The Vault of Soul: Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples
Graphics by Ainsley Basic

By Nora Onanian, Web Services Coordinator

 

To celebrate Black Music Month, we are excited to be bringing back our Vault of Soul series. Step inside the vault to discover the life and legacy of some of the world's greatest soul artists, both past and present. Starting today, every Friday of June there will be a new artist spotlighted. Who better to kick it off than Mavis Staples? Continue reading to uncover her incredible life and career.

 

BIOGRAPHY

Mavis Staples was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1939, the youngest of four children. Her music career began at just 11 years old when she joined her family gospel band, The Staple Singers. Led by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., the spiritual-based group became a musical voice of the civil rights movement. 

In 1968, the group signed to Stax Records and began their transition into the genres of soul and rhythm and blues. In a span of four years, between 1971 and 1975, The Staple Singers had two #1 songs and six others in the Top 40. They came to be referred to as “God’s greatest hitmakers.”

People connected to the group’s passionate message-filled lyrics and were especially drawn to Mavis’ powerful voice. “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,” and “The Weight” continue to be The Staple Singers' most successful songs.

 

PURSUING A SOLO CAREER

In 1969, Mavis Staples made her debut as a solo artist with the album Mavis Staples (1969). She continued to perform and create music both independently and as a member of The Staple Singers until her father’s health declined during the 1990s. 

She took a break from music after Pops’ death in 2000 but returned with new vigor in 2004. Staples recorded Have A Little Faith as a tribute to him. The album was her first big break as a solo artist, earning her several nominations and recognitions. 

Since Have A Little Faith, Staples has released six studio albums. She has also done collaborations with artists such as Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, Hozier, and Arcade Fire. Outside of her music career, Mavis Staples is also a talented actress and civil rights activist.

 

WHO INFLUENCED MAVIS STAPLES

Mahalia Jackson, nicknamed the “Queen of Gospel Song,” is cited as one of Mavis Staples’ biggest musical and personal influences. After a period of experimenting with genres like disco and electro, Jackson inspired Staples to return to her gospel roots. She released Spirituals and Gospel: Dedicated to Mahalia Jackson in 1996. 

Mavis Staples and Bob Dylan produced several collaborations. Most notably, their song “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” off of Dylan’s album Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, was nominated for a Grammy in 2003. The pairing of Dylan’s low gravelly voice with Staples’ smooth and powerful vocals is unmatched. Staples and Dylan’s relationship went beyond musical collaboration. She considers him a close friend and in her 2015 documentary Mavis!, revealed that Dylan even once asked her father for her hand in marriage.

 

WHO MAVIS STAPLES INFLUENCED

Bob Dylan was as much influenced by Staples as she was by him. In a 2015 interview, he recounted the first time he listened to The Staple Singers’ song “Uncloudy Day.” “Her singing just knocked me out,” Dylan said. “Mavis was a great singer—deep and mysterious.”

Many artists have sampled Mavis Staples’ music. Most notably, Ice Cube, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Ludacris, and Hozier in his hit “Nina Cried Power.” 

In 2014, dozens of musicians gathered for a concert at Chicago’s famous Auditorium Theatre to celebrate Mavis Staples’ 75th birthday. Artists in attendance include Grace Potter, Otis Clay, Widespread Panic, and collaborators like Jeff Tweedy and Arcade Fire. The 20 plus performances were recorded and put together in the album Mavis Staples - I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Celebration. Interviews done at the event put to words just how big of an impact Staples had, both culturally and musically.

 

AWARDS WON

  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame The Staple Singers (1999)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award The Staple Singers (Grammys, 2005)
  • Album of the Year Have A Little Faith (Blues Music Awards, 2005)
  • Album of the Year and Best Soul Blues Album Have A Little Faith (Blues Music Awards, 2005)
  • Song of the Year “Have A Little Faith” (Blues Music Awards, 2005)
  • Soul Blues Female Artist (Blue Music Awards, 2006, 2017, 2018)
  • Best Americana Album You Are Not Alone (Grammys, 2010)
  • Best American Roots Performance “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” (Grammys, 2015)

SPOTLIGHT TRACKS

“I’LL TAKE YOU THERE” (1972)

“I’ll Take You There” was originally written by Stax Records producer Al Bell and performed by The Staple Singers in 1972. Mavis Staples’ powerful and energetic vocals are on full display. The interplay of her singing, the background vocals, and the lively instruments mimic a call and response style. Many view lyrics such as “I know a place, ain't nobody cryin', ain't nobody worried” as an interpretation of a world where the civil rights movement has successfully run its course. “I’ll Take You There” was The Staple Singers’ first #1 hit, and it’s no surprise why. The song has a strong rhythm and a feel-good tone.

 

“I HAVE LEARNED TO DO WITHOUT YOU” (1970) 

“I Have Learned To Do Without You” shows off Mavis Staples’ feisty spirit and impressive range of vocal techniques. It comes off of her second solo album, Only For The Lonely, released in 1970. Through the lyrics, Staples sings about moving past a relationship with a cheating partner. “I have wiped all the tears from my eyes,” she sings. “I’m doing just fine all by myself.” While her voice starts gently, by the end of the song it is at full power and effortlessly climbing octaves. The instrumentation builds up alongside Staples’ singing, asserting her independence.

 

“YOU ARE NOT ALONE” (2010)

“You Are Not Alone” radiates comfort and warmth. It comes off of Mavis Staples’ eighth studio album of the same name, produced by Wilco's frontman Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy wrote it after a conversation with Staples where they talked about music’s powerful quality of telling listeners that they’re not alone. The song opens with acoustic guitar before Staples' beautifully assertive voice comes in. She sings, “I’m with you, I’m lonely too,” among other words of assurance. Background piano and an electric guitar are added in, evolving the instrumentation yet not taking away from Staples’ singing. In an interview, Staples called it “one of the most beautiful songs [she] ever sang” and explained the significance the song's lyrics took on for her. “I'm the last standing Staple Singer, and I'm divorced. So when I sing this song, I mean it. I'm with you - I'm lonely too," she said.

 

You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more. 

Interested in exploring the Soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Let host D Danubian wind you up and simmer you down with a blend of R&B, Soul, and Slow Jams.

Also, be sure to check out ERS+, our new HD radio experience. Take a deep dive into R&B and Hip Hop with the legendary voices of Soul alongside new and pioneering MCs. Find ERS+: Boston’s Black Experience online at WERSPlus.Org

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