Mavis Staples Reflects on the Stax Years: Watch New Episode of 'Memphis Masters'

Staple Singers
Courtesy of Stax Archives

Pops, Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis Staples. 

Back in 1968, a deal with Stax Records vaulted the Staple Singers from a stripped-down family gospel act to a soul music powerhouse whose enduring hits -- including "I'll Take You There," "Respect Yourself" and "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" -- led the quartet's way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and to a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Now its legacy with the label is being celebrated by Craft Recordings with Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection, a seven-disc collection of the group's albums accompanied by the online Memphis Masters series, a new episode of which is premiering below.

"That was a really, really happy time for us, and especially me," Mavis Staples, the sole surviving member of the group, tells Billboard. "I remember going to Stax and seeing this quartet of guys (Booker T. & the MG's), mixed, two black and two white, the way it should be. I just thought, 'THIS is the place to be.' And things really flowed.

"Meeting all the people at Stax, it was just always fun times. It was like family. Anytime we went to Stax it was like we were having a reunion, 'cause here comes Otis Redding and we got (Sir) Mack Rice. And the ladies, too -- Carla Thomas and everybody, they were all sisters. And Jim Stewart, the owner, he was so comical. It was a beautiful time."

The Staple Singers' time at Stax yielded 11 top 20 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart hits (including three No. 1s), while "I'll Take You There" topped the Billboard Hot 100. (Curtis Mayfield subsequently took the Staples from Stax to his own Curtom label for the Let's Do It Again album, whose title track also hit No. 1 on the Hot 100.) The Come Go With Me set bolsters the group's six Stax studio albums with a 'Singles, Live & More' bonus disc that includes rarities along with five performances from the 1972 Wattstax benefit concert.

The Staples' tenure at Stax was notable for the perceived move from gospel to secular music, but Mavis Staples says she and her sisters and father never saw it that way. "To tell the truth, we never felt like we were singing secular songs. They were all gospel to us," she recalls. "After 'I'll Take You There' they put us out of the church. They started saying, 'The Staple Singers are singing the devil's music!' So we'd do interviews to tell people the devil ain't got no music. All music is God's music. We said, 'You have to listen to our lyrics. We're telling you "I know a place/Ain't nobody cryin'/Ain't nobody worried/Ain't no smiling faces lying to the races." Now where else could we be taking you but heaven, right?'

"And they finally got it. They invited us back to church, and the very first request, right on the pulpit, was 'I'll Take You There.'"

Part of the Staples' legacy that she's perhaps less happy about, however, is how the group's Civil Rights anthems -- "Respect Yourself," "I'm Just Another Soldier," "Freedom Highway" and "Why Am I Treated So Bad" -- remain as relevant today as they did at the time they were released. "It is heartbreaking that we are still where we were in Civil Rights," says Staples, who during a recent concert in Ann Arbor, Mich., professed a desire to go to Washington D.C. and "punch (Donald Trump) in the nose!"

"My brother Pervis, he listens to the Staple Singers all day long and he keeps me posted. He says, 'Mavis, y'all were way ahead with these songs. These songs are for right now!' I know. They were needed then and we recorded them, but they're still relevant. We had these guys marching through Charlottesville with those torches...I started talking to Pops. I had to pray, because that scared me. What are they gonna do next -- burn crosses in front of someone's house? It's so awful."

Staples, of course, has maintained a steady solo career since the late '80s, recording with the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Prince, M. Ward, Ry Cooder and with Ben Harper on last year's We Get By. She won a pair of Grammy Awards and received the 2019 Free Speech Award at last year's Americana Music Honors & Awards. "What keeps me going is I have to do this," Staples says. "First, I have to keep this legacy of the Staple Singers alive. And I love what I'm doing. I feel like I was put here and this is what the Lord meant for me to do. He gave me my voice. He blessed me. So I feel like I’m doing what I'm supposed to do. I can't quit. It's in my blood. And I love looking out at the people and see them smiling. It keeps me going. I can't believe I've been singing from eight to 80, but I have and I'm still here, and just so grateful."