At 71 and Still Singing Strong, Mavis Staples is a Marvel

Strolling along a hallway of memories in her home, Mavis Staples savors her recollections of a lifetime in gospel music, but the song that caused her to love singing wasn’t a gospel song – it was a song about a turkey! With perfect detail along with perfect pitch, she sings, “A turkey is a funny bird – wobble, wobble, wobble. And all he knows is just one word – gobble, gobble, gobble.” She sang the cherished song she learned from school so incessantly that her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples begged her mother to “stop the baby,” but he also knew there was blessing in her passion. “Your voice is a God-given gift, you know, you don’t know music. You don’t even know what key you sing in,” Pops would remind his burgeoning talent. “I still don’t know what key I sing in,” Mavis admits. After moving his family from his native Mississippi to Chicago, teaching his children to sing came naturally to Pops, when the family sang in churches, they were always a hit, but for a while, a one-hit wonder. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was the only song Mavis, sisters Cleotha and Yvonne, and brother Pervis knew all the way through, so they would sing it over and over, by audience request! “These people like us,” Pops declared. “We’re going home to learn some more songs.” They learned lots of new songs and wrote some, too. While on the gospel circuit in the South, Pops told his children how inspired he was by a young preacher, Martin Luther King, telling them about his message of equality, admonishing, “If he can preach it, we can sing it.” The family began writing freedom songs that became anthems of the civil rights movement, and sometimes even sang before Dr. King spoke. Mavis still says her father’s “Freedom Highway” is a song she sees and feels every time she sings it.

The family garnered national acclaim and chart status with their performance of “Respect Yourself” at the Wattstax music festival in 1972, but it was “I’ll Take You There” from their “Be Altitude, Respect Yourself” album that went number one and catapulted them to superstar status. “Back then, it was like Justin Bieber and Beyoncé are today – people were grabbing us,” Mavis remembers. “We couldn’t go nowhere!” The family of faith in the church, though, didn’t always think much of the Staples’ new status, accusing them of selling out and singing the devil’s music. Pops had the perfect answer for that reaction, too, saying that “We have to sing in the club. People in the clubs, they don’t go to church, so we have to take the church to them.” Pops was progressive, too, in his thoughts about interracial harmony and marriage in his time. Mavis had a three-year courtship with young Bob Dylan and says her father wasn’t a hindrance to furthering the relationship. “I loved Bobby enough to marry him, I just wasn’t ready to marry then,” she remembers. It took more convincing for Pops to be persuaded to sing a line from the song, “Let’s Do It Again,” by Curtis Mayfield. “I’m a church man,” Pops would protest, but Mayfield finally won out getting the revered elder to sing, “I like you lady-so fine with your pretty hair.” The line would hardly spark a controversy in any circles today. By the time of his death in 2000, Pops had received his share of solo honors, has had Mavis. Her signature sound is unmatchable, whether on her incomparable version of “Born in Bethlehem” with The Blind Boys of Alabama or with Jeff Tweedy from the band Wilco for the album, “You Are Not Alone,” last year, which earned her something the Staples Singers never got – a Grammy.

“I love it. I love it. I love it,” radiates Mavis when asked about singing. I was put here to sing. I was put here to spread the word – to bring y’all a message. To inspire you. To motivate you. You know, that’s what Mavis is about! That’s my life.” She tells an audience in Pops’ old stomping grounds in Meridian, Mississippi, returning for an encore even after a two-hour show. “Ain’t no stopping me. I will sing. You know, you’ll have to come and scoop me off the stage. I’m going to sing till I die. I will sing till I die. No need stopping.”

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“Sunday Morning” telecast, April 24, 2011 CBS TV.