Legendary Soul Singer Mavis Staples Turns 77 This Year—And Can Still Nae Nae

02_26_MavisStaples_01
Mavis Staples performs in concert in 2015. Miikka Skaffari/Film First/HBO

Keep an eye on Mavis Staples and—who knows?—maybe you’ll see her dab, or even do the Shmoney. “I can whip. I can nae nae,” declares the 76-year-old singer. “I’ll be strutting around to any new dance. I hang around with young people. I pick up their slang.”

Those dance moves are far removed from the churches on Chicago’s South Side where Staples came of age singing gospel, but she always followed the lead of her musician father, Pops, in her long career by staying open to change.

She had never even heard folk music before being invited to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, but her family group, the Staple Singers, soon became folk stars, and she was fending off marriage proposals from an eager suitor named Bob Dylan. Later, she shared a bill with Jimi Hendrix and a stage with Janis Joplin, and with her family she sang songs by Stephen Stills and the Talking Heads. As a solo artist, she recorded with Prince and performed at the Grammys with Kanye West.

The Staple Singers influenced generations of musicians, as well as the civil rights movement. They soared from the gospel world to the top of the pop charts and then fell into near oblivion, unable to secure a record deal. Now Staples and her unforgettable voice are back with Livin’ on a High Note, the latest of four albums released this past decade, including one that earned her a Grammy. Her life has even inspired a new HBO documentary, Mavis!

In other words, Staples’s career sounds like the ultimate Behind the Music roller coaster…except for the fact that there are no dark passages, no demons, no years lost to booze and drugs, no searing family rifts—just an incredibly cheery woman who has always lived up to her childhood nickname of Bubbles. During her Newsweek interview, she broke into song a half-dozen times.

“Mavis looks at music as primarily a spiritual force, and that doesn't lead to many dark nights of the soul,” says M. Ward, who produced her new album, which features songs by artists such as Bon Iver, Neko Case, Benjamin Booker and Nick Cave. “I thought we'd need to work half-days, but she kept working full days. Her energy is off the charts, and she's always upbeat, always optimistic.”

Bonnie Raitt, a close friend of Staples, describes her as having “an irrepressible, loving spirit.”

“She is a talented and inspired singer, but she also has a generosity and openness,” says the slide guitar great. “She somehow has not been besmirched by being in the music business, and her openness and positivity is infectious. She's the best proponent for what living a righteous life will get you.”

Everyone who knows Staples credits her outlook to the nurturing spiritual and family environment created by her parents, Pops and Oceola, who the Reverend Jesse Jackson points out always hosted and helped neighbors, fellow musicians and civil rights activists.

For years, the Staple Singers were strictly a gospel act, beloved in the black community. But after the Newport Folk Festival, the patriarch of the family shifted the group’s sound to the secular music of the civil rights movement, even though it caused consternation in the gospel community. Staples says her father saw folk songs as “telling the truth, and so not far from gospel,” and the band found a national audience with tunes such as “Freedom Highway” and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?”

“They were stars in their own community, but it was the nexus of civil rights and folk music that exposed the rest of us to them,” says Raitt.

Jackson says their songs were essential to the movement. They would frequently perform before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke—he always requested “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” 

“They were great interpreters of our actions, closing the gap between our culture and the civil rights movement, putting it into music,” Jackson says. “They were one of Dr. King's favorite groups, and they used their gifts to spread the message to people Dr. King couldn't get to, using their platform to raise consciousness beyond any event.” Their commitment ran so deep, he says, that the Staple Singers would sing at Operation Breadbasket meetings and events. “They would inspire people.”

From 1971 to 1976, the Staple Singers landed 10 songs, including Stax label hits “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” in the R&B top 10 and scored two No. 1 pop hits, while staying true to their message. But by decade's end, the glitter of disco had taken over the radio, and their recording career petered out. In 1989, Prince stepped in and produced a solo album for Staples, but a 1993 follow-up was buried by record label woes. In 2000, her father died while trying to finish his final solo album. Staples was devastated. For the first time, things looked bleak. She had no record deal, and her career could have ended. But her sister Yvonne pushed her back on the road, and after 9/11 a producer named Jim Tullio, who lost two friends that day, wrote a song called “In Times Like These” and asked Staples to sing it. That led to an album, Have a Little Faith, which was recorded without a contract—Staples spent $50,000 of her own money to see it through before Alligator Records picked it up.

Her faith led to a deal with Anti- records, which partnered her with Ry Cooder for We'll Never Turn Back, perhaps her finest solo album, with its swampy sound and lyrics reminiscent of the ’60s-era Staple Singers. She continued with two albums produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, including the Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone.

Resurrecting her career finally gave her the chance to honor her father's last wish. While listening to his nearly finished recordings shortly before he died, Pops Staples told his daughter, “Don't lose this.”

“It was important for me to get back on people's radar first,” she says. Since Tweedy had helped make that happen, she gave him the tapes to produce what became the 2015 album Don't Lose This. “I still listen to it all the time,” Staples says. “It's like Pops is right there in the room.”

Staples was also being filmed for Mavis! by Jessica Edwards, who had seen her perform in 2013 in Brooklyn, New York. “She blew my mind the way she brings the audience in,” Edwards says. “I said, 'I've got to know everything about this woman.' I looked on Netflix to find a documentary. It wasn't there, so I decided to make one myself.”

“There are not many other entertainers who connect so many genres in the history of American music and who are still relevant,” Edwards adds.

Staples loves that her new album is more upbeat than her two previous ones, saying, “I want to make people happy.” But she “wants to have an impact,” pointing to songs like “Action” and “MLK Song,” with lyrics that adapt Dr. King's “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. “I remember that speech so well,” Staples says. “I barely held myself together singing it. I know the spot in the recording where I shed a tear.”

Although music and social movements are no longer as strongly linked, Edwards says Staples remains connected to activism. “The civil rights movement did not end for her in 1968,” Edwards says. “She sees what's going on, and she still sings about it.”

Staples has several old freedom songs in her live shows. “They're still so relevant, and people need to hear them,” she says, adding that those songs have earned the loudest applause since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged.

“Dr. King gave his life for the movement, and we've come a long way, but there's still such a long way to go,” she says. “I let my audiences know I'm a witness. I'm not just singing the song. I'm still fighting on the battlefield for the army of love.”