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The Best Of Times... Episode Five: Mavis Staples
John Doran , April 29th, 2019 08:31

Subscribe to our Best Of Times... podcast series today. This week gospel legend Mavis Staples talks to John Doran about the highs and lows of her career

Download the Best Of Times... podcast with Mavis Staples here

Welcome to The Best Of Times podcast brought you by Lush and The Quietus. In this series John Doran talks to people about some of the best and worst times they have been through, and in the process, discovers out how these experiences have made them who they are today. The podcast is produced and engineered by Andrew Paine and co-produced by James Shakeshaft. The theme music is by Oh The Gilt.

Mavis Staples was born in Chicago in 1939. Along with her three siblings, Yvonne, Purvis and Cleotha, and father, Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, Mavis began singing in local churches from the age of eight. The Staples Singers (initially an a capella group with Pops on guitar) as they went on to be known, signed their first record deal in 1951. Ultimately they would become the most successful gospel outfit of all time. While it’s more difficult to quantify, most people would agree that they stand as the most important gospel group as well. Their success, no doubt, was in part due to the mutable nature of their art. Over the years they would incorporate elements of the blues, country, soul, funk and folk into their core churchical sound without ever ceasing to be a bona fide gospel group or abandoning a gospel message entirely in favour of secular themes. They were a very hardworking group and very rarely off the road - a trait which saw them weather many changes in musical fashion over the years.

Above and beyond this however it was Mavis’ powerhouse vocal delivery that really propelled the group to prominence. Their third single, Uncloudy Day, released in 1956 was their first of many hits, in a career that would include such trademark songs as Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Respect Yourself, If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) and I’ll Take You There.

As the band spent so much of the 1950s and 1960s on tour they were painfully aware of the huge gulf that separated the white experience of mid-20th Century America from the black equivalent. In 1958 Pops saw Dr Martin Luther King speaking inspiring him to take the relatively radical route of incorporating hard hitting social commentary into the lyrics of the Staple Singers. (Not long afterwards, he penned the self-explanatory 'I Had A Dream', for example.)

In 1963, inspired by events unfolding in Mississippi, they travelled to see Dr King speaking, this time as a family. Soon afterwards they became key figures in the Civil Rights movement. Their song 'March On Freedom’s Highway' was adopted as an anthem for (what would become a famous) protest march, which started in Montgomery and ended in Selma, in order to draw national attention to the problem of police brutality against African Americans in the South.

The band had an imperial period after signing to Stax Records that included many international hits and an appearance at the legendary Wattstax concert of 1972 but by the 70s, it was clear the label didn’t know how to market Mavis as a solo artist. It’s likely that they wanted to push her towards becoming a secular singer, in the mould of their big charge of the day, Isaac Hayes but she wasn’t for pushing about and the label collapsed into bankruptcy in 1975 regardless.

After a relatively fallow period, she she signed to Prince’s label Paisley Park in 1989, resulting in two albums, Time Waits For No One and The Voice. In a long and storied career she has since sung for Barack Obama at The White House and had something of a late career revivification after signing to indie label Anti- in 2007, where she has turned out a series of very well received albums, working with the likes of Ry Cooder, Jeff Tweedy and Ben Harper. Her new album We Get By is out on 24 May, just months before her 80th birthday.

The blues has always had a contentious relationship with the church. The foundational myth of the blues (and therefore of all rock music) is essentially an updated retelling of the Faust myth. Probably the most famous of the original bluesmen Robert Johnson is associated firmly with the idea of a man selling his soul at the crossroads to the Devil in return for musical success. But so little is actually known about Johnson, that the idea of his Faustian pact really concerns popular cultural perceptions rather than historical truth and when hearing this story one should take it with a pinch of salt (and then throw that pinch of salt over one’s left shoulder) because it certainly says more about white culture and its preoccupations than it does about Johnson’s ‘mysterious’ and rapidly evolving guitar style. One reading of this foundational story might be that the perpetuation of the myth is in itself a symptom of a racist society where an innovative, radical black musician can’t be awarded due recognition for his groundbreaking work by a white-dominated industry and media who deny his agency and talent - instead preferring the praise go to a supernatural entity.

One of the many physical locations which has a claim to be the spot where Johnson supposedly met the guy from downstairs, is that of Dockery Plantation, where Charley Patton, the Father Of The Delta Blues, was raised. Patton, it can easily be claimed, is one of the most important musicians of the 20th Century and inspired a great many people who saw him play. One of these, was a young Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples. The founder of the Staples Singers was born in 1915, the youngest of 14 kids and grew up on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, which was just up the road from the Dockery Plantation. Pops, also got to see Robert Johnson, Barbeque Bob Hicks and Son House in action. He’d grown up with gospel music and his church roots were strong because his keen interest in the blues turned out to be just a passing teenage infatuation and by his 15th birthday he had returned to the musical fold and formed his first gospel group, the Golden Trumpets. Although the blues always coloured his music from his teenage years onwards.

Were the church and the blues that incompatible? There were many in the Staples family who felt so. The significance of the ‘Satanic’ nature of The Blues almost certainly goes deeper than the reputation this music had for being the soundtrack to licentious behaviour and heavy drinking. It can also be linked to its near pre-history in the mid 19th Century as the music that was one of the few things still owned by African American slaves, when everything else (including their names) had been taken from them. Deeply rooted in African musical tradition (and liberally mixed, among other things, with gospel, ironically enough) it came to represent, among many other things, a highly codified rejection of the white land owner’s religion and it’s no coincidence that the blues as a recognisable form took shape just as slavery began to fall. The etymology of the genre tag itself probably comes from the term ‘blue devils’, referring to intense melancholy and sadness, while having a secondary reference to alcohol withdrawal (the equivalent of pink elephants). So while the word ‘devil’ fell away with time, the sulphurous odour sometimes associated with this music hung around a lot longer.

Certainly other people in the Staples family felt that the blues wasn’t right for god fearing folk and tried to keep this music at arms length. Pops was not the only one to love the blues as a young person. Mavis recalls hearing the heavy, bluesy number 'Since I Fell For You' by Ella Johnson blasting out of radios when she was a schoolgirl and being so taken by it that she sang it on stage at school. One can only imagine it was a knock-out performance but it was not met with universal acclaim and she was dragged home by her uncle (who was only 16 at the time and a pupil at the same school) to see her grandmother, who was less than pleased. Mavis remembers the beating she received with a collection of wood branches - or switches - to this day and still keeps a collection of similar switches in a vase in her front room as a memento of the punishment. Although revenge is no doubt too strong a word, Mavis turned the tables in 1970 when she recorded the track as a 7” for Volt records.

But was her family’s rejection of this ‘devil’s music’ any different to the antipathy millions of other kids have felt directed toward them over the last century or so when they’ve shown a love for music their parents don’t understand? Probably not. Really, the blues stands on a continuum of music that has been accused of being in league with Satan by conservative elements, hyped up by a sensationalist press, worried about the behaviour of teenagers, and in that sense it rubs shoulders with jazz, rock & roll, heavy metal, hip hop, acid house, drill, grime and reggae, among many other genres.

One of the things that the blues shares genuinely shares with gospel however is a reliance on a bedrock of honesty and authenticity in order for it to work. The blues has a more nuanced - what could be termed Miltonian - relationship with gospel, and that they are in some respects two sides to the same coin. They both share heritage and are means of expressing a shared experience. Certainly the blues that Pops Staples loved and the blues that Mavis loves - the style that informs many of her records released over the last decade or so - has much more in common with gospel than it does with the mangled, world bestriding blues rock, complete with literal and slightly daft Satanic trappings, peddled by the likes of The Stones and Led Zeppelin in the late 60s/early 70s.

Mavis Staples plays live dates in London, Bristol and Glastonbury this July

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