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Mavis Staples rediscovers her roots

Mavis Staples with Special Guest Allen Toussaint, October 16, 2011

The Vancouver Sun

by Francois Marchand

When Mavis Staples picks up the phone, it’s difficult to believe the voice on the other end of the line is that of a 73-year-old woman.

Staples is quick to laugh and as lively as ever when asked about the wonderful year she has just had, a year that included several festival appearances, touring with soul-gospel legend and old friend Allen Toussaint, and scooping her first Grammy for Best Americana Album for You Are Not Alone, her 12th studio record produced by Wilco main man and fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy.

“My doctor says, ‘You’re a young 73, Mavis,’” Staples said from her home in Chicago. “’You have a young heart, young brain, young spirit.’ That’s wonderful.

“Back in the ’70s, [the Staple Singers] just knew we were going to get this Grammy and when we didn’t, my sisters and I moped and got kind of sad,” she said of her first Grammy win. “Pops told us, ‘I don’t want you all getting down over this Grammy. That’s just an award. You’re singing for your just reward, and you’ll get that when the time comes.’

“So I kept that in my mind and never was excited about the Grammys. I’ve been nominated many times and didn’t win.

“But this time I talked to Pops and I said, ‘I’m sorry but I want to win this Grammy.’ I’m telling you, the Lord smiled on me and Pops smiled on me and I was like a blubbering little kid when I went up there. I couldn’t stop crying. It was just beautiful.”

While Staples still is a young soul after all these years singing with her father, Roebuck (Pops) Staples, her sisters in the Staple Singers and working solo, Tweedy revealed himself as the older one when working with the gospel/R&B legend.

A longtime fan of Staples, the Wilco frontman originally tried to meet Staples in 2006 but had to wait until a concert at Chicago’s famed Hideout in 2008 before being able to connect with her.

All of Wilco was present at the time, Staples said, and the meeting didn’t involve much more than hanging out and snapping a few photos.

Two weeks later, Staples received a phone call saying Tweedy was offering to produce her next record.

“He was kind of shy,” Staples said of their first one-on-one conversation. “And I was wondering, ‘Is he going to talk or is he going to be like Prince?’ Because Prince wouldn’t talk to me.”

Prince co-wrote, produced and released two albums for Staples: 1989’s Time Waits For No One and 1993’s The Voice.

“I forgot what I said but it was really funny and that broke up the shyness,” Staples said.

“Then he told me about how he had access to all of our music working at a record store when he was younger and how he loved Pops’ guitar and then started talking about his family and his wife and his wife’s father and how he had met Obama years ago. Her father was a blind man and he had gone back home and told her, ‘I’ve just talked to the man who is going to be President one day.’ And I thought that was so interesting because my father’s father was blind and he had a sense like that.

“But that sold me: The way he talked about family. My father and mother always instilled in us that family is the strongest unit in the world. Always stick with your family. If you do, nobody can break you. So we had a good time for about 2½ hours and when I came out of there I felt like I knew Jeff Tweedy. It was just beauty made in heaven for us to be together doing this.”


For You Are Not Alone, Tweedy dug up and re-wrote a few classics from soul and gospel roots, and adapted material by Toussaint, Creedence Clearwater Revival and famed composer and songwriter Randy Newman, among others.

But the selection of two traditionals – Creep Along Moses and Wonderful Savior – really floored Staples.

“I said, ‘Tweedy, where in the world did you get those songs?’” Staples said. “’These songs are older than me.’”

She laughed.

“It was like the Staple Singers all over again. The sound of the album is like we sounded back in the ‘6os. There are three songs on the record Pops wrote. This was the best music of my life.

“The other songs, I told Jeff, ‘Don’t you think we need to put a solo in there and stretch it out a little bit?’ He said, ‘Mavis, what are you thinking? Don’t you remember the Staple Singers never sang a song over 2½ or three minutes?’ And I said, ‘Tweedy, you are so right. I’m going to stay out of your business.’”

Staples said she hoped her music would continue to lift and give people hope, especially when the economy is again teetering on the brink and people are taking to the streets to voice their discontent, particularly in the U.S.

“I feel this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Staples said. “The world is so messed up. It’s good to see these ordinary people are in downtown Chicago and out on the streets in New York rather than just sitting down moping because they don’t have jobs. But it’s painful.

“The only way I can help is through my music. It’s all turned around, all upside down, but I still talk to Dr. King, I still talk to Pops and I talk to the Lord. I’m just hoping things get better.”

Sat Oct 15, 2011