When Mavis Staples sings, something magic happens. You see it first in her. The music takes hold, and she throws her hands toward the heavens. She thumps her chest for emphasis. She closes her eyes and just feels the spirit.
And then, as the minutes go by, you realize that it’s hitting you too. You’re sitting forward on your seat. You’re taking a breath when she breathes, and holding it when she swoops down into her deep contralto and growls out a phrase.
When Mavis Staples sings, you feel it in your soul.
You’ll get a chance to experience this first hand on Saturday night, when Mavis Staples and her band take the stage at the Power Center on a double bill with bluesman Robert Cray, as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.
In anticipation of this concert, here’s a list of ten things you might not know about this soul and gospel legend.
1. Mavis Staples has been doing this for a long, long time. Mavis’s father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, formed the Staple Singers with three of his children to perform at Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Chicago. Mavis was just 8 years old, and the family had only rehearsed two songs. The reaction from the audience was so enthusiastic, the family had to sing those two songs over and over, and a career was launched.
2. Mavis Staples grew up with some pretty impressive friends. The south side of Chicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s was fertile ground for soul musicians. Mavis and her siblings were close friends with Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. Additionally, Mavis’s mentor, gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson, was a frequent guest at the Staples home.
3. The Staple Singers were the voice of the civil rights movement. After making a strong name for the group in the gospel world, the Staple Singers started incorporating more folk and soul into their act, always making sure that the music they sang had a message.
This focus on the message was what attracted Dr. Martin Luther King to the Staple Singers. Looking to spread his message of racial equality and civil rights to a national audience, Dr. King approached the family about making appearances at a Chicago fundraiser. That Operation Breadbasket event was the start of a relationship that had the Staples traveling the country for marches and protests.
Mavis recounted her father’s reaction to meeting Dr. King in an interview with PBS News Hour in 2007. "Listen, you all, I really like this man’s message," said ‘Pops’ Staples. "And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it."
4. Bob Dylan really wanted to marry Mavis Staples. Bob Dylan’s relationship with Joan Baez was well documented, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it was revealed to the public that he and Mavis Staples were involved in the early 1960s, as well.
As Mavis told the Hamilton Spectator: “We were doing a TV show up in New York for General Electric. There were so many of us on the show, a lot of folksingers. There came a point where everybody was at lunch. We were all in line. My family, we were at the front of the line, and Dylan, he was in back. All of a sudden Dylan yelled out, ‘Pops, I want to marry Mavis.’
“And Pops yelled back: ‘Don’t tell me, tell Mavis.’ We started a little courtship, and he did, he asked me to marry him.”
5. The Staple Singers were featured in The Band’s movie "The Last Waltz." The Martin Scorcese-directed documentary that profiled The Band’s farewell concert featured a soul-stirring rendition of "The Weight" that redefined the song and made it a staple of the Staples’ repertoire. Mavis can be heard whispering "beautiful" at the conclusion of the clip. And it was.
6. Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin have had a long and occasionally tumultuous friendship. The new biography "I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway," by Greg Kot, spends a few pages documenting the relationship between these two soul singers with gospel roots. Aretha was a regular vistor to the Staples household during the superstar’s early years, and often depended on Mavis’s mother for nurturing and advice. But Franklin’s professional jealousy caused several clashes, including one that almost came to blows.
Here’s a video of Aretha doing her best impression of Mavis’s exhortations from "Respect Yourself":
7. The Staple Singers were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Pops, Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne Staples reunited to sing two of the group’s biggest hits: "Respect Yourself" and "I’ll Take You There."
8. Prince loves Mavis. Prince fell in love with Mavis Staples after seeing a video of the group filmed at the famed Watts Stax concert. In the late 1980s, he tracked Mavis down and begged to work with her. He ended up casting her in one of his movies, brought Mavis on tour with him, and wrote and produced two albums for her. Here’s a video from the second; the title track to the album "The Voice."
9. Mavis is experiencing a well-deserved career revival. At the peak of their success, the Staple Singers were one of the biggest hit makers in soul. In December, 2000, patriarch Pops Staples passed away, and Mavis stopped touring and making music.
According to an interview with Mavis on Madison.com, her sister Yvonne eventually pressed her to keep going.
"She said, ‘Mavis, you get up! You know Daddy would want you to keep on singing!’ Then she said some things I can’t say (laughs). And that was all I needed. I said, “She is so right. Daddy would want me to carry on. I’ve gotta keep my father’s legacy alive.”
Mavis financed an album of new material – "Have A Little Faith" – by putting the expenses on her credit card. The album was eventually released in 2004, and quickly led to collaborations with Ry Cooder and, most recently, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.
These days, you can find Mavis performing on The Colbert Report, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, or serenading President Obama and family at the White House.
Here’s Mavis with Jeff Tweedy in 2010:
10. It still is, and always has been, a family affair. Come to the show on Saturday night, and check out the backup singers. Big sister Yvonne still travels with Mavis, and she keeps a very close eye on her baby sis from behind the microphone.
Don’t miss this opportunity to see one of the greatest voices in pop, soul and gospel. Mavis Staples will be sharing a bill with Robert Cray Saturday night at the Power Center as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. Tickets and more information can be found on the Summer Festival site.concert, film, movie, music, release, singer, tour, tv