most towering aspect of the Staple Singers legacy is the group's involvement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, and Staples is determined to keep that spirit alive.
“Congressman (and civil rights icon) John Lewis told me, 'Ms. Staples, you and your family, you all were the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. You all kept us motivated and wanting to keep on marching, keep on with what we were doing.'”
Staples says African-Americans' fight for justice and equality is far from won even today, and she's determined to continue singing songs like “Freedom Highway” and “Eyes on the Prize” whenever she performs. “I'm going to keep on, see, because I'm still here,” she says. “I'm a living witness of what we went through back in the '60s.”
ON HER OWN, BUT NOT ALONE
In 2000, Pops Staples died. Soon after that, Mavis' sister Cleotha was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, according to “I'll Take You There,” music writer Greg Kot's recent book on the Staples family. This meant the end of the Staple Singers, and it left Mavis' future as a performer in doubt.
“You know, I had to really pray and ask the Lord to give me strength, because it was hard,” Staples says. “You sing with your father for over fifty years, and all of a sudden he's gone, and that sound of the Staple Singers, the harmonies and the guitar.”
Eventually, Staples was able to persuade her other sister, Yvonne, to continue singing with her, and that made all the difference to her state of mind and her life as a solo performer.
“I did about two or three shows without Yvonne, and after that third one, I told her, 'Listen, Yvonne. You're gonna have to sing. I need to hear at least one Staples voice up there on the stage, you know?' Because I'm still listening for certain things that I would rely on from the family.”
Although Staples recorded occasional albums on her own – including a pair with Prince in the late '80s and early '90s – during her 50-plus years with the Staple Singers, her greatest successes as a solo artist have come in the past decade. Now, after recording a series of critically acclaimed albums with guitarist Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy of the indie rock band Wilco, she's ready for a new project.
“You want to keep it fresh. It keeps it interesting for me, to work with different people like Jeff Tweedy, and Ry Cooder, the different producers I've had. … They put me in so many different categories today – I'm Americana, I'm pop, I'm R&B. But you're always going to hear that basic gospel in my voice. I can't let that go.”
Her most recent adventure? Recording a song with rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy.
“They're calling me a hip-hopper!” she says with a chuckle.
Staples recently celebrated her 75th birthday – “My best one yet!” she says – but it's clear she's not about to slow down any time soon.
“The Lord, he's given me my gift, and as long as he lets me keep it, you'll be hearing from me. I'll be around!”