Happy tears: Tahoe-bound Mavis Staples sings from her heart, reaches hearts
Like she does onstage and on her albums, gospel singer Mavis Staples often refers to “Him.” But she is a bit confused when it comes to “they.”
Staples sang on her first hit record in 1956 but only last winter did she win her first Grammy Award when she collaborated with producer Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco for Best Americana Album, “You Are Not Alone.”
“About the fourth song into that session,” Staples said, “I was so comfortable and the feeling was so good at the Wilco studio, I said, ‘Tweedy, we got to do this again. We can’t stop here.’ He said, ‘But Mavis, they may not let me produce you again.’ I said, ‘Who is they?’
“They” and Staples, which just might be the same person, decided a follow-up album would be made. Staples said she and Tweedy would be back in the studio in the next few months.
Like the crooning of Frank Sinatra, guitar of B.B. King and saxophone of John Coltrane, Staples’ voice is instantly recognizable. She was the primary lead singer with the Staple Singers, which included her siblings Cleo, Yvonne and Pervis and her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. The family sang in Martin Luther King’s church and was called “God’s Greatest Hitmakers.”
In addition to the Grammy, Staples this year was named by Living Blues as Artist of Year and Most Outstanding Blues Singer. She previously worked on albums with Lucky Peterson and Ry Cooder, but teaming with Wilco’s Tweedy might seem like an unusual partnership, she admitted.
“(I said) ‘Why does this young guy want to produce me?’ ” Staples said. “I said, ‘He’s such a youngster.’ But I’ve been with youngsters before. Plus he’s a rock guy but Pops used to tell people, ‘Don’t categorize us. We sing.’ “
Staples spoke with Lake Tahoe Action by telephone from her fourth-floor townhouse on Lake Michigan in Chicago. She shared many words of advice she received from her father, who died in 2000.
“I talk to my Pops all the time,” Staples said. “I said, ‘Daddy, I’m 73 years old now and people are liking me more than when I was a kid.’ “
Here are some excerpts of our conversation:
Action: You have been out West a lot in recent years. We saw you in Sparks in 2008 and at the blues festival in Tahoe in 2009 and last summer you played with Keb’ Mo’ and Robert Cray at the Hollywood Bowl.
Staples: I really enjoy that Hollywood Bowl and those are two of my favorites, Keb’ and Robert. I had a wonderful time out there and I just love coming out West, period. I’m just grateful to still be here and be able to still hang with my friends and fans. This Thanksgiving I just thanked the Lord for just keeping me here, and my voice is still OK. My health is good. I feel it in my joints every once in a while but that’s normal. I can handle that with some stretches. I’m just so grateful. I’m just a grateful old girl.
Action: Your voice sounds just as it did from your records in the 1970s. How do you do it?
Staples: Pops always taught us, “Get your rest.” He wouldn’t let us go to any after-parties and stuff like that. And “Mavis, no smoking.” I have some wine every now and then but I don’t go crazy. I think just resting my voice when I need to rest it. After sets, I drink tea and honey and it seems my voice is getting stronger. Pops one time scared me to death because I didn’t like to rehearse. “Mavis, let me tell you something. Your voice is God’s gift to you and you don’t abuse it by not using it. If you don’t use it, he’ll take it back.” I was so young then I believed every word my father said. After that, I was the first one in rehearsal. So anytime I can use it to sing God’s praises or to sing any type of song, I use it.
Action: The organizers at the Tahoe blues festival were concerned when you sang too long. Does that happen a lot?
Staples: (Laughing) When the spirit hits you and you be feeling good, you gotta let it go. I hate to go over time but sometimes it just can’t be helped. Like that old saying, ‘When the spirit hits you, you got to move,’ and when the spirit hit me, I got to keep on singing. I will give you all of what I am feeling because I’m feeling good, too.
Action: Your guitarist, Rick Holmstrom, is fantastic. I bet Pops would approve.
Staples: I told him, “Rick, I tell you, man, sometime I think Pops is standing there next to you.” Because he’s got Pops’ licks. Before I hired him, he was into Pops. He was into Pops before I even met him. He’s so close to him when he’s playing that “Freedom Highway” and “Circle Be Unbroken.” My father, I believe he’s hearing you, but I would love to see his face to hear you play those licks. Because when Pops couldn’t make it (to shows), none of the guys, they couldn’t get Pops. But Rick, he’s very close.
Action: When you sing, people get very emotional. What do you think when you see people crying in the audience?
Staples: That makes me feel so good because I know that I’m reaching them. The tears, I look at them as tears of joy. They feel good. When I was a girl, I used to ask my mom, “Mama, what did I do to make them cry?” “Mavis, baby, they happy. You make them feel good. Those are happy tears they are crying.” I love to see the people smile and cry. That’s my whole purpose. Pops taught me that. I was about 15 years old. New York. These kids were doing all kinds of stuff. They were jumping around and signing loud. So I started doing that and Pops snatched me off, “Mavis, what are you doing?” “Daddy, I’m just singing.” “You don’t need gimmicks. You don’t need to clown and sing at the top of your voice to sing God’s music. You be sincere and sing from your heart.” He said, “What comes from the heart, reaches the heart and if you sing from your heart, you will reach those people out there.” I never forget things he taught me. When I leave that dressing room to go on stage, I go to my heart. I am going to be singing from my heart. I’m not going to be singing off the top of my head. I’m meaning what I’m saying and I live the life I’m singing about. I want to get to the people. I want the people to hear my lyrics. He would always say, “Make it plain, Mavis. Make it plain so people can understand what you are saying. That’s what they want to hear.” I have a little meditation in the dressing room and I have my tea and I go to my heart and say a little prayer and we come out there and the people cheer and I feel so good and I’m ready to give you all my all. I appreciate them and I want them to appreciate me. I want them to leave there feeling good and feeling lifted.
Action: What do you think about being called a blues singer?
Staples: One time I said, “Daddy, why are they having us at all these blues festivals? And these folk festivals? We don’t sing no blues. He said, “Mavis, you go and you listen to our music. It’s some of every kind of music in our music. So don’t be alarmed about us being called to the blues festival. They just want to hear music. We sang for years. My sisters and I. We were singing gospel. We didn’t know Pops was playing the blues on his guitar. He learned from Charlie Patton. All of them and blues guys, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, all of them were Pop’s inspiration. I remember so much of what my father taught me. I was just so blessed to have a hands-on father like Pops.
Action: I need to come back to something you said earlier because I think you just gave me a scoop. Did you say you and Tweedy are going to make another album?
Staples: We were supposed to get started next month, but the Wilco, they have such a hot CD out now, they have to tour and promote their CD. I think we’re going to get started in March, but we are definitely going to work together again.
Action: Your house must be getting crowded with all the awards.
Staples: I hope I’m going have to get more shelves put up or buy some pedestals because I don’t have much more room on my walls.
Action: I know a lot of people who were disappointed you were not invited to perform at the Obama inauguration. Hopefully, you will be invited to the next one.
Staples: Maybe. I don’t know. I was very disappointed I wasn’t called for the first one. After you sang for Kennedy, Clinton and Carter. Why weren’t we there for Obama? I can’t answer why they didn’t call me. I don’t think it was really in Obama’s hands. I think the people who work for him, they wanted the kids, the young people, Beyonce and Jamie Foxx and all, but at least they called my buddy Aretha (Franklin). One of us old-school folk got in there. But us working with the movement as we did. This black man being our president was part of Dr. King’s dream. It really hurt me for a while but I got over it. I started saying to myself, “It’s the youngsters’ time. I got to let them have their time.” I don’t know if they’ll call me this next time, but if they don’t, I’ll be fine with it. But I will be backing him. I will be pushing for him. In fact we made a record back in June. We did it with Levon Helms, “Midnight Ramble,” and we sang, made it into a live CD. The Curtis Mayfield song “This is My Country,” in the bottom of the song I start talking. And I go “What’s up with all you people talking about our president, saying that he’s not a legal resident? I do a lot of smart talking in the bottom of the song. Hopefully that might be one of the songs for their campaign.
Action: Having a black president sure exposed a lot of racism we still have.
Staples: That’s why at all of our concerts, I never leave out a freedom song because it’s still relevant. If someone’s there that doesn’t want to hear it, they just have to go because I’m gonna sing my freedom songs. … It really lets you know that we haven’t come as far as we thought we had.
Action: Are there any new artists you like?
Staples: I like a lot of the music today. I like this little guy Bruno Mars. I love Adele. This girl sings with so much feeling. She made me go out and buy a CD. I have both of her CDs. I like Trombone Shorty. I really love (Maroon 5’s) Adam Levine. This guys sings, “I got to move like Jagger.” (Laughs) I’m crazy about him. I like Rihanna. I like a lot of the singers today. There was a time when I really couldn’t stand to listen to the radio but they’ve gotten better. I love Mary J. Blige. I like the Perry Family. I like the Mumford & Sons. I like a lot of the music today.
Action: What about Ruthie Foster?
Staples: I love Ruthie Foster. That’s my little sister. Phenomenal women. Yes indeed, she’s great. But I really don’t think Ruthie’s getting her propers like she should. Hopefully, they will promote her and get her out there more. Ruthie needs to be heard. This little girl is dangerous.
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