Seventy-three-year-old Mavis Staples returns to Australia with a new album on its way, her second in collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, as the soul and gospel legend continues to not only remain relevant but record some of her best solo material.
In a career that continues well into its seventh decade Staples’ famous throaty voice has preached some of soul music’s most passionate and illustrious anthems. Her family band The Staple Singers (led by her father Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples with Mavis’ siblings Cleotha, Pervis, and Yvonne), were a 50s and 60s gospel outfit that turned to protest and soul songs in the mid 60s when the band signed to the legendary Stax imprint. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees released their best known material through Stax including I’ll Take you There, Respect Yourself and If You’re Ready (Come go with me). After Stax went bankrupt in 1975, the band signed to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records, releasing hits including Let’s do it Again. Aside from Pops and Tweedy, Mavis has collaborated with some of the best in the business including Prince, Bob Dylan and Ry Cooder. She says her latest collaborator Jeff Tweedy is right in the mix when compared to the aforementioned list of illustrious musicians.
“All of these people ask to work for me and that’s what makes me feel so good,” Staples explains. “Cause I didn’t know Jeff Tweedy. He asked his manager that he wanted to produce me. And his manager told my manager. I told him that I didn’t know this Jeff Tweedy. He said, ‘oh Mavis, he’s with Wilco’ and when he explained that to me I realised that I had heard his music’.”
Mavis is not immune to musical geniuses wanting to not only work with her but also be enamoured with the singer. Prince was so shy around her that he had to speak to Mavis through her sister Yvonne while Bob Dylan wanted to marry her. In fact, Mavis is so revered that she really should share the queen of soul title with Aretha Franklin. But unlike Aretha, Mavis is still relevant. Her last album You are not Alone won a Grammy (not always the best indicator) while the album received an average score of 81 percent on the critic aggregator site Metacritic (a more appropriate indicator) with AV Club saying the soul gospel album was “timeless rather than retro”.
Before deciding to work with Tweedy, Mavis had to get to know the fellow Windy CIty resident and Wilco bandleader, which she did by meeting him in a Chicago restaurant.
“I tell you when we left that restaurant, I felt like I knew Jeff Tweedy and it seemed like I had known him for years. I knew in my heart that we could make good music together because we had so much in common. I let him into my life. He let me into his life. He let me know that from a teenager he worked in a record shop. He had access to all of The Staples Singers’ music from the 50s and 60s. He knew us. He was crazy about Pops. When he started talking about family I just melted in my seat. I said, ‘okay, this is good’. Pops would always tell us that family was the strongest unit in the world. Always stick with your family. Stick with your brothers and sisters. No one can break you. Nobody can break through that.”
When this interview was conducted, the as-yet untitled album wasn’t completed but Staples said the album would be different to You are not Alone but that it would contain the classic Mavis Staples ingredients.
“You know the kinda songs I sing. You’re gonna hear some gospel and you’re gonna hear some soul. Some of the songs are older than me, I tell Tweedy, ‘Tweedy you are a young man with an old soul’. He loves the old songs and I’m glad he does because it’s my life. These are songs that I grew up on. A couple of them I remember singing in my grandmother’s church.”
While Mavis revealed that one of her father’s songs would be on the album she wouldn’t disclose any other information about the track.
“I’m sorry I’m not going to tell you everything. I’m not going to tell you the name of the song,” she laughed. “You’ll know when it comes. When the record is released and you interview me again, then I’ll tell you. I’ve learned how to be cool when I’m doing these interviews.”
Mavis will perform in Adelaide with Bonnie Raitt, an Americana legend who Mavis considers family.
“I called her my baby sister. Yes, indeed. My father was so crazy about Bonnie that I used to get jealous at first. You know, when Bonnie was around Mavis just didn’t exist! And then I finally met Bonnie’s father. I met Mr Raitt. And he liked my singing and that made me feel so much better. I told daddy, ‘that’s alright, Mr Raitt likes me’. We just became one big happy family, and Bonnie; I just love her so much. She’s just an angel. She’s the sweetest person you’d ever meet.”
Recently Quincy Jones explained that Michael Jackson’s famous ‘shamone’ cry from tracks such as Bad was a tribute to Mavis, who invented the word for I’ll Take you There.
“My mother called me and said, ‘Mavis, this little Michael Jackson stole your word’. I said, ‘whatcha talking about mama?’ She said ‘turn on channel 2’ and there was Michael singing ‘I’m bad, you know it, shamone, shamone’. I had a fit. I said ‘oh my goodness’. It made me feel so good. One of the disc jockeys got on the radio and said, ‘Mavis, has Michael Jackson paid you yet for shamone? He said he owes you money. I said, ‘oh no, he can have it. He can have shamone’. It made me feel so good."
Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples
Tuesday, March 26