The Gospel According to Mavis Staples
Several years later, in 2016, Staples and his band toured as opening act for Dylan. For the sake of preservation, Dylan makes a habit of being alone on the road, rarely attending the opening act when he has one. This time was different.
“The first show, someone knocked on my door and said someone wanted to see you,” she told me. “Enter Bobby. And I said, ‘Bobby, I’m so glad to see you. I’ve wanted to see you for so long.’
“You should have married me,” Dylan said. “You would have seen me every day.”
Staples married once, and miserably. In 1964, she met a Chicago undertaker named Spencer Leak. The Leak family was prominent on the South Side, and their wedding was a major social event. But Leak wasn’t happy with his wife’s fame, and it didn’t help that they couldn’t have children, a serious disappointment for Staples. The end came six years later, with Staples changing the locks on his door and Leak sleeping in the funeral home. His next album, a solo effort, was called “Only for the Lonely”. Years later, she told Prince about her marriage, inspiring him to write a song for her called “The Undertaker.”
Staples is a savvy retailer with its own history. She’s not going to get carried away about lost loves and old disappointments – not now, not in front of you or in front of me. Instead, she’ll tell you about when the Staple Singers went to Ghana and a bureaucrat showed up at her hotel door with a note from a Ghanaian chef. “Chief Nana wanted me to be the No. 4 woman,” she said. “We had all been to his palace one night. All that marble! The leader, she said, was “handsome, but not handsome enough for me to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll be the No. 4 woman.’ 2 and 3 will probably tear me apart.
This ability to deviate, to find humor in a complicated experience, indicates not a lack of depth but a soul that knows itself. “I’m always struck by how Mavis, no matter what she sings, no matter the decade, always brings you back to the sound of the church,” Braxton Shelley, music and black church scholar from Yale, told me. “At the same time, Mavis has always seems like Mavis. She tells this terrible story of the gas station and her arrest, and she talks about white supremacy, painful things. But, at the same time, you still feel that she’s woven the emotional pain she’s been through into the fabric of her life. I do not pretend to have a deep knowledge of his inner life, but there is a deep sense of charm about Mavis Staples, who’s kind of a miracle, you know?
Because Staples isn’t keen on telling sad stories or engaging in trash talk, you’re surprised by the rare moment she steers into difficult territory, such as when discussing her relationship with Aretha Franklin. . Staples has known the Franklin family for much of his life. When she was a teenager, Aretha’s father, CL Franklin, one of the nation’s leading black preachers, came to Chicago from Detroit to deliver his famous sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest.” “I ran all around and around the church,” Staples told me. “The Holy Spirit got me.” It was, she said, like a “fire that hit the soles of your feet”.
She became good friends with Aretha Franklin and her siblings. There’s no doubt that Franklin had a more powerful and versatile vocal instrument, and Staples, despite his ability to put a song together with uncommon depth of feeling, never claimed otherwise. But she always felt somewhat diminished by Franklin, and after they teamed up to tape a live church performance of Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day” in 1987, she felt downright disrespectful. When the recording was released, it became clear that Franklin had turned down the volume on Staples’ vocal track. Staples said she just shrugged and let it go. “I should have told him, ‘No, don’t put the record out,'” she said. “But you know me: goody-goody Mavis.”
Franklin, she admits, tested her temper. “I put up with it for a long time until I got tired, you know?” Staples told me. “She was very insecure. I did my best to be her friend. She called me and asked me to call her back. When I called her back, the number was changed. So, you know, she was weird like that.
Still, Staples said, “I’m just a carefree, you know? I can overcome anything. Except death in the family. Over the years, Pops and Mavis were the staples of the Staple Singers. Yvonne, Pervis and Cleotha walked in and out of the group; Oceola stayed at home. The only sibling who never acted was Cynthia, the youngest. Cynthia suffered from depression. Children had bullied her at school and harassed her, asking her why she didn’t sing with her famous family. Sometimes when Mavis was in Chicago, she would let Cynthia come to her house and try to cheer her up. “I pushed Pops to ask Cynthia to play the tambourine or something for us,” Staples said, but it never worked out.
One day in 1973, when Cynthia was twenty-one, she was at home with Oceola, who was in the kitchen preparing supper. The rest of the family was on the road, performing in Las Vegas. Cynthia mentioned to Oceola that she got a check in the mail from Pops and wanted to write a thank you note. Instead, she went into the living room and killed herself with a .38 caliber revolver. “We never knew how much pain she was in,” Staples said.
Backstage at Wolf Trap, Staples and his band prepared for the show as they often do, singing a gospel track, “Wonderful Savior.” Sometimes, especially in the South, Staples can draw a racially mixed crowd, but not often. It had been a long time since she had been able to measure her performance by the number of shouts and “amens” from an audience; no one at Wolf Trap was likely to need a deacon to bring them back to consciousness. This theatricality and these gospel emotions belong to a different world. And modern gospel — whether it’s Kirk Franklin’s hip-hop-influenced music or the large number of choirs in churches across the country or Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir — isn’t a presence for most. of these listeners. Still, Staples will occasionally ask its guitarist, Rick Holmstrom, to sneak a peek at the audience. “I can feel a difference in her when we have an amen corner with even a few pockets of African Americans – it changes the vibe,” he told me. “I’ll take a look, and she’ll be like, ‘How does it look? Slim and his brother None? I’ll say, ‘I don’t think this is a “Weights” party.’ That means there are black people. We can lean on the soul and the gospel. A ‘weight’ party would be when it’s a white crowd.
The Staple Singers, like their leading black brethren in the blues, have always had a respectful following of white musicians. One of the first singles recorded by the Rolling Stones was “The Last Time”, a 1965 hit, credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, but inspired by a Staples recording from a decade earlier. Pops Staples didn’t care; the tune is from a traditional gospel song. Next, Stones management asked the Staple Singers to open for them on their 1972 tour. By then, Pops had moved the band to more popular material. Singles like “I’ll Take You There” may have offended some gospel purists, but they broadened the band’s appeal and enriched them. No matter. The Stones offered the Staple Singers a paltry five hundred dollars a night. Pops turned them down. “I’d like to think Mick Jagger doesn’t know about it,” he told a reporter for Variety.
Mavis Staples has no patience for segregation, in politics or music. She is both sure of the essential place of black composers and performers in American music and open to singing along with anyone who can follow. Time and time again in recent years, she has featured in the genre of gumbo known as Americana. Among her albums in this vein is a sentimental one titled “You Are Not Alone”, recordings she made in 2011 with Levon Helm, in her Woodstock barn. Helm, who died in 2012, suffered from throat cancer; he was awfully thin, his voice raspy and weak, and yet together they rose to the occasion, collaborating on Curtis Mayfield’s protest anthem “This Is My Country”, Dylan’s gospel song “Gotta Serve Somebody “, “The Weight” and, yes, “This may be the last time.”
Onstage at Wolf Trap, Staples was energetic. She put together a set that mixed Staple Singers hits (“If You’re Ready,” “I’ll Take You There”), Delta blues (Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Got to Move”) and cover songs from Talking Heads, Buffalo Springfield and Funkadelic. She also did a saucy version of “Let’s Do It Again”, a song that Curtis Mayfield had to convince Pops to play. “I’m a churchman, I don’t sing that,” Pops protested. “Oh, Pops, the Lord won’t care,” Mayfield said. “It’s just a love song.” Trade prevailed. By the way, how many hours are there really between Saturday evening and Sunday morning? As if to compound the sin, Staples proceeded to squat and butt hips with Holmstrom, and at one point even used the headstock of his guitar to lift her skirt. Then she scolded him, laughing, “Rick, you took that song of sin too seriously! You can not do this !
For the most part, the band takes a step back and lets Staples sing along, giving her the space to move into the song and do whatever she wants. Holmstrom said, “Pops was like, ‘Sing it clear. Put it there. One time she was screaming a little, getting a little too much, and Pops said, “Just stand there and sing it nice and clear and you’ll get your point across.” “These days she ends her set with ‘I’ll Take You There.’ She’s performed that song as often as Dylan performed ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, but she does it with such levity and conviction that, as the audience sings, you get the feeling she wouldn’t mind singing all night.. At the end, Holmstrom gently touches her on the elbow and leads her backstage.
When we spoke later, Staples went back, as always, to the weight that weighs on her: the loneliness she feels when she’s not singing, all the missing – Oceola, Cynthia, Pervis, Cleotha, Pops, Yvonne. I asked her if she was thinking about the end.
“You know, I know it,” she said. “I do it quite often. And I wonder how I’m going to do it. Where will I be? I have everything prepared. I have a will, because I have lots of nieces and nephews, Pervis’ children and charities. But I feel like I think about it more than ever. And I’m like, ‘I have to stop thinking.’ Speedy, he tells me maybe I should talk to a therapist. I said, ‘No need for a therapist. The Lord is my therapist. It’s who I talk to when I need help. ”
I asked her if she had an answer.
“Yes indeed. That’s why I’m still here. He lets me know when I’m right and when I’m wrong, but he doesn’t let me know when my time will come. But, you see, I just have to I’m ready. If it happens tomorrow, I’m ready. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. I’ve been good. I’ve kept my father’s legacy alive. It was Pop who started it, and I’m not just gonna waste it. I’ll sing every time I get on stage, I’ll sing with all my heart and all I can. ♦