Gospel music icon, civil rights activist and Grammy Award winner Mavis Staples has seen a lot in her 74 years. Encounters with flower children, Martin Scorsese, and countless gigs with some of Chicago’s most famous musicians.
In anticipation of her performance at the Symphony Center on Friday, Staples sat down with Chicago to discuss her long career and legacy in Chicago.
You’re a lifelong Chicago resident, right?
Yes, except when I was a kid and my pops would send me and my sister Yvonne down to Mississippi to stay with our grandma. He said we were wearing out our shoes too fast and he needed some help [laughs]. So we’d go down there until it was time to go back to school. Well, I came back. My sister Yvonne loved it so much that she stayed down there and graduated.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in your time here?
Well, we can now come in many of the neighborhoods that we used to couldn’t. I remember in 1969 I couldn’t come to the neighborhood where I live now [South Shore]. It was the next year, 1970, that I moved here. I was teaching my brother-in-law how to drive—I had a little convertible car—and we pulled up in this circle at Rainbow Beach and all these white kids started throwing rocks. I asked him why this was happening and he said “Mavis, we’re not supposed to be here.” And I said “Why did you drive us here, then!”
I’ve said before that I didn’t really believe that I’d live to see us truly living in peace and living as one. But since we’ve elected a black president, I have greater hope. I think I just might see a time where we all live as one.
So what’s brought you back to Chicago all of these years? It can’t have been easy to go through over 70 winters.
Well, when I was little I wanted to get away from my grandma and her switches. She’d tear my legs up with those switches because I was fighting all the time. The kids teased me. They would say “you sound like a boy,” because my voice was so heavy. And being a city girl I had long braids, and they’d pull my hair. So I had to fight! I wasn’t thinking about the cold then as much as I do now.
I’m curious about why you decided to return to your gospel roots for our most recent record One True Vine, rather than continue with the folk sound of You Are Not Alone, which you won a Grammy for.
Well, gospel is home. But we’ve always sort of crossed over. It’s where I started with the Staples Singers, but it always amazed us when we got invited to all these folk festivals. We didn’t really know anything about folk songs. But when we started playing folk festivals we realized how close it was to gospel. Gospel is the truth and all these young flower children like Joan Baez and Buffy Saint Marie and Bob Dylan, they were singing songs of truth. They were singing beautiful stories. So pops would say, “We can sing that. We can sing these truths that inspire people. We can sing these positive message songs.”
You’ve been singing since you were a child. Do you have a regimen for taking care of your voice?
Well, our father always told us to get our rest. You know we never went to any after parties. I have my tea and my loquat honey and that just does it for me. I just rest after the shows and don’t get to talking too much. [Gospel singer] Sister Mahalia Jackson also told me when I was a little girl to always make sure I dry off after singing and put on a t-shirt and coat before I go out into the air. So to this day I have a t-shirt I put on and my coat. I’ve never had any problems with my voice and I credit Sister Mahalia Jackson and my pops.
Tell me about your upcoming performance at Symphony Center. Are you going to be performing new material or a selection of songs from your entire career?
I’m going to mix it up. The older songs that I like to play are the freedom songs, because I don’t want people to forget. We’re still here and we’re still in it. I like for Dr. King to be remembered and so I try to sing at least two freedom songs. I’ll do some Staples Singers songs, probably “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” which is one of the first songs our pops taught us. I always love to sing that. Then I’ll probably go into You Are Not Alone and One True Vine, the two records I did with Jeff Tweedy.
What’s next for you? Do you plan to record a new or album or is maybe retirement an option?
Oh no! I’m not retiring. I’d like to make another record. No one has said that we’re making another record, but I’m gathering songs just in case [laughs]. I have about three or four that I know I’d like to do. I’d like to go back to the old landmark and sing some gospel songs. I’ve been doing that on all my CDs, but I do want to sing some sure enough church songs. I want to mix it up, too. Maybe sing some old secular songs like “A House Is Not a Home” that I loved when I was coming up as a young lady.
Out of personal curiosity, will you tell me about your performance of “The Weight” in The Last Waltz? It’s such an iconic moment.
We were always great friends with The Band and when they did that song “The Weight,” pops said, “Shucks, I like that. We have to do that one.” And since we were such good friends and because we did the first remake of it, The Band asked us to perform it in that movie The Last Waltz. And, actually, we weren’t in that movie. We were in Europe when they had that party, so they waited for us. We went to Universal Studios out in LA, and, Martin Scorsese, wow it was a pleasure to meet him. I watched that man on the tallest ladder I’ve ever seen! He made it look just like we were there. I guess I’m telling a secret right now cause everyone thought we were there! I really shouldn’t be telling this, but it’s long over now [laughs]. But he made sure the lights and the coloring and everything looked just like we were there with everybody else.
Mavis Staples performs this Friday April 18 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are available at cso.org.