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Sister Soul

Hope at the Hideout

For the past year, on concert stages around the world, Mavis Staples has been giving history lessons disguised as roof-raising gospel and blues shows. Performing everywhere from Chicago to Europe to New Zealand, the 69-year-old Staples has drawn on her 2007 CD We’ll Never Turn Back, a collection of songs associated with the civil rights movement. “The songs inspired and motivated us to keep on going, keep marching,” recalls Staples. “I sang them 45 years ago, and they are still needed today. It’s like going around in a full circle for me.”

That critically acclaimed CD has fueled the resurgence of a career that began almost 60 years ago, when the Chicago-born Staples and her siblings began performing with their father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples (Pops, a Chicagoan of the Year in 1995, died in 2000). Their performances took a new direction in 1963 when the family heard a sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That encounter led Pops Staples to begin writing songs for the civil rights movement, which the Staple Singers performed at rallies and marches. ”[Those songs] still have meaning,” Mavis insists, “even though Dr. King fixed it where we didn’t have to drink from the water fountain that says ‘colored only,’ [didn’t] have to use the toilet for colored only.”

While delivering a message of social consciousness, the Staple Singers also enjoyed a string of gospel, R&B, and pop hits; they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Mavis had launched her solo career with a self-titled 1969 album, and continued to record regularly over the ensuing decades. “Mavis has tremendous conviction—she always did,” observes Ry Cooder, the famed guitarist and Buena Vista Social Club catalyst who produced We’ll Never Turn Back. “Her singing is very emphatic. She has a terrific outlook, which she got from Pops. You can feel his strength coming through her.”

The torrid, husky-voiced delivery Staples brings to her shows today—where she is backed by her sister Yvonne and a surging swamp-blues band—were captured on the new concert CD Live: Hope at The Hideout, which was recorded at that intimate Chicago nightclub this past summer and released on November 4, 2008: election day. “I tend to put more into the songs when I’m singing live,” Staples says. “I can show off; I can put these songs on the map like I want to.”

With her career on the upswing, Staples doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. She won a spot on Rolling Stone’s recent list of the 100 greatest singers of all time, and she has a deal for another two records.  “I’m so grateful,” she says. “I’m still here, and the Lord is blessing me. I’m going to sing until I can’t sing anymore.”


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