Thursday, December 07, 2017

WONDROUS article here about Mavis Staples + other artistes + when we met + VIDEO

A life in music

For this month’s instalment, the singer – whose career spans the protest music of the 60s to Arcade Fire and Gorillaz – talks about the records that shaped her life and politics, from Mahalia Jackson and Dylan to Curtis Mayfield and her beloved friend Prince
Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black

In a hotel room in Detroit, a 78-year-old woman is rasping down the phone. She can’t quite hear every word I say, as she spent last night in a loud theatre with her old boyfriend, Bob: “We talk about old times.” Bob is Bob Dylan; Mavis Staples supported him on his most recent American tour.

Dylan asked Staples to marry him in 1964, shortly after they had kissed for the first time at the Newport folk festival; she said no, feeling that back then she couldn’t marry a white man. “That’s a long time ago,” she says, in a clipped, no-nonsense fashion, shutting down any discussion of rekindled romance. “These days, we just play and go back to our own lives. We’re old now. As soon as the gig’s over, I’m going to bed to sleep.”

Staples started making music with her family band, the Staple Singers, in 1948 before pop music really existed, but pop musicians are still clamouring to work with her in 2017. This year, she has featured on records by Arcade Fire and Gorillaz, and released her own album, If All I Was Was Black, its title track a simple, profoundly moving song about racism. (“If all I was was black / Don’t you wanna know me more than that?”)

“This record is all about hope,” Staples explains. Her voice is guttural and deep – that famous huskiness is something she has had since her childhood. “How we can come together and fix things, and build bridges. If everyone heard these songs, whatever the colour of their skin, they’d fall in love with each other.”

Staples was born in 1939, at that point the youngest of four children, on the musically thrilling south side of Chicago (Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls lived nearby). Staples’ mother, Oceola, worked in factories and as a cleaner, while her father, Roebuck (known as Pops), was in abattoirs and steel mills; he had been a sharecropper in Mississippi before that, where his grandparents had been slaves.

Pops sang in a male gospel harmony group, the Trumpet Jubilees, and played records by similar acts. “Then he played the first song I ever heard sung by a woman. I was about seven, in the house with all my teddy bears, and I stopped – I just couldn’t believe it. ‘Pops, who’s that?’ ‘It’s Sister Mahalia Jackson, Mavis. Do you like her?’ ‘Yes, sir, I do!’ He played her every day to me after that.”

The Staple Singers covered How I Got Over early in their careers (it wasn’t committed to vinyl). Staples also got to know Jackson, who also lived in Chicago, and took the younger singer under her wing. “She’d give me advice to help my voice: ‘Take off your damp clothes after shows, Mavis. Put warm ones on. Drink tea with honey in it. You want to be an old lady like me, don’t you?’” Jackson would even call Oceola to check that Mavis was listening properly. “‘Did that baby tell you what I told her?’ Yes, Ma’am! I thank her still. She’s why I’m still singing now.”

This slow, misty spiritual was the first song Pops taught his children to sing, in a semicircle, on their beige living room carpet. Their first family rehearsals weren’t exactly born out of a divine calling, however; Pops’ bandmates wouldn’t turn up to rehearsals, so he recruited new ones from home. A guitar bought from a pawn shop for $7 was his instrument, then he started teaching his children the parts. Mavis did the baritone lines even then. “We didn’t know we could sing. Pops taught us.”

Their first concert was at Staples’ aunt’s church on Chicago’s 33rd Street. “We got three encores. I still remember that feeling.” Family singing has always been Staples’ favourite thing. “It felt like home. There was no need to feel self-conscious or afraid.” Later, other family groups told her they had started singing together because of them, including the Jackson Five, the Pointer Sisters and Sly and the Family Stone.

Mavis released only three solo albums and a soundtrack in the 60s and 70s because she preferred singing with her family. “I’m only a solo artist now because most of my family are gone. My sister Yvonne is still here, but she’s sick, with dementia – I call her every day when I’m away. [Staples’ older brother] Pervis stopped singing years ago.” Pops died in 2000; Cleotha died in 2013. “With family, you knew where you were going. It was joyous. It felt like security.”

One Sunday in 1963, while on tour, the Staple Singers went to hear Martin Luther King Jr preach in Montgomery, Alabama. It gave Pops an idea. “He said: ‘If he can preach it, we can sing it,’” Staples recalls. The group started writing and performing freedom songs, Freedom Highway being Staples’ favourite, the title track of their thrilling 1965 live album. A swinging, rocking, rolling song, it references the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was beaten, shot and thrown in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie river after flirting with a white woman: “Found dead people in the forest / Tallahatchie river and lakes / The whole world is wondering what’s wrong with the United States.”

Staples gets noticeably upset talking about America in 2017. “I still sing this song every night. It’s still relevant. To think that so many years ago Dr King gave his life – and here we are. It breaks my heart into pieces.” She also remembers saying she would never see a black president in her lifetime. “All that progress we made – and now we have a liar in the White House who just spurts out hate. I’ve just got to keep on singing my songs.”

Gospel is Staples’ favoured genre, but she has dabbled “in everything”, she laughs, including folk, pop and funk. There’s even reggae on the opening to I’ll Take You There, a sample from Harry J Allstars’ The Liquidator, and it became the Staple Singers’ biggest hit. This was during their period on Stax Records, with whom they signed in 1970; quickly, the group were propelled out of pulpits and on to TV shows. “I almost got put out of church. I did so many interviews saying that I wasn’t singing the devil’s music. I mean, listen to the lyrics of I’ll Take You There, not the beat: ‘I know a place / Ain’t nobody cryin’ / Ain’t nobody worried.’ Where on earth else do you think I’m taking you?”

The Staple Singers did record a much more secular song straight after, however. Let’s Do It Again was written by Curtis Mayfield and includes lyrics about “getting down” and a lady “so fine”. Pops wasn’t keen. “He said: ‘Curtis, I’m not going to sing that, I’m a church man.’ I never forget Curtis’s reply.” Mavis laughs: “‘Aw, Pops, the Lord won’t mind.’”

I’ll Take You There was also sampled on Salt-N-Pepa’s 1990 hit Let’s Talk About Sex, which Staples doesn’t mind either. “Any time young people jump on my music, I love it. It lets you know they’re taking the messages. Plus, it means I’m going to get a cheque!”

The Staple Singers’ impact on other pop musicians was significant. The Rolling Stones’ first single to have the Jagger/Richards writing credit was The Last Time, although it was clearly inspired by the Staple Singers’ 1958 recording of a gospel spiritual of a similar name. (Keith Richards admitted this in 2003: “We were basically readapting a traditional gospel song that had been sung by the Staple Singers, but, luckily, the song itself goes back into the mists of time.”) Michael Jackson took the word “shamone” from I’ll Take You There and inserted it into Bad. “He’d tell people he’d borrowed it,” Staples says. “I was just trying to sing, ‘Come on,’ but trying to be slick!”

Then there was Prince. He signed Staples to his Paisley Park label after falling in love with her backing vocals on Nona Hendryx’s 1987 single, Baby Go-Go, then watched the Staple Singers’ 1971 Soul to Soul movie about a concert they had played in Ghana. “I’ve been in love with Mavis since I saw that movie,” he told Staples’ biographer Greg Kot in 2014. “I would watch her [singing] … it’s like when you see someone possessed.”

“He was so shy when we met; too timid to say a word,” Staples recalls. She started writing to him instead and he put her words into songs. One of those lines (“We went to church on Sunday mornin’ / All dressed up looking fine”) begins a verse of Blood Is Thicker Than Time, which is her favourite song that he wrote for her.

They spoke and wrote to each other right up until Prince’s death last year. Staples struggles to talk about him today. He called her Mama, which had a deeper impact, as she didn’t have any children of her own; her unhappy eight-year marriage to Chicago funeral director Arthur Leak ended in 1972 when he asked her to stop singing – she would never stop singing. “I still can’t listen to an entire Prince song without breaking down. I was in Saint Paul, Minnesota, just last month [on the Dylan tour] and planned to go to his museum. But, on the day, I realised I wasn’t ready yet. I’d have needed someone to hold me up.”
Here she is at The Greenbelt Festival some years ago with me + group of friends & workers (+her older sister) fantastic gig too.
Staples met another important musician in her life, Wilco songwriter Jeff Tweedy, in 2008. “He’s north side [Chicago] – Tweedy-side – but he brought all of Wilco down south to see us.” Two weeks later, he contacted her manager, saying he would like to produce her new record, and they had their first meeting in a cafe. “He’s bashful, too – I cracked little jokes to break the ice. Then he talked about working as a teenager in a record shop and playing our songs, then we started talking about family … we talked for two-and-a-half hours. We let each other into our lives.”

Tweedy has made three solo records with Staples and finished off her father’s last recordings for an album, Don’t Lose This, released in 2015. You Are Not Alone means a lot to Mavis, as it was the first song Tweedy wrote for her and its lyrics speak on deeper levels about friendship. (“You’re not alone / I’m with you / I’m lonely too.”) Tweedy’s children have also “adopted” Staples as their grandmother. “I was all, one minute, kid, I’ll be your auntie! Then I looked at myself, saw the lines … and I thought, it’s about time.” Tweedy knows her inside out, she says. “He writes songs as if they’ve come straight from my heart.”

Staples met Arcade Fire at Lollapalooza in 2010 (“they came to my dressing room all polite and introduced themselves”), then in November that year they shared the bill on Later With Jools Holland. They have done more songs together: a version of Talking Heads’ Slippery People, which the Staple Singers made into a minor hit in the 80s (leading to Pops getting a role as a preacher in the Talking Heads’ movie, True Stories) and a live version of The Last Time together last year, which began with the Staple Singers’ 1961 original and ended in a Rolling Stones rock-out. She loved it: “The crowd went crazy!”

Staples was also delighted to be asked to sing on this song. “This song is what we think about this president. I give you power, I can take it away. And the fact that they released this song on inauguration day – I loved that.”

Staples still loves new music – she was pleased that the country artist Rhiannon Giddens released an album, Freedom Highway, inspired by the Staple Singers – and she also has her eye on other collaborators. “I love Chance the Rapper. What he does is a lot of gospel, really. I’d love to do stuff with him.” But for now, I Give You Power still speaks for her. “That song is right on time. I’ll keep singing it. 
We’ve all just got to keep singing.”

Mavis Staples: ‘All that progress we made – and now we have a liar in the White House'
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