When Mavis Staples sings, it’s like the gates of Heaven have opened. So affecting and emotive that it stirs you to your very soul, it’s little wonder that after over fifty years of performing she is still one of the world’s greatest and most loved voices. She is easily my all time favourite singer.
Born in Chicago in 1939, Mavis was a million selling artist by the time she was 17 with The Staple Singers – the gospel family group led by her father. Their popularity and subsequent friendship with Martin Luther King saw them at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, inciting responsiveness from their pious protest songs.
Signing to the incomparable Stax Records in the mid Sixties, a more soulful Staple Singers – and ensuing solo secular career for Mavis – saw them reaching an even wider and more varied audience, culminating with the group’s Seventies peak with worldwide hits ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘I’ll Take You There’.
A creative partnership with Prince in the Eighties led Mavis into modern soul, coming full circle with last year’s Ry Cooder produced ‘We’ll Never Turn Back’ – her fresh take on favourite protest songs.
It’s a long and richly rewarded career. Ahead of Mavis’ forthcoming UK tour, Clash spoke to Mavis to talk about its beginnings, which hark back to a chapter of America’s recent history it would rather forget…
This is the full transcription of the interview which features in issue 26 of Clash Magazine.
"Pops, y’all had a choir!"
Your father was singing in a group when you were young. At what point, and why, did he decide to use his children as his new group?
My father performed with the group the Trumpet Jubilees. When he started there must have been a dozen singers. Then one day he’d turn up and there would be ten, and the next day there’d be nine…and he did this several times. And the last time, he went to rehearsal and there may have been two or three guys there, so he came home and he went straight to the closet. He pulled out a little guitar that he had bought at the pawnshop. Then he called us children into the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle, and began teaching us the voices that he and his brothers and sisters would sing down in Mississippi.
And he started teaching us. He’d tell my sister Cleotha, “You sing here”… There were fourteen of them! Seven girls and seven boys. I told Pops, I said to him, “Pops, y’all had a choir! (Laughs) That’s a lot of kids!” But we would sing… My Aunt Katy lived with us, one of Pops’ sisters, and one night she came through and Pops was teaching us a song, we were rehearsing. She said, “You all sound pretty good. I believe I want you to sing at my church.” So that Sunday, you know, we were happy – we were gonna sing someplace other than on the living room floor! So we were there at Katy’s church that Sunday and we sang this song. It was the only song that Pops had taught us all the way through.
And the very first song he taught us was ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’. We sang that at the church and the people kept clapping us back, clapping us back! So we had to sing that song about three times because it was the only one that we knew all the way through! So Pops said, “These people seem to like us. We’re going home to learn some more songs.” And we’ve been going ever since!
When you started performing around venues, what kind of music were you singing and where would you be playing?
When we started performing we were singing gospel music – strictly gospel music. We had recorded a record for Vee-Jay Records called ‘Uncloudy Day’. I was fourteen years old when we recorded this song, and it was a hit. The president of the company told Pops, “Staples, this record is selling like an R&B [record]”. And then it turned out to be the very first gospel million seller.
And so that song took us out on the road and that’s what we were singing. Like I said we learnt more songs. Actually, we were singing in big auditoriums – city auditoriums and high school auditoriums – because the churches weren’t large enough to hold the people. Actually I was still in high school. My father would go up to [my] school and tell the teachers, “Give Mavis some homework because she won’t be in school much”. I missed just about every Monday in school, because you would mostly sing two concerts on Sunday – one at 3 o’clock and one at 8 o’clock – and then Sunday night we would be on our way back home; we were driving. So we would start on our way back home, but I couldn’t get home in time enough to go to school.
Because we were going to places like Durham, North Carolina, we were going to Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, Louisiana, Memphis, Tennessee… Our record was a hit first in the South, so we were travelling through the South mostly. Until I graduated, we just kept going, every weekend we’d go out. Because the record was such a big record, we were getting letters from everywhere. My father came home one day and told my mother, he said, “Oce, I think me and the children can make a living with this singing.” And my mother said, “Now Roebuck, don’t you start talking about quitting your job!” because my father was working too! He was a construction worker.
Your hero was the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. She disapproved of performing in venues where there was drinking and smoking. How did you justify playing those kind of gigs?
Well, when we first got an offer to play in a club, actually it was a club in New York, Pops told us about it and I told him, I said, “Well Daddy, I’m not gonna sing in no club, because Sister Mahalia Jackson won’t sing in clubs.” Sister Mahalia Jackson was my idol, and everything she did, to me, was right. Pops told me to sit down. He said, “Sit down here, Mavis. Let me tell you. I’m your father. I know you love Sister Mahalia Jackson, but I am your father and I’m not gonna steer you wrong”.
He said, “Now we’re gonna take our gospel songs up in the clubs. We have to take the church songs to the clubs because the people in the clubs won’t come to church. So we take the church to them”. Pops could always say something to me to make things sound better and make it right. So I couldn’t say anything behind that but go on to the clubs and sing!
I read that you found your voice while singing unaccompanied in church, having to fill the space with your sound…
No, I didn’t. I always sang with my father’s guitar. When I sing, I just sing from hearing; I don’t know music – I don’t even know what key I sing in! My voice is my God given gift. Wherever my father would play his guitar, I would know where to start singing. I would know the sound; I sing from hear.
How did the Staples develop that unique four part harmony?
My father gave us the same voices to sing that he and his brothers and sisters would sing in Mississippi. That’s where the sound came from; the way they used to sing - the old time religion songs; old, old traditional gospel songs. People actually thought we were older people!
We were little kids and people thought we were old people from our record. That’s the way we sounded! Pops would give us the harmonies to sing that they sang. The other part of our uniqueness was my father’s guitar. My father was playing blues on his guitar while we were singing gospel. He learnt to play guitar from Charley Patton down in Dockery’s farm. He loved the way Charley Patton played. It was a long time before I knew that my father was playing the blues licks on his guitar – I just thought that was they way a guitar was supposed to sound!
I didn’t know nothin’ about the blues, you know? But I found our harmonies were very close, and people really didn’t know… Some people thought we were singing country when we first started singing. Our voices, our sound, was very unique and different from everyone.
When you started getting famous was there any competition between the kids for the spotlight?
Oh no! My father and I, we were trying to beg my other sisters for them to take some lead, you know? I’d say, “Daddy, they need to sing lead sometime”, because I loved to sing in the background. But they didn’t want to sing lead. They just wanted me to go out and sing. A lot of times I felt like I was hoggin’ up the stage!
But no, we never had a problem with that, because none of them ever wanted to sing lead. They wanted to sing background, as well as I wanted to sing background. In fact, when we first started singing, I was singing in the background; my brother was singing lead. My brother, Pervis, he was singing lead, and Pervis’ voice changed overnight. He reached puberty and his voice got real heavy. So Pops said, “Mavis, you’re gonna have to sing the lead because Pervis can’t make it”. For some reason, my voice would go high and low; I can make the highs and the lows. And I told Pops, I said, “No Daddy, I don’t want to sing the lead, I want to sing in baritone.”
I thought the baritone was the prettiest voice in the background. And Pops had a little piece of strap. He had cut some belt, and he would get my legs with that when I was bad. So I kept saying I didn’t want to sing that lead, so he reached over and got that little piece of strap, and I’d say, “Okay Daddy, I’ll sing, I’ll sing!” But for the first year, my brother was singing lead for us, but he didn’t sing long enough for us to record. By the time we started recording, I was singing lead.
Most teens feel like they want to carve out their own identities apart from their parents. Was there any tension in the earliest years in the Staple Singers having to do with your need to find yourself as a young girl, apart from your family?
No, not really, because I stayed pretty close to home. There was no big I’s or little yous. Everybody was the same. Now people tried to get me – other record companies tried to get me to sing. They offered me big money to sing R&B when I was a kid, when I was like seventeen years old.
The record companies, they wanted to pay me, and I said, “No, no. I want to sing with my family”. I didn’t care about being a solo artist out there. That’s where I started, and family was home for me. I loved the security of being with my family, and I loved being with my family anyway. So no, I would always turn that down.
Was there any specific thing that triggered the change in your music from gospel to protest music?
People just had to accept we were fighting for our rights.
Yes there was a trigger. What happened was, my family, we were in Montgomery, Alabama, on a Sunday. Actually the group was singing that night in Montgomery at 8 o’clock. That morning, Pops called us, and he said, “This man Martin is in Montgomery. Martin Luther King. He has a church here, and I want to go to his 11 o’clock service, do you all want to go?” And we said, “Oh yeah, we want to go.”
So all of us went to Dr. King’s church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and we were ushered in, someone let him know that we were there in the service, and he acknowledged us – he said he was “glad to have Pops Staples and his daughters with us this morning and we hope they enjoy the service”. And we did enjoy it. We heard him speak, and as we were leaving the church, Dr. King was standing at the door to shake the worshippers’ hands as they filed out.
So my sisters and I, we shook his hand, and then Pops came and when Pops shook his hand he stood there and talked to him for a while. Then we got on back to the hotel and Pops called us to his room again. He said, “Listen y’all, I really like this man’s message, and I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it.” And whatever Pops said – our father was our leader – so, “Yes sir, Daddy, we can sing ’em!”
And we started writing freedom songs; we started writing protest songs. ‘March Up Freedom’s Highway’ – that was for the march from Selma to Montgomery. And then ‘Long Walk To D.C.’ – “It’s a long walk to D.C. but I got my walkin’ shoes on”. And we just wrote! ‘When Will We Paid For The Work We’ve Done’, ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’… You know, ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’ was Dr. King’s favourite.
Was it all dangerous to be an outspoken supporter of his at that time?
Oh yeah. We weren’t just out there singing straight to somebody’s faces, we were recording these songs. We got known for it, singing protest songs. The movement – we joined the movement. There was a struggle going on. People just had to accept we were fighting for our rights. We had one song that the white disc jockeys wouldn’t play on the radio.
All the radio stations were owned by somebody white, and if the disc jockey played it then he was gonna be fired. And that was ‘When Will We Paid For The Work We’ve Done’. They wouldn’t allow that to be played. But no, it was dangerous all through the South whether we were singing or not; it was dangerous for black people!
We had our share of problems with the whites, but our father schooled us when we first started going to the South. I had a time in the South when I was with my grandmother. Pops, he had four children, so he would send my sister Yvonne and I down south to stay in Mississippi with my grandmother. He’d say we were wearing out too many shoes too fast! (Laughs) So my grandmother’s, the two youngest, we would go down there.
That was when I first saw the water fountain that said ‘coloured’. But I was a little kid then; I was still young. My grandmother, she didn’t tell me that much – she just told me “Don’t drink from that fountain”. She didn’t go into telling me how prejudiced it was down there and this and that, but I learnt, you know? But we had some times when people in the stores wouldn’t let us try on shoes. So we wouldn’t buy the shoes! Actually, we went to jail – they put us in jail down in Arkansas!
Do you have my new CD?
Well, there’s a song ‘With My Own Eyes’. It starts out: “When I was just a little girl driving with my Pops / Thrown in jail for nothing by some Southern racist cops”. That’s a true story! (Laughs) We went to jail! We beat up a white man! (Laughs) Beat him up down in Memphis, Tennessee. My father, my brother and my sister, they beat him – I was the getaway driver; I was driving the car!
But see, he said something to my father bad about me. I asked him for a receipt, I asked him to wash the windshield, and he was very nasty. When I asked him for a receipt, he told me to come over to the office. Our father told me, he said, “Mavis, pull over there”. Well see, he was so nasty because he really thought Pops was an older man, an old man, because Pops had grey hair, and he probably thought it was just my father and two ladies. He didn’t see my brother, because my brother was on the back seat covered up with coats waiting for his turn to drive.
Pops went in there to get that receipt and I saw him shake his finger in my father’s face, and when he did that, that’s when Pops clocked him! (Laughs) Blood was flying, and they fought over into the grease pot, and Pops slipped down on some grease – he had his house slippers on. The guy ran to get his gun – I knew he was going to get his gun. So I woke Pervis up. I said, “Pervis, Pervis, they fighting!” And Pervis got up, just jumped out of that back seat just like he was Superman! He went in and it shocked that guy that there was another man with us. So Pervis hit him and he started running then!
They all got in the car and Pops told me to drive. I said, “Pops, I can’t drive – I’m too scared now! I’m too nervous!” He said, “Just drive, Mavis!” I started driving. We get to the bridge that’s dividing Memphis, Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas, and all of a sudden I see three lights behind me. I said, “Daddy, there’s some lights flashing behind me – three cars.” He said, “Just get across the bridge, Mavis.”
I was so nervous I could hardly drive. I slowed down a lot, but I finally got across that bridge. When I got across that bridge, they jumped out of those cars – they had shotguns on them, they had the dogs barking; it was the most frightening thing I had ever seen in my life. They had us standing on the highway with our hands up over our heads. They searched us. My father kept telling them, “We are gospel singers – these are my children!” They found our money, and said, “Where did you get this money from?” My father said, “We sang for that money in Jackson, Mississippi, tonight.” And he said, “Well I gotta hear what kind of singing you do boy” – he called my Dad a boy – “to make this kind of money”.
Well see, the service station attendant, he said, “This is what we’re looking for.” And Daddy said, “No, that’s our money.” The service station attendant had told them that we had robbed him and beat him up and we didn’t pay for our gas! Pops went in there to get the receipt for the gas, so we had that, so he was lying. Pops was taken into another room. When he came out, the chief told them, “Get them handcuffs off him” – they had us in handcuffs! “Get them handcuffs off these people!
We’re trying to straighten this mess up down here and these young bucks is trying to keep it going. Let these people go home.” And then they want to start playing then, you know, the policemen: “I believe me and my wife saw y’all on Johnny Carson”, and “I believe we saw y’all on Hootenanny”. Pervis demanded, “Get these handcuffs off my sister.” And the next time we went to Memphis, here was the chief and at least twelve policemen, all dressed nicely in their uniforms.
Pops looked over there, he said, “Chief, it’s my delight for you all to come out here to see us, but who’s looking after the town over there?” (Laughs) West Memphis, Arkansas! Man, I tell you, that was the most spookiest time of my life, because we just knew them guys were gonna take us out in the woods somewhere and mess us, you know.
The Rolling Stones appropriated your ‘This Could Be The Last Time’ for their own version. How did you feel about British white kids taking gospel music and turning it into rock and roll?
They were doing the same thing that the groups were doing over here – they were taking gospel songs and just changing the words. If you take ‘Jesus’ out and put ‘Baby’ in, then that changes the song.
James Cleveland was doing it, James Brown was doing it, so it wasn’t really a big thing. It wasn’t like they were making a mockery of our Lord; they were just changing the lyrics and keeping that melody of the song. That really wasn’t a big thing because they were doing that over here too.
It was changing times.
Mm-hmm. Time brings about a change. See, this gospel music that the black kids have got now, I’m not too ready for that; you know, the hip-hop gospel. I said to my father, “Pops, isn’t this music making a mockery out of our Lord?” And he said, “Well Mavis, everything must change. They can’t do it the way that you did. You got yours in a different time. It’s their time now. It’s the twenty-first century and they have to do it the way they feel.” I said, “Well I’d rather have the old time religion any day! (Laughs) That’s the kind I like!”