Oh, yeah. The minute I heard that voice there were no doubts. Even when simply conversing via phone, that unmistakably warm, husky, gospel-drenched Sunday-morning tone still manages to reach out and touch. And this Friday, Mavis Staples will share that gift — the same gift she has shared with audiences for 53 years — with an appreciative crowd at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor.
Staples, of course, is often referred to as a “living legend,” but when talking to her on the phone, it’s like talking to a good friend you’ve not heard from in a while. For someone who’s been in the trenches for as long as Staples has — in both her solo career and as lead voice of the Staple Singers — she’s unusually open, friendly, talkative, and a lot of fun. If the business has worn her down at all over the years, she’s keeping her wounds well hidden.
What made her decide to appear as the featured artist in the debut of WCC’s Living Legend Series? She says that it was the opportunity to interact with young people, the opportunity to answer questions from those who have recently discovered her music by hearing “borrowed” bits on contemporary pop records, or that which has been handed down through the years.
“When the young people want to know about your life, you’re more than willing to let them know about it,” Staples says. “We’re entering our fifth generation now, and we have the following of the young people today. They have sampled so much of our music. … It’s so funny, because I’ll have somebody come up to me and say, ‘Miss Staples, I don’t know you but my mother knows you.’ Now it’s gotten to where they say, ‘Miss Staples, I don’t know you but my grandmother knows you!’”
Do grandmother references make her feel old?
Hardly. “It makes me feel good!” she says. “It’s flattering that they listen to this old girl.”
And the young folks out there might be flattered to know that Mavis Staples is listening to them as well — and closely.
“I like Ice Cube,” she says flatly. “He sampled [Staple Singers’ hit] ‘Let’s Do It Again’ in one of his songs. And I like this boy 50 Cent. He’s just telling his life. Now I just sit here and say the Lord kept him here for some reason. Shot nine times? He ain’t supposed to be here. What I’ve heard is a person talking about his life. It’s like writing a book.”
Speaking of life stories, Staple Singers’ fans know that, despite the well-deserved acclaim bestowed upon Mavis, the hit-machine group has always been about family; Roebuck “Pops” Staples, her father, on lead guitar and vocals, supplemented by the background vocals of sisters Cleotha and Yvonne. Pervis, their brother, was also with the band. The Staples’ sound is a family sound, and it was that nurturing family environment that provided Mavis with all the support she needed to soar.
In 1998, while recording, the family unit began facing bleak days when Pops showed signs of illness. Still, despite the setback, Pops refused to let his troubles stop the music. Between times of ill health Pops would call Mavis to book studio time. She’d pick him up and he’d lay down tracks. The end result of said sessions is the very last complete Staple Singers album — Pops Staples’ last recorded work before he passed in winter 2000. And since then, Cleotha Staples has developed Alzheimer’s disease.
Later this year, that album will finally see the light of day on Lost Highway Records, along with a solo effort by Mavis.
“I always have said my daddy was the best singer ever, and he is singing on this album,” Staples explains. “This is my father’s best work. He’s singing those traditional gospel songs that he grew up with as a boy.”
When Mavis Staples sings on Friday, she will be singing mostly Staple Singers faves such as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” Her backing band will include drummer and musical director Tim Austin, accompanied by Al Turner “the Burner” on bass, who has done time with luminaries such as Aretha Franklin, Earl Klugh and Patti LaBelle. On keyboards is Al Duncan, who’s said to be a favorite of Burt Bacharach; WCC’s own John E. Lawrence, head of the school’s musical performance program, will accompany the group on guitar. Should be a great show.
Mavis Staples will perform and speak at Washtenaw Community College (4800 E. Huron River Drive, Ann Arbor) in the Morris Lawrence Building’s Towsley Auditorium. The evening will begin with an interview with Staples conducted by Jas Obrecht, music journalist and former editor of Guitar Player magazine. For more information, call 734-973-3450.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org