Mavis Staples’ Second Act
Mavis Staples is sitting in the lounge of her tour bus outside the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, telling a story about her current tourmate, Bob Dylan. The other day, Dylan asked Staples to rehearse a duet of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” a funky gospel rocker from Slow Train Coming that the pair re-recorded in 2002, earning a Grammy nomination in the process. But the rehearsal hit some roadblocks. First, they couldn’t settle on who has to sing the line “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” “He said, ‘You’re going to sing it this time. I did it for you last time,’ ” Staples recalls. “I said, ‘You didn’t do it for me. It’s your song!’ ” And with the song’s seven verses, Staples, 78, had trouble getting the lyrics straight. “I asked him, ‘Do you have a teleprompter?’ He says” – she drops her voice to Dylan’s guttural rasp – “ ’I’m too cheap to buy a prompter, Mavis.’ I told him, ‘You can buy one for me, Bobby!’ ”
Staples may be one of the few people alive who can good-naturedly kid Bob Dylan. They first met on the set of a 1963 folk television special, back when she was the lead singer of gospel music’s most revolutionary group, the Staple Singers. Dylan had been a fan since high school; in 2001 he said listening to Staples’ voice on after-hours gospel radio “made my hair stand up.” He and Staples had a fling in the Sixties, with Staples famously rejecting his marriage proposal. Since reuniting on their first tour together, in 2016, they realized their chemistry never left.
The Dylan tour is the latest chapter of Staples’ remarkable second act, which has included five albums, a hit documentary and a Kennedy Center Honor. (She’s also become kind of an indie-rock go-to, singing on recent singles with Arcade Fire and Gorillaz.) It’s a series of events she didn’t foresee earlier this millennium as she reeled from the death of her father and musical mentor, Pops Staples, who steered the family group to success with early-Seventies hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” Around the same time, she quit the road to stay home in Chicago with her sister and bandmate Cleedy, who was suffering from dementia. Mavis wanted to get back to work, but labels weren’t interested. So she reached into her savings and recorded 2004’s Have a Little Faith, kicking off a productive streak that intensified when she met Jeff Tweedy, who got her back to her gospel roots while adding a modern, Wilco-ish twist on 2010’s You Are Not Alone. Tweedy went on to produce two more albums for Staples, including last year’s If All I Was Was Black. “It’s hard to be sad around Mavis,” he says. “She came to visit my wife when my wife was going through cancer treatment in the hospital, and it was a party. She just has an effortless ability to make people feel better.”
Staples hasn’t been so upbeat lately. Yvonne, her last living sister, is now suffering from dementia too. “I’m hurting right now,” Mavis says. She just got off the phone with her. “She said, ‘Mavis, I love you. Mavis, I love you’ – and she’ll say that over and over and over,” says Mavis. “When I said goodbye, she said, ‘Toodle-oo,’ and that made me feel better.”
Then there’s “that filthy man in the White House”: “I don’t see no good in him. And the children, his boys, are snakes, you can tell. It’s like Satan is in the White House. The first thing you wanna do is stop immigrants from coming to the United States? He’s against women. He treats ladies like nothing. He’s worse than any president I’ve ever seen. I mean, we did John F. Kennedy’s inauguration – that’s how long I been here!”
She’s referring to the early days of the Staple Singers, just before they made the controversial move away from straight gospel and toward R&B with a strong social-justice bent. The group decried racial disparity in hits like “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” and the rousing 1965 Selma anthem “Freedom Highway” – favorites of Martin Luther King Jr., who took the group along to open rallies for him. The Staples were routinely in danger while traveling the Southern gospel circuit, often getting hassled and worse. Mavis recalls one journey in 1964, when, as the family’s late-night driver, she went inside a Memphis gas station to get a receipt. The attendant called her the n-word; Pops punched him, and the family ended up in jail after the attendant said he’d been robbed. “I’ve never been so scared in my life,” says Mavis. “I was happy to see we were going to jail – I thought they were gonna take us out into the woods and lynch us.”
Mavis has been reminded of those days lately. “There’s suddenly been a rebirth of bigotry and hate,” she says. “The only difference I saw between back in the day and those men marching with them torches in Charlottesville was that they showed their faces, no sheets.” She expressed her outrage to Tweedy, who saw an opportunity to get Staples back to once again singing about what was happening in the world. He wrote a series of songs in only two weeks, including “Build a Bridge,” which offers a hopeful alternative to Trump’s border wall, and “We Go High,” named after the famous line in Michelle Obama’s 2016 Democratic National Convention speech. They formed If All I Was Was Black, Mavis’ deepest work in decades. She had a difficult time singing “Little Bit,” an apocalyptic opener about an unarmed black teen getting shot by a cop after being pulled over. “I had to stop singing because I got choked up,” she says. “Because when I sing a song, I visualize what I’m singing about.” Mavis co-wrote several of the songs, including “If All I Was Was Black,” about an imaginary conversation with a racist. She also insisted the album be named after the song, even when her camp disagreed. “It’s breathtaking to have her be so willing to still stick her neck out there,” Tweedy says. “I think it’s a bold choice for the album title.”
Tweedy was a little self-conscious about writing such pointed songs in Mavis’ voice – “I didn’t wanna put words in her mouth that weren’t her experience” – but Mavis says he nailed it. “It makes me feel better to sing these songs because I’m singing something that I feel like I’m helping,” she says.
Staples, true to form, gives credit to her collaborators: “The Lord has really put me with some geniuses.” She mentions Prince – after the Staple Singers stopped releasing albums in the Eighties, he signed her to his Paisley Park label and wrote and produced two albums, 1989’s Time Waits for No One and 1993’s The Voice. (“It’s like when you see someone possessed,” Prince told writer Greg Kot. “They get the Holy Ghost in them and they’re overtaken by something. Mavis can call that up just like that. I look at her and I wonder if … she goes somewhere else.”)
Three months after our first meeting, Staples calls with an update from her modest Chicago apartment, which is decorated with paintings of Prince and other heroes – Miles Davis, King. She just played several new songs at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, and the response was rapturous: “A black friend of mine came up to me after and said, ‘Mavis, I am so glad to see the white people are woke.’ I’d never heard that before!”
The rest of the Dylan tour was a blast, too, although
they never got to do their song together. (Dylan’s bass player Tony Garnier
told her Dylan couldn’t find a slot that worked with the other songs.) But she
still wrote Dylan a card on the final night in New York, thanking him for
sharing his audience with her. Once again, she was summoned to his dressing
room. “He wanted to say goodbye in person, and we hugged,” she says. “I
ain’t telling you no more. Don’t write all of my secrets. But, yeah – we did a
lot of hugging.”
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