Mavis Staples: The legendary singer on her new, Jeff Tweedy-produced CD—and the day Bob Dylan asked for her hand in marriage
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.
Entertainment Weekly: How did the collaboration with Jeff Tweedy come about?
Mavis Staples: He came out to see us at a concert that we did at the Hideout, a little funky club up on the north side of Chicago. All the Wilco guys came. Afterwards, he came backstage and he said, “Mavis, that was the greatest show.” He talked about the band. He said, “That band is good for you, they leave you space.” We took some pictures and I thought that was it. A couple of weeks later [my manager] called and said, “Jeff Tweedy wants to produce you.” Maybe two weeks later, we met for lunch. He talked about his sons and his wife, his upbringing, and how he would listen to the Staple Singers when he was comping up. He had kind of a hard life and he would listen to our songs and that would help. He told me some very personal things about his life and that was cool with me. He said, “But I’m on straight street now and the Staple singers music brought me through a lot of my hard times.” I’m just grateful for Jeff Tweedy for wanting to produce me. It wasn’t in my mind. He came with it, and I’m glad he did.
Were you familiar with Wilco’s music?
I’d heard them on the radio. But I didn’t have their music in my home. My manager sent me Sky Blue Sky and the live CD. They reminded me of The Band. They sang a lot of messages in their songs. So I felt comfortable.
What were the sessions like?
It was fun, very refreshing. Jeff Tweedy is very comical, very open and witty. We had fun while we were making this CD. You walk in the studio you get this warm feeling. Just homey.”
You recorded at their studio?
The Wilco Loft, yes. I was anxious to see this place. I heard people talking about the Wilco Loft, and that they never let anybody in there. [Laughs] I said, “I’ve been invited to the Wilco Loft and here I go!” I enjoyed the sessions so much, because he did so many special things for me. He had a caterer, he had a teleprompter. Things I’ve never seen in a session. The best thing was he asked the band that I’ve been traveling with for the last three years to play. So I was very much at home.
The song “You Are Not Alone,” which Jeff Tweedy wrote, is musically very reminiscent of Wilco. But the lyrics sound like something you could have been singing 30 years ago
That’s very true. What blew my mind was: “Open up, this is a raid!/I want to get it through to you.” When I heard “Open up this is a raid!” I said, “Whaaat?” I loved it. When I sang that song, I would choke up. It was so beautiful.”
How young were you when you started performing with the Staple Singers?
I was 8 years old.
And what kind of shows did you do back then?
Church. People couldn’t see me, I was so little. They’d have to stand me up on a box or a chair or something, so they could hear where the voice was coming from. My voice was very heavy. I get my voice from my mother’s side of the family. My mother and my grandmother both had strong voices.
I thought I read that your mother couldn’t sing.
She couldn’t! She was the best cook in the world, and she had a big voice. But she couldn’t sing.
You’ve always seemed open to working with artists who come from a different tradition to the Staple Singers
That’s right. That started years ago when we heard Bob Dylan. We were doing a TV show together. His manager said, “I want you to meet the Staple singers.” He said, “I know the Staple singers, I’ve listened to the Staple singers since I was 12 years old.” He went out to sing and we were listening, and Pops said, “Wait a minute, listen to what this kid is saying.” And he was saying, “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?” And Pops could relate to that. Pops used to tell us stories about when he was a boy in Mississippi. He could walk down a street and all of a sudden, if a white person was coming towards him, he’d have to cross over. And he said, “Wait, we can sing that song.” So that started it: “Blowin’ in the Wind.” We recorded six or seven of his songs. Then we would hear stuff like, “For What It’s Worth,” and ‘The Weight.” We felt like these songs were gospel to us, because they were telling the truth. So we weren’t straying too far away from our gospel roots. They were still songs that were inspirational, and could uplift people. That was what we always wanted to do.
And is it true Bob Dylan asked you to marry him?
[Laughs] Well, we were at that same show, where Pops saw that we could sing this song. We were in line to have lunch. We were up front. Bobby was way back. And all of a sudden you heard somebody say, “Pops? I wanna marry Mavis!” Everyone started laughing. Pops turned around and said, “Well, don’t tell me! Tell Mavis!” And that kind of started our courtship. He let me know that he liked me. And I kind of liked him. He was cute. He had curly hair. And we were young! We would meet up at folk festivals. We still see each other. We still keep in contact. He’s a sweetheart. Bob Dylan!”
You can see a clip of Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy performing an acoustic version of “You Are Not Alone” below.
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