Even people who loathe the overuse of the word “legend” would have a hard time arguing that it doesn’t apply to Mavis Staples.
Her smoky, alluring voice has been a seminal force in gospel and R&B music for more than 50 years. She served as musical anchor of the family gospel quartet The Staple Singers, whose uplifting, matter-of-fact message songs such as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” voiced the concerns and hopes of a nation in the 1960s and 70s (and earned them a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999).
Although she has released few albums apart from the group, she is revered not only by fans, but fellow artists — Prince produced two albums for her, and Bob Dylan is a longtime friend, admirer and collaborator.
Yet for all her accomplishments and stature, Staples still found herself struggling to find an outlet for her music.
“You have some companies don’t want to sign older artists. It just happened that I finally got the message,” says Staples, who looks younger than her 65 years. “You still have to prove yourself at this late date after all these years.”
The feisty, energetic Staples readily accepted the challenge.
“I didn’t wait for a company to sign me. I went out and made me a record. I put some money out there, and I paid for my studio time and musicians. And then, I said, ’When I finish the album, I’m going to shop it.”’
Spiritual CDThe result is “Have a Little Faith,” a spiritual album that draws on her roots in gospel and soul. Staples found a home for her music courtesy of the blues label Alligator Records, based in Chicago, which is also her home.
“I’m am so proud of this CD,” a giddy Staples says during an interview in a hotel suite. “I never bragged on a CD before, but I can brag on this CD, because it came out just like I wanted it to. I was in control.”
Bruce Iglauer, president and owner of Alligator, calls the signing of Staples one of the high points in the label’s three-decade history.
“Mavis has one of the most soulful voices in human history...when I heard the record I got chills and I still do,” he says. “Her voice just has that intense, visceral appeal. It doesn’t hit you in the head, it hits you elsewhere. Her voice to me is one of the voices that defines soul music.”
Although Staples has been steadily performing over the years, “Have a Little Faith” is Staples’ first album of new material in more than a decade — which was not by choice.
“Twenty years ago, I was too old. So I said, ‘What do you mean we’re too old?’ Our souls were fresh, our voices were fresh. What is it that makes the record companies think that no one wants to hear us anymore?” she asks. “There’s music for everyone.”
A purple guardian angelIn the late ’80s, it seemed Staples had found a musical savior when Prince signed her to his Paisley Park record label. Staples remembers when a representative for the Purple One told her Prince wanted to record her.
“I said, ‘What would Prince write for me? I’m a woman. I’ve heard Apollonia and Vanity — ‘Oh, you nasty boy,’ I can’t sing that stuff,”’ she says, giggling. “So he said, ‘He knows the nature of your talent, and he will be writing adult contemporary songs for you.”’
“I was beside myself. Little Prince? He wants Mavis? If I could have done a cartwheel, I would have done a cartwheel.”
But neither the 1989’s “Time Waits for No One” nor the 1993 follow-up, “The Voice,” was a commercial success. Staples says Prince’s wrangling with his then-label, Warner Bros., hurt the latter album.
“It was so bad that our stuff wasn’t heard. I got caught up in Prince’s and Warner Bros.’ argument,” she says. “‘The Voice’ was some of the best work I’ve ever done.”
Facing troubles head onStaples would face other setbacks far more severe. In 2000, Roebuck “Pop” Staples, the patriarch and leader of the Staples Singers, died. Sister Cleotha — who replaced brother Pervis in the group in 1970 — started exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s disease. And although Staples still has sister Yvonne singing with her in concert, she misses performing with her family — she still says “we” when referring to her solo performances.
“I’m a solo artist, but what else can I be? My father is deceased, my sister is sick, she can’t sing,” Staples says. “This is what I would say is my first solo album.”
“Have A Little Faith” has garnered her plenty of critical acclaim, but it’s been hard translating that to the commercial side of the project, Iglauer says.
“She’s a very hard artist to categorize. If the great days of soul were still going on, it would be easy,” he says, “Now, it’s very hard to find a radio berth for someone who falls into the pre-assigned categories.”
Still, it has found audience. Staples has been touring to support the record, and music from the album has been played on public and Americana radio stations.
“There are a huge number of people who remember her, and when they hear it, they respond to it,” says Iglauer.
And Staples says she gets plenty of younger people coming to her shows, and some remind her of just how long she’s been around.
“They used to say, ‘I don’t know you but mother knows you,’ and I would say, ‘Well, tell your moms hello.’ Now they say, ’Ms. Staples, I don’t know you, but my grandmother knows you,”’ she says, laughing uproariously. “And I say, ‘Tell grandmother I said hello!”’