Mavis Staples – “On My Way”
Someone once said that when Mavis Staples sings, it’s as if the gates of Heaven have opened. Few would disagree. Formed by her father “Pops” Staples at the turn of the ‘50s, the Staple Singers showed that gospel music could speak eloquently to the issues of the day – especially the civil rights struggle. “Uncloudy Day,” “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” are just three examples of Staple Singers songs that have become part of the American music lexicon.
On her most recent album, Mavis Staples Live: Hope at the Hideout, the 69-year-old “First Lady of Resistance” delivers stirring versions of several Staple Singers classics. In the following phone interview, she talks about the group’s rich history and the role that “Pops”’ guitar style played in their legacy.
You perform a beautiful cover of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" on your recent live CD. Wasn’t that the very first song "Pops" taught to you?
That's right. Pops used to sing with an all-male group, and he would come home disgusted that those guys wouldn't come to rehearsals. He had a little guitar in the closet -- he had bought it at a pawnshop – and one night he called us kids into the living room, and sat us in a circle, and started giving us parts to sing. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" was the very first song he taught us. My aunt Katie lived with us, and she said, "You know, you kids sound pretty good. I want you to sing at my church." We went to her church that Sunday and sang "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." The people liked us so much, they kept clapping for us to come back.
Was Pops a strict disciplinarian, or was it more about having fun?
It was more about fun. Pops had his rules, and if we didn’t do what he wanted, we suffered the consequences. He taught us right from wrong. But as far as our singing went, he never made us rehearse. He would say, “Tomorrow we’re going to rehearse for an hour,” and that’s what we would do. But we wanted to sing. He did become strict when we first went out on the road, but that was more about keeping the guys away from his daughters. (laughs) He would say, "Don’t mess with my daughters now. I don’t like that." But he was never overbearing.
You've often talked about how much your father’s guitar inspired your singing, as if it were a magic elixir.
That’s absolutely true. The way I learned to sing had a lot to do with how he played his guitar. Our harmonies came from Pops and his guitar. When Pops passed, I was at a loss. I didn't know what to do. I had never thought about my father leaving me. I procrastinated, I was depressed, and I was like a pitiful child. Finally my sister, Yvonne, told me, "Mavis, you've got to sing. Pops would have wanted you to keep singing. We have to keep his legacy alive."
In the early days, wasn’t the group backed only by Pops’ guitar?
That’s right. That was true for years, and for me, those records are our best. This was in the '50s. The first record we made, "Uncloudy Day," sold like an R&B record. It was the first gospel record to sell a million copies. I remember going to Memphis, to a place called the Starlite Review, and Elvis Presley came in with two other guys. They had been riding motorcycles, and they had their black leather jackets on. Elvis came up to me and said, "You know, I like the way your father plays that guitar. He plays a 'nervous' guitar." (laughs) He was talking about the tremolo, the way Pops made the guitar tremble.
"I'll Take You There" became a huge hit for the Staple Singers as well. But didn’t that song stir up some controversy within your church?
That’s true. Stax Records didn't even have to promote that song. They just put it out, and people went crazy over it. Suddenly the R&B stations were playing it, and all the kids were dancing to it. But then the church people said, 'The Staple Singers are singing the devil's music. We don't want you coming here anymore." We did all sorts of interviews, telling people that they needed to listen to the lyrics. We were saying, 'I know a place / Ain't nobody cryin' / Ain't nobody worried / Ain't no smiling faces lying to the races." Now, where else could we be taking you, except to heaven? When people finally listened to what we were saying, we were invited back to church. And the very first request, when we came back, was for us to sing "I'll Take You There."
A lot of the songs on the new disc have been with you for a long time. Does performing them conjure up certain memories for you?
Oh, yes. With some of the songs, it's like there's a little video going on, in my head. I remember things that happened at certain times. The songs bring back some good memories, and some memories that are painful. "Eyes on the Prize" makes me think of the civil rights marches, and reminds me of the friends who marched with us, and even the fun we had marching. "This Little Light of Mine," on the other hand, reminds me of when I was a little girl.
Are there certain songs you especially enjoy performing?
I like them all, but I especially enjoy singing "Waiting for My Child," because it's just me and the guitar. I like the simplicity of it. When the Staple Singers first started, we were very simple, and quiet. I like singing things like that, things that are settled. The same is true of "For What It's Worth." I like the harmonies on that song. I still listen for my sister Cleotha's voice, in my head, when I do that one.
The talk show host Tavis Smiley once pointed out that there are people who chart their lives by Staples Singers songs, by the years in which those songs they came out. That must be gratifying.
It's amazing. When we first began, we weren't thinking of a career. We were singing in order to amuse ourselves. We never thought we would make records, or even go on the road. To think of where we started, and then to think of Tavis saying something like that, and to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is just incredibly gratifying. I'm just so thrilled that Pops' legacy lives on.