IN A NUTSHELL
Mavis Staples was born in Chicago in 1939. Along with her three siblings, Yvonne, Purvis and Cleotha, and father, Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, Mavis began singing in local churches from the age of eight. The Staples Singers (initially an a capella group with Pops on guitar) as they went on to be known, signed their first record deal in 1951. Ultimately they would become the most successful gospel outfit of all time. While it’s more difficult to quantify, most people would agree that they stand as the most important gospel group as well. Their success, no doubt, was in part due to the mutable nature of their art. Over the years they would incorporate elements of the blues, country, soul, funk and folk into their core churchical sound without ever ceasing to be a bona fide gospel group or abandoning a gospel message entirely in favour of secular themes. They were a very hardworking group and very rarely off the road - a trait which saw them outlast changes in musical fashion over the years, of which, they had to weather several.
Above and beyond this however it was Mavis’ powerhouse vocals that really propelled the group to prominence. Their third single, Uncloudy Day, released in 1956 was their first of many hits, in a career that would include such trademark songs as Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Respect Yourself, If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) and I’ll Take You There.
As the band spent so much of the 1950s and 1960s on the road they were painfully aware of the huge gulf that separated the white experience of mid-20th Century America from the black equivalent. In 1958 Pops saw Dr Martin Luther King speaking inspiring him to take the relatively radical route of incorporating hard hitting social commentary into the lyrics of the Staple Singers. (Not long afterwards, Pops penned the self-explanatory I Had A Dream, for example, which was released as a single on Vee Jay Records.)
In 1963, inspired by events unfolding in Mississippi, they travelled to see Dr King speaking, this time as a family. Soon afterwards they became key figures in the Civil Rights movement. Their song March On Freedom’s Highway was adopted as an anthem for (what would become a famous) protest march, which started in Montgomery and ended in Selma, in order to draw national attention to the problem of police brutality against African Americans in the South.
The band had an imperial period after signing to Stax Records that included many international hits and an appearance at the legendary Wattstax concert of 1972 but by the 70s, it was clear the label didn’t know how to market Mavis as a solo artist. It’s likely that they wanted to push her towards becoming a secular singer, in the mould of their big charge of the day, Isaac Hayes but she wasn’t for pushing about and the label collapsed into bankruptcy in 1975 regardless.
After a relatively fallow period, she signed to Prince’s label Paisley Park in 1989, resulting in two albums, Time Waits For No One and The Voice. In a long and storied career she has since sung for Barack Obama at The White House and had something of a late career revivification after signing to indie label Anti- in 2007, where she has turned out a series of very well received albums, working with the likes of Ry Cooder, Jeff Tweedy and Ben Harper. Her new album We Get By is out on May 10, just months before her 80th birthday.
The blues has always had a contentious relationship with the church. The foundational myth of the blues (and therefore of all rock music) is essentially an updated retelling of the Faust myth. Probably the most famous of the original bluesmen, Robert Johnson is associated firmly with the idea of a man selling his soul at the crossroads to the Devil in return for musical success. But so little is actually known about Johnson, that this statement really concerns popular cultural perceptions rather than historical truth and when hearing this story one should take it with a pinch of salt (and then throw that pinch of salt over one’s left shoulder) because it probably says more about white culture and its preoccupations than it does about Johnson’s ‘mysterious’ and rapidly evolving guitar style. One reading of this foundational story might be that the perpetuation of the myth is in itself a symptom of a racist society where an innovative, radical black musician can’t be awarded due recognition for his groundbreaking work by a white industry who deny his agency - instead they would sooner the praise go to a supernatural entity.
One of the many physical locations which has a claim to be the spot where Johnson supposedly met the guy from downstairs, is that of Dockery Plantation, where Charley Patton, the Father Of The Delta Blues, was raised. Patton, it can easily be claimed, is one of the most important musicians of the 20th Century and inspired a great many people who saw him play. One of these, was a young Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples. The founder of the Staples Singers was born in 1915, the youngest of 14 kids and grew up on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, which was just up the road from the Dockery Plantation. Pops, also got to see Robert Johnson, Barbeque Bob Hicks and Son House in action. He’d grown up with gospel music and his church roots were strong because his keen interest in the blues turned out to be just a passing teenage infatuation and by his 15th birthday he had returned to the musical fold and formed his first gospel group, the Golden Trumpets.
Were the church and the blues that incompatible? There were many in the Staples family who felt so. The significance of the ‘Satanic’ nature of The Blues almost certainly goes deeper than its reputation for being the soundtrack to licentious behaviour and heavy drinking. It can be linked to its near pre-history in the mid 19th Century as the music that was one of the few things still owned by African American slaves, when everything else (including their names) had been taken from them. Deeply rooted in African musical tradition (and liberally mixed with gospel, ironically enough) it came to represent, among many other things, a highly codified rejection of the white land owner’s religion and it’s no coincidence that The Blues as a recognisable form took shape just as slavery began to fall. The etymology of the genre tag itself probably comes from the term ‘blue devils’, referring to intense melancholy and sadness, while having a secondary reference to alcohol withdrawal (the equivalent of pink elephants). So while the word ‘devil’ fell away with time, the sulphurous odour sometimes associated with this music hung around a lot longer.
Certainly other people in the Staples family felt that the blues wasn’t right for god fearing folk and tried to keep this music at arms length. Pops was not the only one to love the blues as a young person. Mavis recalls hearing the heavy, bluesy number Since I Fell For You by Ella Johnson blasting out of radios when she was a schoolgirl and being so taken by it that she sang it on stage at school. One can only imagine it was a knock-out performance but it was not met with universal acclaim and she was dragged home by her uncle (who was only 16 at the time and a pupil at the same school) to see her grandmother, who was less than pleased. Mavis remembers the beating she received with a collection of wood branches - or switches - to this day and still keeps a collection of wood switches in a vase in her front room as a memento of the punishment. Although revenge is no doubt too strong a word, Mavis turned the tables in 1970 when she recorded the track as a 7” for Volt records.
But was her family’s rejection of this ‘devil’s music’ any different to the antipathy millions of other kids have felt directed toward them over the last century or so when they’ve shown a love for music their parents don’t understand? Probably not. Really, the blues stands on a continuum of music that has been accused of being in league with Satan by conservative elements, hyped up by a sensationalist press, worried about the behaviour of teenagers, and in that sense it rubs shoulders with jazz, rock and roll, heavy metal, hip hop, acid house, drill, grime and reggae, among many other genres. One of the things that the blues shares with gospel is a reliance on a bedrock of honesty and authenticity in order for it to work. The Blues has what could be called a Miltonian relationship with gospel, and that they are in some respects two sides to the same coin - with both sharing a heritage and expressing a shared experience. Certainly the blues that Pops Staples loved and the blues that Mavis loves - the style that informs many of her records released over the last decade or so - has much more in common with gospel than it does with the mangled, world bestriding blues rock, complete with literal and slightly daft Satanic trappings, peddled by the likes of The Stones and Led Zeppelin in the late 60s/early 70s.
FIVE EASY PIECES: WHERE TO START WITH MAVIS STAPLES
Uncloudy Day by The Staples Singers (1956)
The 14-year-old Mavis Staples was so ill when she recorded this track that she had to sit down for the entire recording session - not that you can tell, such is the power of Uncloudy Day. The third single by The Staples Singers was released in 1956 and became a massive number one gospel hit. The track was ubiquitous in the South, propelling the family unit toward stardom. Gospel fans simply refused to believe that this enigmatic gravelly contralto could be emanating from a skinny schoolgirl, like the local radio DJs were claiming. As Mavis herself recollects: “When people came to see us sing they would bet that there was no way this song could have been sung by a little schoolgirl. They were convinced that they were hearing some man or some big old fat woman singing.”
Tell Heaven (from A Gospel Program) by The Staples Singers (1958)
But above and beyond simply having a ‘God-gifted’ naturally strong voice, Mavis quickly developed the kind of mature delivery and grain that most singers will never achieve in a lifetime of trying, let alone while still teenagers. Despite the obvious secular or even profane associations, Tell Heaven is steeped in Mississippi Delta blues, check those call and response chain gang backing vocals for evidence. Part of the success of The Staples Singers was down to the fact that they knew exactly how far they could push the devout form of gospel into more secular areas without alienating the faithful. There was always a country element to their music. This was an element they shared in common with Candi Staton who they shared bills with in the early days and accounts for some of the common ground they had with Bob Dylan in the mid-60s. The blues was a different kettle of fish however, not just because it was seen as relatively ‘low’ form of music enjoyed by those who drank and smoke and the rest of it but because of its perceived ‘Satanic’ reputation. The undeniable righteousness of The Staples Singers obviously counted for a great deal with their church going fans however.
Freedom Highway (from Freedom Highway) by The Staples Singers (1965)
For a gospel group, The Staples Singers were true radicals. They started introducing hard hitting social commentary into their traditionally religious message in the late 50s but the real switch happened in 1963 after they met Martin Luther King Jr. Their second album for Epic, Freedom Highway was recorded live in the New Nazareth Church, Chicago not long after the meeting and is an essential example of the folk gospel crossover. The Freedom Highway they sing about is the Selma to Montgomery highway along which Dr King and many supporters marched in protest at the murder of Civil Rights protester, Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of the police. This march in turn was disrupted by police who attacked the peaceful protesters with tear gas and billy clubs. The mass assault caused a national outcry. The Staples Singers visited Dr King not long afterwards and became a central part of the Civil Rights movement.
The Undertaker (from The Voice, 1993)
Something of the versatility of Mavis Staples’ voice can be seen in the number of high profile producers she’s worked with successfully over the years. Her second album for Paisley Park, The Voice, was recorded with the direct involvement of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. The album that contains this slab of socially conscious liquid funk failed to find it’s audience in 1993 but it has aged fantastically well. As unlikely as the pairing of church going Mavis and the purple imp of dissolution seemed at the time, it was a profitable creative collaboration.
Creep Along Moses (from You Are Not Alone, 2010)
Mavis staged an unlikely if not unprecedented return to critical acclaim in the 21st Century. In 2007 she signed to Anti- records, an offshoot of punk independent label Epitaph, and released We’ll Never Turn Back with the help of Ry Cooder. After this she teamed up with fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in 2010 for You Are Not Alone, an album which finally won her a Grammy. And deservedly so, seasoned creative professionals like Cooder and Tweedy (and also Ben Harper who fills this role on her latest album for Anti-, We Get By, which is due out in May), know that Staples is the star and that her voice is the instrument that people want. The record contains a number of standards, songs from her back catalogue and new numbers penned by Tweedy with a keen ear to what will suit her.
MAVIS STAPLES IN QUOTES
“When I think about working with Prince, I realise that The Lord put us together for a reason. He gifted me with a voice to sing and the multi-gifted Prince to write songs for me to sing. I think our mission is to send that kind of strengthening music out there into the world. All of us have a responsibility to help, to do our part…”
To David Nathan, Blues & Soul, 1993
“Oh, man, it’s out now. It was on the internet that we had courted, so when I was asked, I didn’t deny it. I don’t want to put Bobby’s business on the street. But it was before he was married. Bobby doesn’t mind. We’re older now. We had our time. That was the great love I lost, I think.”
On turning down Dylan’s proposal of marriage, to Chris Riemenschneider of the Star Tribune, 2017
John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus website. He published the acclaimed memoir about alcoholism, habitual drug use and mental illness, Jolly Lad for Strange Attractor in 2015. He recently wrote and presented a documentary on Aphex Twin for BBC Radio 4 and has a series called New Weird Britain, about underground DIY music in the UK, currently in production for the same station, due to air this year.