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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Mavis Staples!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Gospel and R&B singer, Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples was born on July 10, 1939. As a member of her family singing group, and as a solo artist, Staples has been singing gospel, R&B, and Americana for almost 70 years.

Staples was not yet ten years old when her family began singing in Chicago churches, and barely a teenager when The Staple Singers signed their first recording contract in 1952. (That’s not a typo, by the way; the family name is “Staples,” but the family group is called “The Staple Singers.”) The group was originally made up of father Roebuck (known as “Pops”), and siblings Cleotha, Pervis, and Mavis; sister Yvonne replaced Pervis in 1970.

The Staple Singers made their first major impact on the gospel music scene with their 1956 record “Uncloudy Day.” Mavis’s lead vocals were so emotionally powerful that many listeners assumed she was much older than 16, and her voice was deep enough that some thought she was a man.

The group began touring in 1957 after Mavis finished high school. Over the next several years, their musical style broadened to the point that they weren’t singing exclusively religious music. They never became entirely secular, and there was always an uplifting spiritual element to their music. And increasingly, their music was tied to the civil rights movement; among their first songs to make the national pop charts was a 1967 cover of the Buffalo Springfield protest song “For What It’s Worth.”

3 albums by the Staples

The Staple Singers signed with Stax Records in 1968, and the Stax producers moved the group even further toward the musical mainstream, adding soul and funk elements to their sound. The new sound was a success; between 1971 and 1975, the Staple Singers had eight top 40 pop hits; two of them went to #1 (“I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again”).

Mavis released a solo single in 1969; “Crying in the Chapel” was billed as “Mavis Staples with The Staple Singers.” Though the single wasn’t a hit, Stax was optimistic enough about her future to release two solo albums within a few months, Mavis Staples and Only for the Lonely.

Stax went bankrupt in 1975, and the Staple Singers wound up at Warner Bros. Records, where the producers struggled to recapture the group’s success with Stax. They recorded their final album, Turning Point, for Epic Records in 1984; it produced a surprise hit in dance clubs, a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.”

After the end of the Staple Singers, Staples recorded a pair of albums for Prince’s Paisley Park label. Reviewers praised her voice, but her old-school soul didn’t always mesh well with the less passionate, cooler style popular at radio in the early 1990s, and the albums didn’t sell well. She collaborated in 1996 with jazz pianist Lucky Peterson on Spirituals & Gospel, an album dedicated to gospel legend Mahalia Jackson.

In the 21st century, Staples has made a critical and commercial comeback with a series of albums recorded for Anti Records. We’ll Never Turn Back, released in 2007, was a collection of songs associated with the civil rights movement. Staples’s Anti albums have often been produced by singers several decades younger, including Jeff Tweedy, M. Ward, and Ben Harper. The 2016 album Livin’ on a High Note featured songs written for Staples by contemporary singer-songwriters Aloe Blacc, Neko Case, and Justin Vernon. Her most recent album, We Get By, was released this year, sixty-nine years after she began performing with her family.

In recent years, Staples has also been a popular duet partner, performing with (to name just a few) Willie Nelson (“Grandma’s Hands”), Dolly Parton (“Why”), Hozier (“Nina Cried Power”), Galactic (“Does It Really Make a Difference”), and Gorillaz (“Let Me Out,” which features the delightfully unexpected credit “featuring Mavis Staples and Pusha T”).

The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, and the Gospel Hall of Fame in 2018; they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Mavis Staples received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.

Greg Kot’s biography is I’ll Take You There (e-book | print); the story of Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers is told in the 2015 documentary Mavis!. More music by The Staple Singers (Hoopla | Freegal) and Mavis Staples (Hoopla | Freegal) is available from our streaming services.