If you pick up Greg Kot’s new biography on The Staple Singers, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway, you’ll notice that, time and time again, he returns to waxing poetic about two things: Roebuck “Pops” Staple’s guitar tone, and Mavis Staple’s voice. And indeed, there’s something definitive about these two sounds, something that seems important if you want to understand the broad history of American music. And, really, America itself. While the group definitely had their share of hits and mainstream success, they’ve always been more important than the numbers suggested. They brought gospel into the mainstream in a way starkly different than their contemporaries, blending rural blues and Americana influences into their spiritual and topical songs with a spiritual fervor that’s never quite been equaled. Guitar player after guitar player, from Stax’s Steve Cropper (of Booker T and the MGs) to Ry Cooder, rave about the shaky tremolo guitar tone that defined the group’s early sound, while the surprise of the little girl with the deep, earth-shaking voice is one that still confounds audiences today.
Mavis started singing in her family group when she was just 11 years old, but from the start she was the star power. While Pops and her brother Pervis also took lead vocal turns, it was Mavis that had audiences enraptured. The Staple Singer’s first big hit was “Uncloudy Day,” which features the young singer starting her lead vocal in her lowest register, something that shocked audiences experiencing the group for the first time.
Pervis Staples, From I’ll Take You There:
“We’d trick ‘em. The audience would be looking for me to come up with the low part—this was for the people who had heard the record but had never seen us before. I’d come up to the mike and switch over at the last second where Cleotha was, then Mavis would step up. That messed them up, but it woke up the crowd. When you wake up the crowd in church, the spirit starts hitting ‘em. It goes through them. Even the ones who want you to think they’ve already sanctified were going at it. It’s like they couldn’t believe what they were seeing, like a little miracle or the hand of God or some s#!t like that.”
Their early records were very bluesy, rustic gospel numbers, but they would later spend time on labels like Stax and Warner Brothers that would seem them branch out with more elaborate, pop-friendly production and songs that could serve both religious and secular audiences. Folks like Bob Dylan and The Band were huge fans, with the latter developing their trademark vocal blend by imitating the family and the former carrying on a pseudo-courtship and friendship with Mavis that lasts to this day.
The other reason the group’s place in American history is so outsized, though, is that they in many ways soundtracked the Civil Rights Movement. Pops developed a close relationship with MLK and Jesse Jackson, and the Staple Singers often opened up for the leaders at Civil Rights rallies. They sang many of the traditional gospel tunes, like “We Shall Overcome,” that were repurposed for the movement, and Pops himself wrote many original tunes inspired by the movement.
While the fortunes of the group waxed and waned over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, Mavis is currently in the middle of a late-career renaissance. With the help of folks like Ry Cooder and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, since the mid-2000s she’s returned to a sound and style reminiscent of the Staples Singer’s early days with great success. In 2015, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the critically acclaimed Selma is in theaters, we are incredibly fortunate to be able to also go see Mavis, arguably one of the best soul singers ever, take us to church in Harbison Theatre. -Kyle Petersen
still available SOLD OUT at the Harbison Theatre website here.