Rolling Stone magazine named Mavis Staples at number 56 in its 100 greatest singers, ahead of John Fogerty, Bjork, Joe Cocker, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey.
Rolling Stone magazine named Mavis Staples at number 56 in its 100 greatest singers, ahead of John Fogerty, Bjork, Joe Cocker, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey. Contributed

American royalty leaves her mark

MAVIS Staples is American royalty.

It's not only that the 75-year-old has a heavenly, sublime voice, or that Rolling Stone magazine named her at number 56 in its 100 greatest singers, ahead of John Fogerty, Bjork, Joe Cocker, Annie Lennox and Mariah Carey.

And it's not even that she and her father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, fronted one of the most loved gospel-folk groups in US music history - The Staple Singers.

It's that she and her family are integral parts of the soundtrack to the US civil rights movement.

She mixes easily with rock stars, presidents and legends, but she rarely mentions politics and has never been interested in the glitterati - although a young Bob Dylan once asked her to marry him.

It is the legends, presidents and rock stars who seek her out.

Main image: The Staple Singers – Pops and his children Cleo, Pervis and Mavis. Bottom from left: Martin Luther King Jnr, Mavis belting out a song with The Staple Singers, and Bob Dylan.
Main image: The Staple Singers – Pops and his children Cleo, Pervis and Mavis. Bottom from left: Martin Luther King Jnr, Mavis belting out a song with The Staple Singers, and Bob Dylan.

Only a couple of days before we talked, she was invited to the Super Bowl in Arizona. The Patriots narrowly beat the Seahawks, but for Mavis, it wasn't so much the NFL game, it was the half-time entertainment celebrations.

"Oh, I met a lovely girl … Katy?" she coos warmly, laughing.

"She is just a wonderful young thing … oh, what's her name?

"Katy Perry, that's right."

Mavis is sitting in the condominium she bought in 1970, in the city in which she grew up, Chicago.

She's behind a plain desk in a smallish, but comfortable office.

To her left, one wall is crowded with framed photos of friends - Lenny Kravitz, Bonnie Raitt and Bill Clinton are among the multitude.

The opposite wall is more spartan: two photos, also friends.

One is fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama and the other, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jnr.

"Without Dr King, I would never have been here," she said.

Mavis still refers to the inspirational Baptist minister reverently, always as "Dr King".

Contributed

He was at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the US through the 1960s, mainly in the south. A gunman assassinated him in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.

But in 1965, Dr King led civil rights marches in Chicago, in the north.

To outsiders, it may seem a little surprising because the south was painted as the hotbed of racial confrontation.

"Oh no," Mavis said. "It was much worse here."

Mavis had first-hand knowledge. During summer school holidays when she was growing up, she often took a bus down to stay with her grandmother in Alabama. It gave her the comparisons she needed.

"I loved that time," she said. "Alabama was wonderful."

But Chicago was another matter.

"(In Chicago) they would pretend, but they could be brutal … the police, everyone," she said.

"Dr King was putting his life on the line marching here and he knew it."

Pops counted Dr King a friend, and so too did the Staples children.

"In 1965, I would never have been welcome in a condominium on this side of the river," she said.

"Because of Dr King, only a few years later I was here.

"And I've stayed," she beams.

Contributed

In the late 1950s, The Staple Singers - Pops and his children Cleo, Yvonne, Pervis and the youngest, Mavis - sang gospel-blues, and clicked into a US folk music groove.

That's when Mavis and Dylan met.

His song, Blowin' in the Wind, had become an international hit, not his version, but one by folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

He was young, handsome and about to hit the big time.

And his first impression of Mavis was her amazing voice as she fronted The Staple Singers.

Dylan said of the first time he heard her fluid contralto: "That just made my hair stand up … I mean, it just seemed like, 'That's the way the world is'."

Mavis still remembers their first meeting.

"We were doing a TV show up in New York for General Electric," she told the Hamilton Spectator in 2011.

"There were so many of us on the show, a lot of folk singers.

"There came a point where everybody was at lunch.

"We were all in line. My family, we were at the front of the line, and … he was in back.

"All of a sudden Dylan yelled out, 'Pops, I want to marry Mavis'.

"And Pops yelled back, 'Don't tell me, tell Mavis'.

"We started a little courtship, and he did, he asked me to marry him."

She said no.

"I was too young."

But the bond has endured.

It had been a steep learning curve for the youngest Staples. Her mother Oceala died when Mavis was young, leaving Pops to raise the four children.

The family had always sung at church prayer meetings.

Pops, who had worked on a cotton plantation in Mississippi before taking his family north to Chicago and moving into meat packing plants in Chicago, had no illusions about racism. Touring mostly the south in the 1950s was a tricky business for an African-American family.

The Staples had difficulty finding food and lodging, relying heavily on a secret network of homes and boarding houses that supported the gospel community.

Pops had bought a Cadillac to tour, and in the rural south it brought them plenty of grief from law enforcement.

At one stage, they even landed in jail when money, their legitimate wages, was found in the trunk of the car.

The experiences honed Pops' and the family's desire to empower the black community and to provide messages of hope and strength.

Pops spoke through his songs Respect Yourself, The Weight, Unclouded Day, People Get Ready, Why Am I Treated So Bad, When Will We Be Paid and I Shall Not Be Moved.

It was not surprising that the Staples became involved in the growing civil rights movement.

The Staples often adjusted their touring schedule to accompany Dr King's appearances.

When young Mavis had some concerns about taking gospel music outside church, Pops put it into perspective.

"He told me, 'The people in the clubs won't come to church. So we take the church to them'."

It seemed about right. And Mavis has continued to deliver the message, from the White House to the Byron Bay Blues Festival and beyond.

Mavis Staples will perform at BluesFest at Easter. For more information, go to bluesfest.com.au.

She also plays the Brisbane Powerhouse on April 8. For more information, go to bluesfesttouring.com.au.



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