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Back Room

Mavis Staples

The gospel legend, 77, on lessons from Pops and encounters with Prince

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I grew up on 31st Street in Bronzeville. Back in the day, we called it the Dirty Thirties. Look, man, everybody was in our neighborhood: Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler. And we all went to Doolittle Grammar School on 35th. Sam and my sister Cleotha, they were in the same grade.

I was the baby, the youngest. And I was tiny, always the littlest one. But I kept up being the shorty—because I’m only five-even. Every now and then, I’ll run into a little short lady, and I just have to brag: “I’m taller than you.”

Pops, he knew how to deliver a song, and he passed that on to me. One time when I was 13 or 14 and I’d just gone wild onstage, moving all around and singing too loud, he grabbed me as I was coming off and said, “Mavis, what are you doing?” I said, “Daddy, I’m just singin’.” He said, “Let me tell you something. You don’t need gimmicks. You don’t have to sing at the top of your lungs. And you don’t need to be jumping all across the stage. You’re singing sacred music, God’s music. You stand flat-footed when you sing.” I was so embarrassed. But I needed that.

Even though he’s gone, Pops still talks to me. When I’m singing, he’ll tell me to take my time: “Mavis, take it down now. Don’t rush it.” Another thing Pops taught me: You don’t want to sing off the top of your head. Sing from your heart. The people, they’ll feel you if you sing from your heart.

Oh, man, the first time we heard “I’ll Take You There” on the radio, we stopped the car right where we were—at about 86th and Cottage Grove. Pops pulled over, and we all jumped out and cut a little jig. That was a moment in time, man.

Dr. King once called up Pops to have us go meet him at a restaurant on 87th Street. He wanted to talk to Daddy, and so my mother and I sat with Coretta at another table. Dr. King told Pops, “Jesse Jackson is moving to Chicago, and I want him to start this thing called Operation Breadbasket, and he’ll have these big baskets for people to come bring food to drop in. Staples, I want you to bring your daughters out there every Saturday morning. Because if they announce on the radio that you all will be there, the people will come. They don’t know Jesse Jackson, but they know y’all.”

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My building in South Shore has its own beach, sand right outside the door. It gets no better. We once had a beachnic—you know, a beach picnic party—and there were seven or eight of us still left after 9 o’clock. I went out in that water and started singing, “Waaaaade in the waaaaater …” Everybody came along with me, singin’. Then I stopped. “We better not go too far,” I said. “I’ve waded in enough water. I still can’t swim.”

Every day that I’m home, I go out on my balcony, look across Lake Michigan, and say a little prayer. A lot of times it’s “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us all be grateful in it.” Whatever the day is—if it’s raining, if it’s snowing, if there’s a thunderstorm—God made it. Be joyful.

I was the favorite auntie when I was working with Prince. Those kids wanted to meet him so bad. I’d say, “Listen. I had the hardest time myself meeting Prince.” He wasn’t saying a word to me at first. He would just roll his big eyes. But for some reason, I can make anyone start talking, because I’m just everyday people. Even Prince.

The Obamas are real people. I went to the White House to do a kids’ workshop for Michelle. Justin Timberlake was there, too, and we’d been waiting and talking. Michelle finally came in and said, “Oh, hi, Mavis.” And I said, “Hey, homie.” And Justin looked at me, taken aback, and said, “Did I just hear you call the first lady ‘homie’?”

Is that right, you once delivered flowers to me as a young man? I didn’t flirt, did I?

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