Mavis Staples : The Gospel According to Jeff Tweedy
The Staples Singers at Wattstax
It’s clear that the memories she holds from the ‘70s—those times when The Staple Singers rode the best-selling charts to the very top and the world was at their command—she still deeply treasures. “Those were good times, even when people would try to sidetrack us and say we were singing the devil’s music,” she remembers with a laugh. “Those songs were played all over the radio and the kids would get up and dance. Some people couldn’t hear we were still singing gospel. We’d do interviews and tell them, ‘I know a place there ain’t nobody crying, ain’t nobody worried, no smiling faces lying to the races.’ Where else would that be except heaven? They backed off [of] us and we were invited back to the church.
The first song we did was ‘I’ll Take You There,’ right in the pulpit! But we also had some trying times back then. Let me tell you, when disco came through, we were just sitting down. Pops said, ‘You all be faithful, and this too shall pass.’ Nobody wanted to hear any music like ours. I could hear ‘Love to Love You Baby’ from the South Side to the West Side to the North Side—same song would be playing! My father got us enrolled in [Chicago’s] Second City and we did some drama with the people that started “Saturday Night Live.” It kept us from feeling idle and getting down. Next thing that came along was Curtis Mayfield, and we did ‘Let’s Do It Again.’ And we were back!”
The prime piece of Mavis Staples’ identity was, is and will always be her father, Pops Staples, who passed away in 2000. Naturally, when it came time to choose songs for You Are Not Alone, she knew she needed to find something very special to honor her father. In many ways, Randy Newman’s “Losing You” anchors the album, allowing the singer to open up her heart and share the love and pain she still carries for the man who started it all. “When Pops passed, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I could go on, or could sing without his guitar. It got so bad my sister Yvonne yelled at me and told me off. She explained how Pops would want me to keep on singing. She said, ‘Pops is not gone. He’s watching over you and you carry him with you everywhere you go.’ She lit a fire under me.
“I got to praying, and had the whole church praying for me. The song I started singing was ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ That was the first song The Staples Singers did. We recorded it about six times, but Pops was always singing lead on it. I’ll never get over losing him, but I put [it] in my mind [that] he’s still with me. You don’t get over it, but you learn how to live. That’s where faith comes in.”
Faith could be the glue in the seamlessness between Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy. It’s in every note on You Are Not Alone, not to mention everything in Staples’ 60 years of singing. Selections like Allen Toussaint’s “Last Train,” John Fogerty’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Belong to the Band” and Tweedy’s other original, “Only the Lord Knows,” each have an inner glow and let Staples, the band and the backing singers raise the temperature right through the roof. The song selection reflects how much this record is a journey.
“This music covers everything, from my beginning all the way to today,” Mavis Staples says. “I’ve come full circle and everyone on the album has come with me. That’s what I try and stay open to. I remember back in the ‘60s [when] we were doing the Westinghouse television show and heard Bob Dylan there. He was just starting out, and was singing, ‘How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?’ Pops said, ‘Wait one minute. Listen to what that kid is saying. That’s the truth and we can sing that song.’
Music has always been like that to me. It comes from all places and has taken me everywhere. I learned very early not to put any walls around it. Just try and show the bright side, make people feel better. Now, I’m so grateful to be here and have Jeff Tweedy produce me. I told someone yesterday, ‘I’m the happiest old girl since Betty White.’”
You Are Not Alone is going to make a lot of listeners happy, from hard core gospelites to followers of Tweedy ’s every move. There is a certain alchemy that happens when disparate forms of music join together and the history of popular music proves how powerful that puzzle can be. When Elvis Presley and the early rockers crossed country with blues to create rock and roll or the first psychedelic jammers borrowed the improvisatory beauty of jazz and injected it into rock, music continued its unstoppable march into the future.
When Mavis Staples steps to the microphone to sing, she brings with her a living history of American music, one that she has built based on faith, love of family and respect for life. She will take us there, too, as surely as Staples has always done, but this time with the help Jeff Tweedy and his believing heart.
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