There aren’t many singers who end an interview by asking if their interrogator wants a hug. Actually, in this writer’s experience, there is just one: Mavis Staples.
Yes, Staples, 71, may be more, literally, open-armed than most music legends, but she is 100% deserving of that title nonetheless. The vocalist’s family band, the Staple Singers, first hit the charts way back in 1956 with the gospel track “Uncloudy Day.” In the ’60s the group—which was led by Mavis’ father Pops—hung out with Bob Dylan, and covered Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” In the ’70s the band scored a string of soul-pop hits, including “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “Let’s Do It Again”.
The latter track was produced by Curtis Mayfield, who temporarily nudged the Staples Singers away from their usual “message”-based lyrical terrain into more lusty territory. “We got into the studio and Curtis said, ‘Now, Pops, this is your part,’” recalls Staples. “And Curtis sang, ‘Now, I like you, lady…’ Pops said, ‘Curtis, I’m not going to say that. I’m a church man!’ And Curtis said, ‘Oh, Pops, come on, man. The Lord won’t mind!’”
The Staple Singers’ soul-funk grooves, and Mavis Staples’ deep, soulful, vocals, attracted a raft of famous fans. They performed with The Band on the latter’s concert movie The Last Waltz and Prince produced two solo albums for Staples—1989′s Time Waits for No One and 1993′s The Voice.
Pops Staples died in 2000, but his daughter continues to perform—and to attract famous name collaborators. Ry Cooder produced her 2007 set “We’ll Never Turn Back,” while Wilco head honcho, and Staples’ fellow Chicagoan, Jeff Tweedy oversaw her latest collection “You Are Not Alone.” On the CD, which is released today, Staples tackles songs by John Fogerty, Randy Newman, Pops Staples, and two numbers penned by Tweedy, including the title track. She also sings the traditional number “Wonderful Savior”—a song the Wilco frontman made her record in a freezing stairwell. Hey, that’s no way to treat a living legend! “No!” agrees Staples, with a laugh. “I told him, ‘Tweedy, it’s cold out there, this is Chicago!’ We had the coldest winter in I don’t know how many years. It had to be like ten below. And you know this stairwell is even colder. I said, ‘I’m not going out there!’ He said, ‘Someone get Mavis a coat and a hat and a scarf and some gloves! And, Mavis, go out there with the rest of the guys and sing the song!’ So I did. And the song sounded so good, I suggested doing it again, but we had gotten it that first time.”
Of course she had. She’s Mavis Staples!
After the jump, Staples talks about how she came to work with “Tweedy” in the first place—and how she almost became Mrs Robert Zimmerman.