It’s not often we get to share a room with a genuine national treasure. Jim and Greg were honored to speak with gospel and soul legend and Civil Rights icon Mavis Staples. (Greg is also the author of Mavis’s 2014 biography I’ll Take You There). Beginning her career at age eleven as the lead singer of her family band The Staple Singers, Mavis has inspired countless artists over the past half century.
Her father Pops Staples learned guitar at the feet of Charley Patton in Dockery Farms, Mississippi before moving to Chicago. There, he formed The Staple Singers, a gospel vocal group featuring his children – Pervis [Staples], Cleotha [Staples], Yvonne [Staples], and Mavis taking the lead. The combination of Pops’s blues guitar, Cleotha’s counterpoint, and Mavis’s precociously powerful voice launched them into national attention with their 1956 hit “Uncloudy Day.” Soon, the Staple Singers were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, often serving as the opening act to Martin Luther King, Jr. (We’ll cover that period in more detail in a second episode with Mavis).
The group had its greatest success once it signed to Stax Records and began recording with the famed session musicians in Muscle Shoals, Alabama on hits like “I’ll Take You There.” That’s also when Mavis began her solo career – reluctantly at first, but still going as strong as ever today. Her latest album Livin’ on a High Note found her working with songwriters like Nick Cave, tUnE-yArDs, and Neko Case. Mavis offers Jim and Greg an intimate look at growing up on Chicago’s South Side, forming the Staple Singers’ signature sound, meeting Mahalia Jackson, and collaborating with Curtis Mayfield and Prince.