There’s no arguing that Mavis Staples reigns supreme as one of the greatest female voices of all time. A study of her work — both as a solo artist as well as with her legendary family — reveals that to be very evident. There’s also no doubt that such classic songs as “Freedom Highway” and “Long Walk To D.C.” helped to define the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
However, the vocal powerhouse thought that things had changed over the years in America. But, once again, Staples is the voice of activism. Her upcoming release, If All I Was Was Black, is a reminder of her timeless talent — and the work that still needs to be done to build relationships with our fellow man. Below, listen to “Little Bit” from the new set, which will be released Nov. 17.
She feels it makes sense to release the album at this time of year — where hearts are a little more open.
“I think it’s very important that it comes at a time that we can all hear it before Christmas and Thanksgiving, where we can all come together,” she tells Billboard. “It’s an album that I had to make that I thought I was done doing this kind of album — I mean, I’ll always do ‘Freedom Highway’ in my lineup because I know that my work hasn’t been done yet. But, here lately, things are looking worse than they have ever looked. So, this is my way. I’m not a speaker. Music is my way of getting my point across when I want the world to know something. I have to put it in a song.”
Staples laments the feeling of divisiveness in this country right now, and hopes her voice can make a difference. “There’s just so much going on today in our world that is not right to me. We’re not loving each other the way that we should. Some people are saying that they want to make our world great again, but we’ve never lost our greatness,” she says. “There’s just so much division. This is the only way that I know to let the world know how I feel is through my songs.” For the new album, Staples once again turned to Jeff Tweedy, who produced and penned the entire album for her (Staples contributed to the writing of three of the tracks).
Of course, Staples is no stranger to difficult times. She recalls a November 1964 incident in Arkansas that left a permanent imprint on her inner psyche. “We had been stopped, and I was the driver. A service station attendant had called me the n-word, which caused my father to go inside the station. I was still in the car when I saw this young man shaking his finger in Pop’s face, that was when he clocked him. The police got us, and took us to jail. I had never been so scared in my life. They stopped us on the highway, and had our hands stretched over our heads, their dogs were barking, and they put us in three different cars. It was a moment that I just knew that I would never make it home again.”
However, things took a turn once they arrived at the jailhouse. “I’ve never been so glad to see a jail in all my life,” she recalls. “Just as we walked in, there was this black man mopping the floor who looked up and said ‘Pops Staples, whatcha doing here, and with your children?’ When Pops talked to the chief, he asked him what happened. Pops said ‘If you take me to another room, I’ll tell you what happened.’ When the chief came out of there, he said ‘Get those handcuffs off of those people. We’re trying to get this mess straightened out down here, and these young bucks are trying to keep it going.’ That was my worst time in the south, but it got better. The next time we went to Memphis, the chief got a note to Pops. We looked over to the right, and there was the chief with about twelve of his policemen.”
Trying to bring about change with her music is something that Staples has been doing for years. “We started singing in 1950, and since then, I’ve been trying to sing about peace and bringing people together.” Of course, many of their performances — especially during the Civil Rights movement — were with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Ms. Staples recalls fondly. “We met Dr. King in 1962, and when Pops met Dr. King, he said ‘if this man can preach this, we can sing it.’ My father loved him and his message. We did too, and we went to his church — Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. We were ushered in and seated, and he acknowledged us, saying ‘it’s so good to have Pops Staples with us today along with his daughters.’ That was the time of my life.”
Perhaps the song on the new disc that best exemplifies Staples’ message of love is riveting “No Time For Crying,” which shows that there is plenty of work to do — on all sides. “The song said there is no time for tears — no time for crying. We got work to do. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves. We’re living in trying times,” she says, adding that with recent events such as Charlottesville and the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting, there is too much sadness and tragedy in the world.
“Look at Vegas. Look at that. I just had to stop and say ‘Lord Jesus, what is going on?’ What is happening in this world? There were 58 people killed, and something happens every day. There’s something that enters these people’s minds to make them want to do something like this. We’re in trouble. But, all I can do is all I can do. I can offer my services, and offer my voice — my God-given voice. My father always taught me ‘Mavis, sing from your heart. If you do that, you will reach the people.’ What comes from the heart reaches the heart. Every song I am singing on this album comes straight from my heart. I just want to reach the people — I don’t care if it’s just one person. That’s somebody. Then, my work is not in vain. I just pray that we can come together and love one another the way we should. What’s the harm in love? There’s nothing more beautiful. Shine your light on your neighbors. Speak to your neighbor when you pass them by. We can all do this together.”
Of “Little Bit,” Staples says that it’s a song that gets to her. “I had to stop singing that song, and I had to shed some tears,” she confesses. “I got all choked up because it’s about this kid who was driving, and the police caught him without his license. But they said he was fighting them. It says in the song ‘My baby won’t make it home’ — this is a mother singing about her son who didn’t make it home that night. And it’s happening all over. It’s happening everywhere.”
This fall finds Staples on the road opening for someone she knows very well — Bob Dylan. “It’s the best experience of my life. I love Bob Dylan, and I have for a long time. I met Bobby when I was sixteen years old, and now both of us are in our seventies. For him to call me, and ask me to do his tour last year, I was so excited. I was so happy. Then, he turns around and asks me again this year. I feel like a sixteen-year old girl again.”
In a 2015 documentary on her life, Mavis!, the singer revealed that Dylan once asked Pop Staples for her hand in marriage. She knows that relationship is always going to draw questions from the public, but chooses to focus on their eternal bond of friendship. “That’s the best part about it. We’ve been knowing each other all these years, and we’re still here — and we still love each other. I’ll stand out on the side of the stage and watch his show. I’ll hear these ladies all screaming ‘Oh, Bobby, I love you.’ I’ll ask him ‘Why are those ladies calling your name like that? Don’t they know that I’m the only one who is supposed to do that?’ He just cracked up and said ‘Mavis, quit acting like that,” she says, impersonating his speaking style. “But, I make him laugh a lot.”
Another musician that is very special to the Staples family is Marty Stuart, with whom she shares a musical bond — and her father. “Marty is my baby brother. My father was Marty’s godfather. My sisters and I took him in as our brother. He’s the only one that I’ve heard who — when he’s playing guitar, he sounds like Pop. He can play just like him. I see him on Facebook a lot, so I need to give him a call. I love Marty Stuart,” she beams.
Though it’s not on the new album, it seems that today — more than ever — the world needs to be taken to where The Staple Singers offered to take people when “I’ll Take You There” topped the Hot 100 in 1972. When she hears that famous intro, what goes through her mind? “Thank you, Jesus. It’s still here. You can’t miss it. When I hear the intro of that song, a big smile comes on my face. I can’t help it. I just smile. To think that it still sounds so good after all these years, and the fact that I’m still here to be hearing this is just a wonderful feeling — the most beautiful feeling in the world.”