Just a little under 20 years ago, Mavis Staples thought her career was over. Pops Staples, her father and the leader of the Staples Singers, had just died and she didn’t see how she could possibly carry on without him. “I’d just sit down and wouldn’t get up,” Mavis Staples tells Rolling Stone. “I was so depressed. And then one day my sister Yvonne came by my house and said, ‘Mavis, you get up. Daddy would want you to sing. Get off that couch!’ When she left my house, I did just that. I got up.”
She went on to have a remarkable career resurrection as a solo singer, working with everyone from Jeff Tweedy to M. Ward on new albums and touring all over America as an opening act for her old friend Bob Dylan. As she gets ready for her 80th birthday later this year, Staples called up Rolling Stone to share the wisdom that she’s learned throughout the course of her long life.
You turn 80 in July. How do you feel?
I feel good. When I was a kid, 80 was old, but I don’t feel old. I’m not as sharp as I used to be when I’m talking, but I feel like I’m ready for another 10 years.
How are you going to celebrate on the big day?
Oh, Lord. I told a friend of mine I want him to show me how to ride a skateboard, and I might want to go skydiving.
I’ve seen my friend Ben Harper skateboarding and I said, “Ben, I’m scared for you on that.” And he said, “Well, Mavis, this is beautiful. You’ve got to try it.”
During the darkest days of the civil rights struggle in the Sixties, did you ever lose your faith in the basic decency of humanity?
No, I didn’t. I kept the faith and I felt like we were doing what was right and I had so much support around me: My father and the family and Dr. King and all of the Freedom Riders. Any time I saw something that disturbed me, it just encouraged me more to keep on pushing.
Even when you saw the police unleash dogs on children?
Of course, that disturbed me. And I would say, “Oh, that’s such a shame that they’re treating our people like that.” But you have to have forgiveness in your heart. You will just take yourself under if you keep being angry. But today is not a whole lot better, and I see some of these kids that must be being taught hate at home, or they’re seeing what’s happening today and they just want to jump on the bandwagon. It really, really hurts. It hurts, but you can’t hold hate and anger in your heart. You have to let it go. I have to let it go so that I can be free. All I know is that I have to sing my songs and hopefully I’ll get through to some people who may feel like they should treat us like that, and just be kind. Just be nice to everybody.
If you could talk to yourself at age 20, what would you say?
Get your rest, Mavis. Don’t start barhopping, and take your time with your romances. You don’t want to get married too soon.
Did getting married young slow you down?
That’s exactly what it did. I got married in 1964 and that’s exactly what happened. My husband decided he wanted me to stop singing. I told him, “No, I’ve been singing long before I met you. I started singing when I was a kid and I can’t stop singing now.” But he stayed on me. He kept at it and that’s what broke us up. He would tell me, “I don’t want a songbird.” I said, “Well, you wanted a songbird when you proposed to me.” One argument led to another and I finally went and got a divorce.
What gave you the strength to leave that situation?
It bothered me for a while that I couldn’t make a marriage work, but it wasn’t because of me not doing what I knew I should do as a wife. I had been singing for years when I got married, but it’s sad that so many women of that time period gave up their dreams because of their husbands. They gave up everything to protect their marriage. It’s so sad.
Was there ever a moment in your life when you questioned your belief in God?
Never. I have prayed so much, the Lord’s been tired of me. I feel that God is taking care of me right now. Because I’m all alone, and I still have sellout crowds everywhere I go. There’s an old saying: “If you wait, deliverance will come.” And right now, it’s harvest time for me.
What do you do to stay in shape?
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I go to the fitness center. I have a personal trainer that gets all the kinks out. I do the treadmill and boxing. I got the pink boxing gloves, and I take the ball and work with it.
Your old friend Bob Dylan also boxes. Do you think you could knock him out?
I’d knock him out with one swing. He’s so little. It would hurt me to hit Bobby like that, but, oh, yeah, I’d take him out.
Is America better off now than it was in the Sixties?
We’ve done better, but we left a lot by the wayside, and those are the ones who voted for Mr. Trump. Things are better as far as us being able to go into bathrooms in the South, to go into the restaurants in the South, and to stay in hotels, but you never know who’s lurking on the sidelines waiting to knock you down again.
Trump ran for president on an openly racist agenda. What does that say about America?
That scared me. That made me feel like so many are thinking like him. Someone with Obama’s heart won twice, and here comes this man; he’s like Satan. Seeing people marching in Charlottesville with torches took me back to the Sixties. Are they gonna start burning crosses and lynching people?
Let’s say that President Trump was willing to speak with you for a few minutes, what would you say to him?
My heart really goes out to him because he’s really in trouble. And he’s a troubled soul. I thought I wanted to pray for him, but then I don’t. Every time I say, “What is wrong with this man? God help him,” he’ll do something else. And he takes me backwards, so I just don’t know what to do about him. If I had to talk to him, if he wanted to talk to me, I would look him straight in the eye. I think he would see what I’m feeling from the way that I would look at him, and he might say, “Oh, this is a different one here. I’ve got to straighten up and fly right.”
What has been the most painful moment of his presidency to you?
Seeing those children in cages and seeing them torn away from their mothers and seeing those mothers crying and wanting their children back. You don’t take a child away from their mother and don’t feel nothing about it, putting them in cages and carting them off somewhere where they don’t know if they’ll see their mom again. That hurt me so bad. That really hurt me.
During the past decade or so you’ve lost most of your family. How are you doing emotionally after enduring all that?
Sometimes I really feel isolated. My entire family is gone on to glory. I still have my brother [Pervis] — I can’t believe that everybody else is gone. I know that they’re in a better place. I know that they’re resting. They’re at peace, and I know that I’ll never forget what my father taught me and my mother taught me, to love one another. Love your neighbor. I’m just carrying on. I’m just trying to stay strong. I really get lonely at times, and I think about my last sister that left, Yvonne. I think about the fun we had and I can smile. I can get a little chuckle, but I miss everybody. I miss my father and my family. I miss my family, but I do have people around me that I feel that love me, and I’m safe. I’m alright.
What music still moves you the most these days?
Gospel music. I still like sister Mahalia Jackson and the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Albertina Walker and Shirley Caesar. When I listen to those people, I feel like my burdens have been lifted.
Are you afraid of death?
Not at all. I’m ready. I’ve done what I’ve been put here for. I would welcome death. I don’t want to die no time soon, but if it came I wouldn’t be afraid. I think I would just be singing with the angels and singing with the heavenly choir. That’s my vision of my death. That’s what I visualize, me with my wings and singing with the heavenly choir, just running my mouth and making everybody laugh, keeping everybody happy in heaven. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid.