MAVIS STAPLES / “Mavis Staples Mixtape”
Source: Breath of Life (December 1, 2008)
Two years ago this month we featured The Staple Singers and gave a brief background on the well-known group. This week’s focus is on Mavis Staples but does not include any of the songs for which she is justifiably well known. Instead the focus is on post-popular Mavis.
Over in the contemporary section we focused on N’Dambi, a young woman trying to make her way as a solo artist threading through the ins and outs of the music business. What’s even harder than doing it as a young person is doing it middle aged and beyond. For Mavis it was particularly difficult because she really was not a pop-oriented singer.
They tried though. When she was at Stax they tried to coax her into the Stax sound: no success. She really didn’t do hard R&B even though her tenure as lead singer with The Staple Singers seemed like it would be a natural transition. So she bumped around for years trying to make it. Prince even gave it a go trying to pop produce Mavis, but again: nada.
So here it is in her twilight years and all of a sudden she has three major recordings. How can this be? Well, if you look at the material, it’s obvious. It’s all church songs and Civil Rights Movement songs.
The oldest of the three albums is a tribute to Mahalia Jackson recording called Spirituals & Gospel.
It’s a duet with organist/piano player Lucky Peterson, who is mainly known as a blues guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist. Regardless, he’s got gospel coming out his toes and proves to be a perfect accompanist. Mavis overdubs her voice to add some variety but even if she hadn’t the record would have been alright.
This is Mavis Staples in her childhood environment. You would think some producer would have tried this before but no, Spirituals & Gospel is a 2007 release on the French Verve label; Mavis was born in 1940—sixty-seven years is a long time to wait to record a solo gospel album.
Spirituals & Gospel is a beautiful recording. Mavis’ voice is no longer pure, it’s now patinaed with the pain and strains of years and years on the road, a road that was often up and down the rough sides of social mountains. And regardless of the fact that the bulk of Peterson’s recordings are soaked in the blues this man obviously spent some time in church, and he sure wasn’t sleeping.
From the opening duet with herself on “Stand By Me” to the closing duo number “Down By The Riverside” this is an excellent service. I don’t know which of them is the more impressive. Mavis in her phrasing or Peterson in his phrasing—I believe they were inspiring each other.
Spirituals & Gospel: Dedicated to Mahalia Jackson is one recording any and every serious fan of black music needs to have in their library.
Between then and now there was another dry spell for Mavis. She did do Have A little Faith, a 2004 recording for Alligator Records which was good but not great. Indeed, before the Mahalia Jackson, Mavis’ most recent recording had been the 1963 The Voice, which Prince produced. When you get up to retirement age, you start being skeptical of making it big in the music business and, not coincidentally, the business starts getting real, real skeptical of you.
So then came a 2007 recording called We’ll Never Turn Back that featured Civil Rights songs—songs Mavis had sung as she actively demonstrated, marching and singing, civil disobedience and singing, sacrificing a popular career to stand on her principles. It’s no surprise then that We’ll Never Turn Back is a stellar recording.
But now in 2008 comes a November 4th release—that’s right it was released on election day. It’s a live recording done at a Chicago nightspot called The Hideout. The record’s title, like many freedom songs, has a double meaning, those who know will recognize immediately and those who don’t… well… anyway, the recording is titled: Live: Hope At The Hideout.
Almost all of the songs on the live album are from We’ll Never Turn Back and though they lack the sonic clarity of the studio recording, the live ambiance more than makes up for whatever technical deficiencies there are. It’s a raucous gathering. Mavis is in all her glory. Like we used to say: she’s feeling it!
Yall, I believe this is one of the benefits of the Obama candidacy and victory. More and more attention will be paid to the culture of struggle that people of color worldwide have produced and particularly to what is popularly known as African American culture. No getting around it now that there is a black woman and black children in the White House “officially.” (I wonder if Sally Hemmings spent any time in the White House—Sally was Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved outside woman; indeed, when old tom first took up with young Sally it was statutory rape, but that’s a whole other story!)
You can hear the victory in Mavis’ voice. The shouting and such. So much so, Mavis called to mind another woman. They kind of favor each other. And certainly I’m hearing the same survival sound in their voices and they both are senior citizens and they both have Chicago in their background. I’m talking about Etta James.
At some moments, it could be Etta singing. Oh, happy days. I’m so glad that singers like Mavis Staples and Etta and Odetta and bunches of others are around to see this day. I hope that all get to record in the next year or so. I know it will be a joyful noise, the sound of hope sung in all its glory. Oh, my lord, oh, my lord, what wonderful days are these we dreamed of long ago.
We ain’t where we going to end up but for sure we ain’t no where near where we was. Give thanx, give thanx. Enjoy this mixtape. Enjoy this joyful noise. Enjoy. Enjoy! ENJOY!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Get your Mavis on:
1. “Stand By Me”
2. “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”
3. “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”
4. “I’ll Fly Away”
5. “Steal Away”
6. “Down By The Riverside”
7. “This Little Light”
8. “Eyes On the Prize”
9. “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”
10. “We Shall Not Be Moved”
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