Sometimes you have to listen to husband-wife art rock duos and review Jimmy Buffett concerts, but other times this rock critic stuff can be pretty cool. Just the other day, for instance, I called a number in Chicago and Mavis Staples picked up the phone. You have to understand that Freedom Highway, the gospel/folk album the Staple Singers recorded in the ’60s after meeting Martin Luther King Jr., is my desert island disc. If only for the Mississippi-bred guitar groove and smooth, understated vocals of Roebuck “Pops” Staples, this would be a classic. But then daughters Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne rally round to take such old spirituals as “Wade In the Water,” “Samson and Delilah” and “Jacob’s Ladder” to a glorious place they’d never been before. This album is the magical, mystical hour before dawn, where Saturday night and Sunday morning meet.
And yet I couldn’t have been more relaxed talking to the spectacularly soulful lead singer, who should’ve been resting her raspy contralto for SXSW, but instead told animated stories about her family. “My mother, Oceola, couldn’t sing a lick,” she said with an Olympic-sized laugh. “But she was the best cook who ever lived. Her specialty was sweet potato pie, and whenever we had a new record Pops would take ’em to the DJs. One time we were driving away from a station and we heard our new single on the radio. The DJ said, ‘These Staple Singers don’t need no payola; they got pie-ola!”
Performers were routinely stiffed of their guarantees in the ’50s, when the Staples first hit the gospel charts with “Uncloudy Day.” But Pops, who also served as the group’s manager, was always able to demand full pay. “If the promoter was playing like he was broke, Pops would just calmly, but sternly say, ‘These are my children. No one’s gonna take advantage of my kids,’ and they didn’t want to mess with that.”
In a time when acts had to choose between gospel and secular modes, when even the great Sam Cooke was booed when he guested at gospel shows after topping the pop charts with “You Send Me,” the Staples built a bridge between the church and the concert hall. “We took some heat when ‘I’ll Take You There’ came out (hitting No. 1 in 1972),” Mavis said. “They said we were singin’ the devil’s music and I said, ‘The devil don’t have no music.’ I’d say, ‘Listen to the words.’ Whether you called it gospel or soul, we made message music. Everything we did had a spirituality to it.”
The Staples were also steeped in the blues, thanks to Pops’ gritty picking. “I never thought Pops was playing the blues until all these blues guitarists like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards came around to watch him play,” she said. “Pops played with Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, guys like that, when he was coming up and it never left him.”
The patriarch passed away in December 2000 at age 86. One of Pops’ pallbearers was country singer Marty Stuart, who had become a protege after being mesmerized by the Staple Singers‘ performance in “The Last Waltz.”
“The Staples are the most down-to-earth people you could meet,” said Stuart, who’ll perform with Mavis at the Austin Convention Center today before Robert Plant’s keynote address. “They’re people of harmony.” Mavis and her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha live in the same condo on the south side of Chicago, though Cleotha has Alzheimer’s and no longer performs. Brother Pervis works behind the scenes in the music business.
“After Pops died, I didn’t want to do anything,” Mavis recalled. “I was empty inside, but my pastor came over one day and we talked about how I could always make Pops laugh. I’m a total ham, a clown, you know, and when I thought about some of the times I cracked him up, I got to laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes. And after that I was OK.”
In recent weeks, Mavis, who picked up a lifetime achievement Grammy in February, has been assembling an album of just Pops and his guitar. He had gone into the studio in 1997, just before he became too ill to play, and laid down the basic guitar and vocal tracks, with the idea that his kids would add their harmonies later. But Mavis says “I’ve Started Out To Find a Better Home,” which will come out on Alligator in the fall, is just perfect the way it is.
Also on the way is Stuart’s “Soul’s Chapel,” on which he covers three of the family’s songs. “There’s never been anyone like the Staple Singers,” Stuart says. “When they sang it was like ghosts in the cotton fields of Mississippi.”
In terms of musical merit, all it takes is a pair of ears to determine that they’re one of the greatest groups ever. Like Bo Diddley, the Staples built their sound from the groove up, and their vision of a universal family just kept lifting it higher. A great, soulful combo for man, the Staple Singers were a glorious symphony for mankind.
Stuart says that after years in the shadows of her former family group, Mavis is just now starting to receive recognition as one of the greatest voices ever. “I remember seeing footage of a peace rally in Harlem in the late ’60s and Mahalia Jackson was singing and then she handed the mic to Mavis. She passed the torch back then and now it’s finally Mavis’ time.”