What's your favorite Staples Singers song

"People thought I was a man"

Appeared last week You are not alone (Anti-), the excellent new album from Mavis Staples. Jeff Tweedy produced the work and went to great lengths to bring out the unique voice of the 71-year-old gospel and soul singer. Mavis Staples has been on stage for over fifty years and has gained a wealth of experience with which only a few active musicians can compete. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to her on the phone.

Is it actually true that your father learned to play the guitar from the legendary blues singer Charley Patton?
Yes that's true. My grandfather was a tenant farmer, they lived on a plantation in Mississippi. Charley Patton and Howlin ’Wolf lived nearby. Pops heard Charley Patton play the guitar and therefore started playing the instrument himself - he wanted to learn the style of Charley Patton. He once showed us where he bought his first guitar, it was in a small household goods store. Back then he only earned 10 cents a day, which he saved for the guitar.

Your father's guitar style is very unique. Even on his last CDs, which he recorded in the 90s, he still has this floating, ethereal, but very earthy sound.
He learned that back then in Mississippi. We sang gospel songs, but pops played the blues. That made our sound unique. All bluesmen were impressed with pops - B.B. King, Muddy Waters, these were all his friends. They understood where his sound came from.

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What kind of person was your father? How would you describe him?
He was the best father we could ask for. Many fathers don't have time for their children, but he spent a lot of time with us and loved us very much. When we were little he played with us a lot and made sweets for us, for example peanut brittle. And when we started singing, he always took care of us. He was like our bodyguard.

How important was a good education to him?
Very important. He wanted us to excel and achieve things he couldn't. He himself had left school in eighth grade. Later he worked in construction and at the same time finished school in the evening. He bought us books on business success and the power of positive thinking, such as this one by Sammy Davis Jr. Yes I Can. I am very grateful that my father was so present in my life. Many children today grow up without their fathers, which is terrible.

The Staple Singers were successful for several decades. Does this suggest that your father had a good business sense?
In any case. The President of Vee Jay Records happened to be there when we made our very first gig at my aunt's church. Staples, he said your kids should make a record! Pops refused. He said: I don't know anything about the music business and don't want to bring my kids into something I don't understand. Over the next few years he learned everything about the music business. He bought books and talked to a lot of people. We didn't go into the studio until five years later. He was a good businessman.

It must have been hard to lose him.
When he died, I was so depressed that I could barely get up from the sofa. I had sung with my father for over fifty years - now he was no longer there. At some point my sister Yvonne said: Mavis, get up, Daddy would want you to keep singing. Keep his legacy alive.

In preparation for the interview, I heard your old numbers from the fifties again. I think that "Uncloudy Day" is still unsurpassed!
That was the best music of our life! "Uncloudy Day" was our first single, on the B-side was "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". When that record came out, the woman from the record company called and said, Staples, the record is selling like an R&B hit. It was the first gospel record to sell a million copies! We went on tour after that and people bet I wasn't a little girl - I had such a deep voice. They thought I was a man or a fat old woman. We made fun of introducing myself on stage as "Little Mavis". When my part on "Uncloudy Day" came up, my brother stepped up to the microphone and people said I knew she wasn't a little girl. But then I slipped past my brother and started singing: "well - well - well". People got really angry sometimes! One guy came up and said he lost all of his salary on a bet. Pops said: Well, better keep your hands off gambling in the future.

In the sixties you were active in the civil rights movement and gave many concerts alongside Martin Luther King.
Dr. King - I am so proud to have known this great man. It's still an honor for me to shake his hand and look him in the eye. To sing before he speaks.

How did the Staple Singers meet him?
We met him while we were in Montgomery, Alabama one Sunday. Pops had already heard him on the radio and asked us if we wanted to go to his church for a service at eleven o'clock. We all went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and someone found Dr. King said we were there. He greeted us and said, “We are delighted that Pops Staples and his daughters are with us this morning. We hope you enjoy the service. ”When we left, Dr. King at the door and shook hands with the worshipers. Pops talked to him for a while. When he got out he said, watch out, I like this man's message. And I believe what he preaches we can sing.

They then began to musically support the civil rights movement.
Our first protest song was called "March Up Freedom’s Highway". Then came "It's A Long Walk To D.C.". And then Pops wrote Why Am I Treated So Bad, Dr. King's favorite song. We sang many times before he spoke, and Dr. King always took my father aside and asked: Are you going to sing my song today? My father replied: Yes, Dr. King, we sing your song.

What was the inspiration for this song?
The song is about nine black children who wanted to get on the school bus in Little Rock, Arkansas, and go to a school previously reserved for whites. The whites spat at them and pelted them with stones every morning, but these kids just kept walking. Eventually the mayor, the governor and even the president had to order: Let these children on the bus. We sat in front of the television, Pops in his comfortable chair, and saw the children trying to get on the bus and a policeman holding his baton across the door. That day he wrote the song. I will never forget those times.

Today the US has a black president.
That was part of Dr. King's dream. The night Obama was elected, I cried a bucket full of tears for joy. I walked around my house, talked to Pops, talked to Dr. King, I was so happy. Dr. King has achieved a lot, but the fight continues. Black people are still victims of hatred, injustice and intolerance.

That's when you met Bob Dylan. It is said that they are quite good friends with him.
Yes we are good friends. We talk on the phone every now and then and meet occasionally. We are always happy to see each other. He called me a few years ago and asked if I would sing "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking" with him. I once asked him if he'd come to Chicago to do a documentary about the Staple Singers. His manager said, Mavis, he's never done anything like this! The next day he called me back: My God, Mavis, Bob is coming to Chicago and doing it! I had known! We've just known each other for so long. I knew he wasn't turning me down a favor. We met when we were teenagers! We will always be friends.

Many people will be surprised that Wilco's Jeff Tweedy produced your new album. How did that happen?
He came to a club in Chicago where I recorded a live CD. After the concert he appeared in my dressing room and said it was a great show. Three weeks later my manager told me that he wanted to do an album with me.

Did you even know Wilco?
Yeah yeah They have a lot of message songs. The way they play reminds me of The Band. I then met Tweedy for lunch. He said he grew up with the Staple Singers and admired my father. After two and a half hours we came out of the restaurant and knew it was going to be good. Next, he invited me to the Wilco-Loft and played me twelve songs that he had in mind for the album - I thought eight of them were great, some of them downright blew me away. These included songs Pops played for me when I was little, like "Creep Along Moses" and "Wonderful Savior". Old gospel classics from the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers. Tweedy is a huge gospel fan.

And the recordings went just as well?
Those were the most relaxed sessions I've ever done. We had a lot of fun. Jeff is a comedian. Everything went by in a flash.