Few people embody the feminist adage “the personal is political” more than Mavis Staples. Throughout a five-decade career in the legendary Staple Singers and on her own, she’s consistently tied together music, political involvement and the closest of family ties. With the release of her 11th CD, We’ll Never Turn Back, and its new renditions of Civil Rights-era songs, Staples comes full circle and, in the process, offers some of the freshest and most powerful work of her solo career.
“I am a witness,” says Staples from her Chicago home. “I saw it with my own eyes and I can tell the world about it. I don’t have to ask nobody about it. I lived it.”
Andy Kaulkin, president of Epitaph Records and its Anti- imprint, a growing indie with a roster that includes Tom Waits, Neko Case, Merle Haggard, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Buju Banton, and Antibalas, was inspired by that history, having just read Congressman John Lewis’s book, Walking With The Wind: A Memoir Of The Movement. “When my manager told me Andy’s idea [for this album],” Staples relates, “I said, ‘What does he mean freedom songs? That’s in the past.’ And then I started thinking, well, it really isn’t. I thought about Katrina. I actually had flashbacks from the Movement when I saw those people standing on the tops of houses with signs. Then you have a policeman in New York City shooting this black man 50 times. What was wrong with the comedian that was yelling the N-word on stage? I mean where did that come from? It’s still not the way it should be, and I don’t know if it ever will be. So that’s why, after I started thinking about all that, I said, ‘Well, yes, I’ll do these freedom songs.’ And it made sense to do because this is a part of my life too.”
Staples started singing as a child with her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and siblings Pervis (replaced by Yvonne in 1970) and Cleotha. In the early ’50s, recording for United, Royal and Vee-Jay, the Staple Singers began to develop their trademark sound: a blend of gospel and the Charley Patton-styled Delta blues Pops heard growing up in Mississippi, fueled by his quavery guitar and light voice, Mavis’s deep one and the kind of harmonies only family can create.
In the ’60s, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they began performing the freedom songs that became an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. “We went to jail down there,” Staples recalls. “The police had shotguns on us, had us standing out on the highway, cars zooming past, calling my father ‘boy.’ That particular incident scared me to death. I really didn’t know what they were going to do. They could have just taken us on out in the woods.
“But Pops kept us cool. Pops kept us from being afraid. Pops would tell us, ‘Don’t start anything.’ But he would also tell us, ‘None of that “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.”’ Daddy wouldn’t take nothing. There are certain things you are just not going to do for your dignity.”
Signed to Stax in 1968 and teamed with a house band that included members of Booker T. and the MG’s, the Staples continued to do “message music,” but with more of a soul bent. It brought them eight Top 40 hits, including the million sellers, “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” (both featured, along with “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” on the Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration two-CD set).
Staples also recorded her first and most mainstream solo albums for Stax. She followed sporadically with releases on Warner Bros., Curtom, Phono, and, in the ’80s, two CDs with Prince. But over a decade passed (not counting 1996’s Spirituals And Gospel: A Tribute To Mahalia Jackson with Lucky Peterson) before Staples resurfaced on Chicago’s Alligator Records in 2004 with Have A Little Faith. The album was a commercial breakthrough for her, leading to dates at festivals, late night TV appearances and a performance at the Democratic<