In the middle of the 20th century, The Staple Singers didn’t just march to the beat of a different drum—they were agents of religious conviction and purveyors of smooth soul. What began as a father and his children performing gospel for churches in the 1950s transformed into an R&B luminary in a matter of decades.
Famous for tracks like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” the revered group is even recognized as a musical forerunner of the American civil rights movement, as the family held close ties with Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, he was the inspiration for the group’s compelling freedom songs.
In 1995 The Staple Singers received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1999 the act was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Music, singing—it is my life—who I am,” Mavis Staples, lead of the group and now a solo artist, tells encore. “As long as God allows me to go out and sing for people, I am going to do it. I’m happiest then, and it’s just getting better and better.”
Since the success of her family’s group, Staples has released over a dozen of her own records, harking back to her gospel roots yet keeping an open ear for modern twists. Her latest release, 2011’s Grammy-winning “You Are Not Alone” was produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.
“I love to hang with the young people,” she muses. “I love to keep in tune with where young artists are going: Tweedy, Colin Meloy, Win from Arcade Fire, Glen Hansard, Neko. . . . It makes me feel so good that they want to hang with me. I’m lucky though. The Lord sends me geniuses, from Curtis Mayfield to Prince to Ry Cooder to Tweedy.”
Staples’ booming, powerful voice is the epitome of female soul. Her iconic pipes are the sounds of a generation, which encompass an entire movement. It’s no wonder artists of today, in such an array of genres, should seek her out as a collaborator. In the past, Staples has worked with Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, George Jones, Natalie Merchant, Delbert McClinton, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, The Band and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. VH1 named her among 100 greatest women of rock ‘n’ roll, and Rolling Stone tags her one of the 100 greatest singers of all time. Staples’ Grammy nominations rank in blues, gospel, folk and pop. Her résumé is as colorful as it is long.
Her legacy took off with one of The Staple Singers’ first hits in the 1950s. “Our song ‘Uncloudy Day’ was a million-seller,” Staples recalls. “We’d go to places like Memphis and Durham, and the DJ would say, ‘A 15-year-old girl is singing this song.’ And people would say, ‘Can’t be—can’t be a teenage girl.’ They would actually bet that I was not a little girl. So when we played live and my bass part came in, my brother, Pervis, would step up like he was going to sing that part, and the people would go wild. ‘I told you that was no little girl!’ And while they were going crazy over that, I would ease up to the mic and start singing.”
That Staples and her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, are the only father and daughter each to receive the National Endowment for the Arts’ Heritage Fellowship Award ranks among a favorite achievement. “But winning the Grammy for ‘You Are Not Alone’—that was for the family and for me,” she shares. “Because I love the record so much, and it really took me back to our beginning. When they called my name, my knees got weak and I could hardly make it up there to get it.”
Staples recorded some of her father’s own songs on “You Are Not Alone.” Though Pops passed away in 2000, he left behind a passel of wisdom Staples will always hold dear. A sentence from his library of knowledge rings out for her in every performance: “What comes from the heart reaches the heart.”
To lay tracks of her father’s lyrical estate brings up a world of remembrance and hope. “The phrasing, the tempos, the arrangements are different, but the messages are the same things I’ve been saying down through the years,” she tells. “They’re about the world today—poverty, jobs, welfare, all of that—and making it feel better through these songs.”
Tweedy actually wrote the title track of the album for “You Are Not Alone” specifically with Staples in mind. He said in a video (available on Amazon.com on the record’s page under “Related Media”), “It’s a hard thing to sell to some people: You are not alone … but even in loneliness, you’re not alone.”
“It’s hard times. People are losing their jobs, losing their homes. There’s a lot of fear out there,” Staples says. “And that song just says to everyone that we are all in this together. You don’t have to do this by yourself. And, of course, I believe that Jesus is with us, too. Some people will hear it as a gospel song; some people will hear it as a song about sticking together. And it is. It’s all of those things.”
Presented by Penguin 98.3 FM and UNCW’s Office of Cultural Arts, Staples will perform at 8 p.m. at Kenan Auditorium on Tuesday, February 5th. As she has since she was a young girl, she will continue her family’s message of peace and equality.
“There’s still injustice happening,” she concedes. “I’m so grateful people are ready to hear [my songs]. I’m still on the case—doing what Dr. King and Pops want me to do. I’m still on that freedom highway, and I’m going to walk on it until Dr. King’s dream is realized.”