This week’s music documentary on Rialto Channel is MAVIS! - airing December 8 on New Zealand television for the first time. It is an ode to an extraordinary woman, Mavis Staples. A key member of family gospel group The Staples Singers, she and her family members inspired millions and even helped propel the civil rights movement with their music. Mavis was a true trailblazer (as well as one hell of a vocalist) and after 60 years of performing, her key messages of love, acceptance and equality are more relevant than ever.
Staples was born way back in 1939 in Chicago, the youngest of four children born to Oceola and Roebuck "Pops" Staples. Pops worked as a meatpacker by day but played in a gospel quartet called the Trumpet Jubilees at night, eventually growing frustrated with his bandmates' lack of commitment to their music. The solution? Turning to his talented children to become his new bandmates. "Pops finally came home one night, got the guitar out of the closet and called us in the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle and started giving us our parts," Staples has recalled.
When Mavis was ten, the family band made its debut singing at a local church. After they received an enormous ovation, Staples recalled her father saying, "Shucks, these people like us. We're going home to learn some more songs!" Although she was the youngest member of the band, Mavis soon became its lead singer with a voice that many thought belonged to a woman several decades older and reportedly many times larger! She has gone on record as saying that her father told her: "Mavis, listen, your voice is a God-given gift. You know, you don't know music. You don't even know what key you sing in." Staples added, with a laugh, "And I still don't know what key I sing in."
In 1953, the Staple Singers dropped their first single, but it wasn’t until 1957 that they scored their first major hit with "Uncloudy Day”. They had toured the country and developed an impressive grassroots following, but limited their concerts to weekends until Staples graduated from high school that same year. From there on in it was all guns blazing and their career went full steam ahead.
In 1963, the group played a concert in Montgomery, Alabama that was attended by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. A meeting with the civil rights leader after the show had a profound effect on the group's direction, and for the next several years they wrote songs exclusively in support of the American civil rights movement. "We sing about what's happening in the world today, and whatever's wrong we try to fix it through a song," Staples has recalled her father explaining. "We're living in dark times, troubled times; we wanted to spread a ray of light on the world."
The Staple Sisters achieved their greatest financial – and global - success in the early seventies when they moved away from traditional gospel and protest songs to record now-legendary anthems like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There". It was around the same time that Mavis’ solo career took off, and she actually released eight solo albums during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, all of which received high praise from critics but didn’t sell as fast as her work with the group. Oddly, that pattern changed when she released her self-financed album, Have a Little Faith in 2004 - her first release following Pops’ death. This time she received rave reviews as well as major album sales, making way for a late career renaissance that still continues today.
But back to the film, which features raves about Mavis from such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Prince and Bonnie Raitt, all of who profess to the difference that the work of the living legend made in their lives. It’s common knowledge that Dylan had a crush on Mavis Staples when they met in the early ’60s, and Staples felt the same. Dylan had long admired The Staple Singers, covering their song "Dying Man's Prayer" in 1962, and the Staple Singers had in turn recorded several Dylan compositions. In the late 1960s, the folkster actually proposed marriage to Staples… but she turned him down. Although she now considers Dylan the “one that got away” and laments dropping him like a hot coal, she explained her reasoning at the time in a 2004 Washington Post interview: "We had gotten with Dr. King and I was young and stupid, and I was thinking Dr. King wouldn't want me to marry a white guy." Dylan has referred to Staples ever since as "the love that I lost”. Awwwww!
As well as looking back, MAVIS! looks forward – and for me, that is one of its true charms. I love that the film shows her continuing to tour and perform – and most definitely winning new fans - as she remains a formidable force of nature well into her 70s. And she has no intention of giving up the calling that has consumed her since she was a child. "Ain't no stopping me, I will sing," Staples declared in a recent interview. "You know, you'd have to come and scoop me off the stage. I'm gonna sing till I die."
MAVIS! premieres Thursday 8th December on Rialto Channel