If it’s been awhile since you’ve listened to the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” then pause right now, get out your old record (or Google it), and turn up the volume a few notches. Thirty seconds into the genre-defining 1972 hit, if you’re not completely sold on seeing Mavis Staples perform at Spoleto, nothing this story can say will convince you.
Chances are, however, that anyone with two ears and half-a-pint of rhythm will be moved any time the soul diva lets a note loose from her lips. Staples exudes pure feeling in a way that thousands of singers have emulated, but only the Otis Reddings, James Browns, and Sam Cookes of the world could claim to match.
Staples’ story began as an 11-year-old girl in Chicago around 1950, singing in churches with her father, Pops Staples, and sisters, Cleotha and Yvonne. They built their early reputation through gospel-folk harmonies on classic tunes like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” songs that Pops knew from his days growing up in Mississippi.
It was on a tour through the Deep South that the Staple Singers found a calling in supporting the Civil Rights Movement. “We were in Montgomery, Ala., and we didn’t have to sing until 8 o’clock that night,” recalls Staples. “Pops called us over and said, ‘Listen, y’all. There’s a man here with a church that I would like to visit for the 11 o’clock service.’ So we all went down and were ushered in, and Dr. Martin Luther King said to the church, ‘We’re glad to have Pops Staples and his daughters in attendance this morning, and we hope they enjoy the service.’ ”
After church let out, Pops and Dr. King talked at length. When the family returned to their room, Pops said to his daughters, “Listen, I really like this man’s message, and I think we can sing it.” From then on, the Staple Singers became the soundtrack of the movement, traveling with Dr. King and singing before he spoke. King’s favorite song of theirs was “Why Am I Treated So Bad.”
“We’d be out in the parking lot, and he’d say, ‘You’re going to sing my song tonight, right?'” recalls Staples.
Although the sisters hadn’t suffered the same level of discrimination in Chicago as their cousins in Mississippi, the cause became intensely personal. Out shopping for shoes in Jackson, Staples recalls her sister Yvonne leading them out of the store when the attendant insisted they go behind a “raggedy polka-dot curtain” to try on the shoes, out of the view of passersby.
“We had a lot of run-ins in the South,” says Staples, who remembers visiting her grandmother in Mound Bayou, Miss. and being taught not to drink from the “white” water fountain. “She explained to me, ‘We’re divided down here, baby.’ We were fighting for our own cause as black people. It was something that we knew we had to do.”
Thanks in large part to the inspiration that the Staple Singers’ music provided to the movement, Staples now faces a warm, non-discriminatory reception everywhere she goes. In the last year alone, she’s been awarded honorary doctorates from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and Columbia College Chicago.
“I joked with my sister Yvonne that she had to call me ‘Dr. Staples’ now,” laughs Staples. “She said, ‘You’re just Mavis to me.'”
Those accolades followed up the singer’s first-ever Grammy award: Best Americana Album for 2010’s You Are Not Alone. Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the release broke her out of the soul genre and exposed the legendary diva to a younger audience.
“When I won my Grammy in that category, I had to ask what an ‘Americana artist’ was. I hadn’t ever heard of that category,” Staples says. “I just look at myself as what I am, a gospel singer. That’s home for me, but I’ll take any name people put on me.”
Despite 11 previous solo albums, including two produced by Prince and 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, produced by Ry Cooder, Staples had never surpassed the legacy of Staple Singers classics like “Respect Yourself,” “Let’s Do It Again,” and “I’ll Take You There” in her solo career.
“Prince wrote songs for me, but Jeff Tweedy knew the family. He knew our music. I don’t know if Prince had heard our music from the ’50s and ’60s, but Jeff Tweedy had,” Staples says. “You Are Not Alone took me back to the beginnings of our sound. I remember a time when I said, ‘Tweedy, don’t you think we should put a guitar solo in there?’ and he said, ‘Don’t you remember? The Staple Singers never sang a song over two-and-a-half minutes long.’ I said, ‘You’re right about that. Thank you, Jeff Tweedy.’ He was really into where I came from, and he took me back home.”
Recording songs like “Downward Road” took Staples back to her childhood kitchen. She sang into the phone on our interview, highlighting the point where her mother would go “bop-bop” during family sing-along renditions of the song. After Staples wraps-up a summer tour with her long-time friend, Bonnie Raitt, and Tweedy finishes obligations with Wilco, they’ll complete the second half of their follow-up to You Are Not Alone.
Even with plenty of material from her late-career renaissance to draw from, Staples promises that she never leaves stage without revisiting classics like “I’ll Take You There.”
“It’s always fun to sing it. When we hit that song, even after 40 years, it’s still fresh to everyone,” Staples says. “I’ll never get tired of singing. It’s kept me going for a long time.”