The legendary Mavis Staples looks ahead with a Turn Back

Feb 27, 2008 at 4:00 am
Like her idols Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone, Mavis Staples is a singer inextricably tied to the civil rights movement. It should have been no surprise then that her 2007 album, We'll Never Turn Back, would, in fact, turn back to the very well that sustained her and her family's great group, the Staple Singers, throughout the '60s and '70s.

What few could have guessed, though, is the particular relevance of her new take on anthems such as "99 1/2 (Just Won't Do)," "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "Eyes on the Prize," or the new songs she wrote about the struggle for political and social change. When she recorded the album, the candidacy of Barack Obama seemed quixotic at best. But whatever one thinks of the senator from Illinois — Staples has her own reservations — there's little doubt that a movement that draws from that same well of civil rights symbols, ideals and sounds has a momentum now that even a singer of Staples' power and influence never predicted.

"The songs were my idea," Staples says from her home in Chicago. "The album idea — now, that came from Andy [Kaulkin], the president at Anti- Records. I had just signed with them, and he said, 'Mavis, what are we going to do with you?' I said, 'Well, I'm here to sing.' And he said, 'You and your family were the soundtrack of the movement. What do you think about singing some freedom songs?' I asked him, 'Do you think people want to hear freedom songs today?' And a light went on, and I thought, 'Wait a minute, that might be a good idea.'"

Staples split her youth between Chicago (where she was born in 1939) and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where her grandmother lived. She spent summers in the North and school months in the South. Pops Staples taught her and her sisters to sing harmony — the Carter Family song "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" being one of the first lessons — but Mavis was a handful for the musical patriarch, who had a hard enough time keeping the family clothed and fed, let alone disciplined.

"I guess I was a bad girl," Staples recalls. "My grandmother would keep those switches on me. She wouldn't even let me suck my thumb. She was tougher than Pops. It was a different scenery in Mississippi. As I started to think about it, it was a great learning experience. Mound Bayou was an all-black town. We didn't have to deal with the white people! Now, we would go over to Cleveland, Mississippi, which was a bigger town, about nine miles away, and that was where I learned that blacks and whites didn't mix. That was where I tried to drink from a water fountain, and my grandmother told me, no, I couldn't drink from that fountain."

Staples recounts that story in the riveting "Down in Mississippi," the first track on We'll Never Turn Back. She sings the story with conviction and wise humor, knowing that it was her brash, independent streak — the one that drew her to rhythm and blues and pop music, the one that Prince (who produced two of her solo albums) responded to and called simply "The Voice" — that led her to integrate that "washateria" in Mississippi.

Summers in Chicago were a different story. Staples soaked up the life and music that teemed in "The Dirty Thirties," her neighborhood on the city's south side. "That was down in the bottom — 33rd Street, 35th," she says. "In the neighborhood, everybody would gather. We had the horse and buggy, the rag man, the coal man, the ice man, the watermelon man. My brother [Pervis] and Sam Cooke would yell for the watermelon man. All the doo-woppers — Pervis and Sam, Jerry Butler, Johnny Taylor, Lou Rawls — they all lived in the neighborhood. We all went to Doolittle Grammar School on 35th Street. Everybody sang! Every Sunday, there was Pervis, he had his group, and Sam had his group. All the young teenagers would go to the Hopewell Church. The groups would come in and have 'The Battle of the Quartets.' The church would be nothing but children singing!

"If I was a painter," she continues, "I would make a brilliant painting of it."

The sound of the Staple Singers emerged from that ebullient neighborhood in Chicago and the fierce landscape of rural Mississippi. Pops played dirty, tremolo-rich blues guitar, and his daughters soared above it, with Mavis' deep, growling moan leading the way. They recorded scores of albums and singles for Vee-Jay, Riverside, Epic and Stax, crossing back and forth between sacred and secular spaces, from country to pop to R&B, from celebrations in the church to marches in the street. They were as inseparable from one another as their sound was from the movement they embraced (which embraced them).

Though she's now an established solo performer, Staples still wishes the family group could have gone on forever. "It was the last thing I wanted to do," she says of working on her own. "When I was a young kid singing with my family, record companies tried to pull me away, offered me lots and lots of money. Now I have been pushed into it. My father passed away, my sister Cleo has Alzheimer's, and Yvonne, I had to beg her to sing background vocals. She never really wanted to sing. I told her, 'I got to hear one Staples voice up there.' It took me awhile to get started after Pops passed on. I was depressed. I was missing my father. Yvonne said, 'You gotta get started again. Daddy wanted you to sing.' I knew what she was saying all the time. But it was very hard. I've been listening for Daddy, for his voice and guitar. Now Ry Cooder [who produced We'll Never Turn Back], he played a lot like my father. At times I felt like Pops was in the studio."

Though her new freedom songs have not changed American politics, they are very much in time with the dramatic changes on the horizon, and they still tell the truth. "I saw New Orleans, saw the people left for dead," she sings on the self-penned "My Own Eyes." "I've heard every bald-faced lie you politicians said." So with all that Mavis Staples has seen, all that she and her music have stood for, you'll forgive her if her hope, which is as real as her voice, is tempered with honest skepticism.

"Now I listen to Obama," she says. "He's a very good speaker. Now I wouldn't just vote for him because he's black. I have to believe that he will deal with the issues. I listen to one of his speeches, I think: 'Wow, that was great.' Then, the next time I see him, he's acting a little cocky! So I am going to take my time with him."