Tony Cummings writes on the six decade career of soul and gospel diva MAVIS STAPLES
One of the most welcome and unexpected showbiz comebacks of recent times is that of Mavis Staples. Her 'We'll Never Turn Back' album has been widely acknowledged as a classic and its powerful evocation of the civil rights era with its old and new songs and a stunning production from guitar maestro Ry Cooder again highlights one of popular music's great vocalists. Though the 67 years old singer is past the peak of her powers which made those Staple Singers million sellers for Stax Records, like "Respect Yourself" and "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)", such mesmerising listening, Mavis' rich, husky contralto today remains soulfully intact. And 'We'll Never Turn Back' with its emotive musical pictures of the segregated South and the fight for freedom is the perfect creative palate for the veteran diva.
The idea for the album sprang from Anti- Records president Andy Kaulkin, who signed Mavis after learning she had exited her Alligator Records contract. Kaulkin said he was inspired by the civil rights book Walking With The Wind written by Congressman John Lewis, and pitched the concept of an album to Mavis when she would tackle music of those times. The opening track "Down In Mississippi" sets the context of the dark days of segregation. Mavis' opening monologue over a track that brilliantly fuses Cooder's slide blues guitar and an acoustic mandolin with a ricocheting electronic rhythm is plucked from Mavis' memories and her visits to her grandma in Mississippi. "As far back as I can remember, I either had a plough or a hoe," working in the hot Black Belt sun. Danger was everywhere - someone would go to jail for shooting a rabbit out of the hunting season, but "the season was always open on me. . ." Water fountains were segregated; so were "washaterias".
The old songs on 'We'll Never Turn Back' are equally powerful. Wrote reviewer Lester Feder, "She shakes powerful Civil Rights Era songs free of the layers of clichéd idealism that have tarnished them in the eyes of modern audiences. No aging hippies holding hands here. Staples's rendition of such tunes as 'Eyes On The Prize', 'On My Way', 'This Little Light Of Mine' and '99 And A Half' remind the listener that these musical gems remain among America's most powerful MUSIC, not just historical monuments to a political movement."
Several of the songs are associated with the courageous work of the Rev Martin Luther King. Mavis has vivid memories of how she first got to know the civil rights leader. She told Jeffrey Brown about a day in 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama. "We were working there that night. Pops called us and told us, 'Listen, y'all, this man Martin is here, Martin Luther King, and I want to go to his church. He has a church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and would you all like to go?' We said, 'Yes, Pops. We want to go.' We all went to Dr King's church that Sunday morning for an 11:00 service. We go back to the hotel. Pops called us again. 'Listen, you all, I really like this man's message. And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.'"
Mavis admitted that initially she was sceptical about the whole 'We'll Never Turn Back' civil rights concept. But then, as she told Billboard magazine, she spent a little time thinking about current events. "I realised what these songs were about wasn't all in the past. You've got Katrina and all of these black people - and some whites - floating around in this water with signs asking for help. And you've got policemen shooting these black guys with 50 shots. Why? And then you have a white comedian standing onstage and shouting the 'N' word. So it's all still here."
It is of course the "freedom songs" the Staples Singers recorded in the '60s which were the group's first step away from the strictly gospel songs of their early recordings. On a crackling telephone line from her Chicago home Mavis reminisced to Cross Rhythms about those difficult times. "In the middle of the 1960s there were nine black children trying to board a bus to go to school in Little Rock, Arkansas and they called these children The Little Rock 9. We have seen them recently, they are grown people now but these people, the white people gave them such a bad time trying to go to school. This went on for weeks, so it finally came to a head and the Governor of Arkansas said let those children go to school. Then the Mayor of Little Rock let the children go to school and the President of the United States said we would let those children board that bus and go to school. So we are sitting there watching the news. We wanted to see the kids go to school and just as they got ready to board the bus a policeman was standing there and he put his club across the door. Pops said, 'Now why should he do that?! Why he treating them so bad?' He wrote that song that evening and that song turned out to be Dr King's favourite song. We would sing before Dr King would speak and he would tell Pops, we would be going to the auditorium and he would say, 'Now you gonna sing my song tonight, right?' and Pops said, 'Oh yeah Dr King, we are gonna sing you a song!'"
It was during the Staple Singers' stay at Epic Records that they recorded "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)". It was also for that company that Mavis made her first stab at a solo career, recording a quasi-religious country song that had been a big doowop hit for the Orioles, and pop hit for Elvis Presley. But as it turned out Mavis Staples' rendition of "Crying In The Chapel" sank without trace. It wasn't until later when the Stax subsidiary Volt Records released Mavis' highly regarded solo albums 'Mavis Staples' (1969) and 'Only For The Lonely' (1970) that Mavis really began to take on her own identity outside of the family group. More solo albums on Curtom, 'A Piece Of The Action' (1977), and Warner Bros, 'Oh What A Feeling' (1979), followed but it was only when the Staple Singers began to wind down in the late '80s that Mavis came into her own as a venerated solo soul diva with the help of an '80s R&B superstar. She told Blues & Soul magazine, "When I first met Prince it was in August of '87. He came to the LA Forum to watch us when we were playing an oldies show. I told my sister, 'I'm gonna be real cool when I meet Prince.' I was backstage and he came walking towards me with this little hip walk, tight suit and cane - and cool just went out the window! I screamed just like a kid!
"The first thing I told him was, 'I've gotta kiss you for my mama,' because she's a big Prince fan. He said, 'Kiss me on the other cheek for mama too.' When I first met him, though, he wouldn't really talk to me then. He'd just stand there and smile and blush. He stayed in the dressing room about 45 minutes. I was talking the whole time and he'd just give me one or two word answers. He was so shy, but I picked up some beautiful vibes from him. Then my daddy walked into the room and walked up to Prince and looked him in the face and said, 'Young man, it's mighty nice of you to come out here and meet Mavis.' Prince looked at daddy and said, 'You can play.' I went back to the hotel and said to myself, 'Now if we're gonna work together, I've gotta find a way we can communicate,' so I started writing him letters, every chance I could get. Finally he started calling up."
Mavis' first album for Prince's Paisley Park, 'Time Waits For No One', suffered from a lack of radio play and though she had a role in Prince's Graffiti Bridge movie and recorded a second album with Prince, 'The Voice' in 1993, somehow the expected big hit eluded the diva. Mavis looks back on her years with Prince with considerable warmth. Despite his sexually explicit lyrics, his controversial stage act and eccentric posturings Mavis saw another side of the genius musician. She told Cross Rhythms, "Prince knows that his talent is a gift from God. He plays every instrument and nobody taught him how to do that you know! He would question Yvonne, my sister, and me and we would talk about the Bible. We told him, 'One day you gonna preach!' He's such a humble person, his heart is good. Now I hate to say it, I don't know what your faith is, but he's gotten with the Jehovah Witnesses and I am so sad about that. He calls me, he talks to me and tells me all about the Bible. He says, 'Mavis you are way ahead of me, I want to catch up with you.'
In 1996 Mavis teamed up with jazz organist Lucky Peterson for a back-to-the-roots project, 'Spirituals And Gospel: Dedicated To Mahalia Jackson' for Verve Records but it seemed that with each passing year the singer was moving further and further away from the showbiz spotlight and, with Pops dying in 2000 and Cleotha contracting Alzheimer's disease in 2001, Mavis all but retired. But then record producer Jim Tullio began looking for someone to sing a song he wrote as a tribute to friends he lost in the September 11 2001 tragedy. Mavis and Tullio hit it off and began working on the song "In Times Like These" and soon a whole album was in the making. With its strong set of gospel songs, including a searing version of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken", the first song her father taught his children, Staples booking agent Mike Kappus shopped the album 'Have A Little Faith' to several labels and it was Chicago blues label Alligator Records who picked it up for release in 2004.
Mavis told Billboard magazine that the goal of 'Have A Little Faith' was to encourage people. She said, "I wanted to shed a ray of light on our world. We're living in such troubled times. I wanted it to be healing. I know how healing music is and I felt certain we could put an album together that would be uplifting."
Now things have very much come full circle for Mavis with 'We'll Never Turn Back' appearing in numerous Best Albums Of 2007 lists (including Cross Rhythms). So is there anything left for the singer who has shared a stage with Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Prince and Janis Joplin and sung for three presidents - Kennedy, Carter and Clinton? Mavis told me near the close of our conversation, "With my music I want to show people that we can overcome every injustice and every trial. And most important, people need to know they can be converted, can be changed. You know, prayer changes things. God changes things. If you'll let him God is able to carry you through. You can be the worst person in the world. A lot of men who are in jail, they have committed crimes, but in prison they find God. They are given a Bible in jail and they are just changed. So, God is a forgiving God, you know. And you can change. You can go in bad and turn our good."