When you talk about the gospel and soul music era of the 1960s and 1970s, there is no way that you can leave out Chicago’s very own Staples Singers.
Headed by the masterful leadership of Roebuck “Pops” Staples, he and his children – Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne and Mavis – began singing gospel spirituals in their Chicago living room.
Throughout the years, the Staple Singers have broken various barriers through their harmonic vocal arrangements, social awareness, style and grace. The signature voice of its youngest member, Mavis Staples, has become one of the most recognizable voices on the international music scene.
HBO Documentary Films debuted MAVIS! Monday, February 29th and documents the singer’s long, celebrated career in the music business dating back to her childhood on the South Side of Chicago.
Pops Staples moved his family to Chicago three years before Mavis was born in the mid-1930s. Before that, he earned 10 cents a day working the Mississippi cotton fields on the Drew Farms plantation.
Like so many other Southern Blacks, Pops relocated to the North for better opportunities during the Great Migration, and he landed a job working at a meatpacking factory in Chicago.
His earlier roots of learning how to play the guitar in the deep Delta fields of Mississippi brought a unique approach of combining what he learned from bluesman Charley Patton and his love for gospel spirituals.
For a while, Pops was a member of the Chicago gospel quartet the Trumpet Jubilees, but after years of a standstill career with them, he left. One day, he came home from work, removed his guitar from the closet and gathered the children to teach them some spiritual songs.
He knew he had something and decided to recruit his children as his new bandmates. Mavis, the youngest in the group, soon became the lead vocalist with her distinctive voice sounding way older than her young years.
The documentary MAVIS! chronicles the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Grammy Award-winning singer’s beginning with rare archival footage, recordings, behind-the-scenes video and conversations with friends and collaborators.
Mavis says of the film, “You’re going to see my family’s life starting in 1950 and bringing it on up to now. You’ll see my father teaching us songs when we first started singing.
“You’ll see a lot of my friends there – Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, saying nice things about me. It’s just the life – the life of the Staples family.
“I tried to watch it in Austin, Texas,” Mavis continued. “I had a chance to see it, but I only saw half of it because I cried most of the way through it. Just to see Pops as a young man and to see us on our journey just brought tears to my eyes.”
Adding testimonials to the film are musicians and family friends Gene Barge, Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Al Bell, Jeff Tweedy and late civil rights activist Julian Bond.
What Sets Her Apart
Director and producer Jessica Edwards she said the making this documentary was a true labor of love.
“Mavis herself was an inspiration. She’s such a vivacious and inspiring person,” Edwards said. “I wanted to know everything I could about her and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a film about her yet.
“My parents had Stax-era Staples music. I was reintroduced to her music through Jeff Tweedy – You’re Not Alone, One True Vine. I saw her perform for the first time and that’s when I got the bug.
I think other iconic singers stick to one genre – they either do R&B or gospel music. Mavis does gospel, folk, soul, R&B, and now she does Americana music. To be that relevant and vital for 65 years, that’s what sets her apart.”
Having recently won her first Grammy for Best American Roots Performance for the song See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, the 76-year old continues to drive full-steam ahead. She recently released her new album, Livin’ On A High Note, in conjunction with the film’s HBO debut.
The film focuses on the close relationship with Mavis and her sister Yvonne, a life-long bond that carries onto the stage between the spiritual twins and confidants. The two rarely travel apart and the impact of Pops Staple resonates throughout the film.
Mavis recalls her earlier musical influences and the bond between the Staples and (Aretha) Franklin families. Often they would go on the road and open up for Reverend C.L. Franklin for various gospel shows.
“Growing up, my idol was Sister Mahalia Jackson,” Mavis says. “With the Franklin family – we called ourselves one big happy family – Aretha, Erma, Carolyn and their father. Aretha was dynamite herself as a young lady. I think we took Aretha and her father on the road back in the day.”
She laughs a bit as she remembers those days past. “We took her down in Little Rock and she was crazy. She would do some things – she went to the beauty shop down in Little Rock and came back with green hair. Now, they’re wearing that today. They’re wearing all different kind of colors.
“But, Rev. Franklin said, ‘Aretha, you go back there and get your color back’ Why would you get your hair green?’ She said, ‘That is the color of money.’” Staples bursts into laughter.
“Our sister and I took our vacation over to Detroit and we stayed with Aretha and family,” Mavis continued. “This was years ago; we just had fun together. We grew up together – we were two families that were one family. The Franklins and the Staples.”
With so many strong, foot-stomping classics such as I’ll Take You There and Respect Yourself, the film MAVIS! also touches upon earlier signature Staples songs, including a Dr. Martin Luther King favorite, Why? (Am I Treated So Bad) and Mavis’ remake of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind.
The film also follows the group’s transition from Chicago label Vee-Jay Records to the infamous Memphis based Stax Records, to Mavis’ resurgence in the 1980s with Prince’s Paisley Park Records, and currently her present label home, Chicago based ANTI Records.
The film is not only a walk down memory lane – MAVIS! is a testament of Black history preservation at its finest.