We often call established, well-known performers a “National Treasure,” but it’s hard to think of someone who deserves that distinction more than Mavis Staples. A powerhouse singer who’s been singing publicly during the presidencies of 13 different men, Mavis has been a public figure since the early ’50s, when she joined her dad, Pops Staples, and her siblings in the legendary gospel/soul group The Staple Singers. The Staple Singers were stars of the church circuit, before a series of gospel hits made them into stars of the Civil Rights movement. From there, the Staples went secular, and recorded some of the biggest R&B hits of the ’70s.
All the while, there was Mavis, lending her coiled, tough voice to the group’s best songs and moments. She was blessed with a set of pipes that could crack a foundation, and there are few singers who have had as much of an impact on the American songbook than Mavis. Her influence rings out in a myriad of ways, and her catalog sprawls over more than 60 years. So, to celebrate Vinyl Me, Please’s reissue of Mavis Staples’ self-titled debut LP, here’s an entryway into getting familiar with Mavis’ catalog. She still tours, so make sure you see her after getting familiar, too.
Collecting a bunch of their best voices-and-guitar gospel hits, Uncloudy Day is the defining album of the non-secular Staple Singers, when they used their voices to sing the most haunting, beautiful praise songs ever committed to lacquer. It’s been called one of the biggest hits in gospel music; it felt like standard issue in early ’60s record collections. The title track is an all-timer and a good entry point into this version of The Staple Singers; it feels like listening to a plume of smoke conjure praise to its fire.
Mavis’ second solo album, and last solo album for Stax, builds upon the foundation laid with Mavis Staples, mixing covers with songs written by the Stax house writers. The peak here is her take of “What Happened To The Real Me,” which she sings from somewhere between 300 and 600 feet below where she stands. Mavis wrote two songs of her own for this album, and when she blanched at Stax’s publishing contract terms, they were left off the album, and she unfortunately swore off solo albums for more than a half-decade. It’s the second part of a great what-if of music: What if this album became the hit it deserved to be?
The absolute masterpiece of The Staple Singers’ catalog, Be Altitude was the secular album that Al Bell saw in them when he signed them. Mixing the hazy soul-groove of early-’70s Stax with The Staple Singers’ sanctified vocal harmonies, this album was a smash hit; featuring the No. 1 pop smash “I’ll Take You There” — the group’s only No. 1 hit in their 30-plus year career — it also is the highest charting LP the Staples ever released. Everyone knows the singles, but “Are You Sure” is a deep cut you need to get familiar with. If you take nothing else from this primer know this: Your record collection needs this album.
I know this isn’t an album like the other nine entries here, but in these last couple months I spent deep inside the Mavis Staples’ songbook, I found myself repeatedly watching the clip of The Last Waltz where the Band plays “The Weight” with The Staple Singers as guests. It’s unbelievable for a myriad of reasons, but imagine being in the theater in 1978 and seeing that fast pan to reveal The Staple Singers for the first time, and then the way the camera circles around Mavis as she gets lost in singing her part, closing her eyes to hit those notes. She’s the star of the above 4-and-a-half minutes. There’s a reason this is considered the best concert film of all time.
When Stax went belly-up in the mid-’70s amid bad business deals — sales were never bad really — the label’s artists were set adrift, with more than a few of them ending up at Curtom Records, the label co-owned by Curtis Mayfield. Recording largely in Chicago, Curtom saw R&B stars transition into the worlds of disco-funk, including Mavis, who recorded her third solo album, A Piece Of The Action with Mayfield as the soundtrack to a Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier movie that time has forgotten even worse than the album of the same name. The album deserves a second look, though; Mavis sounds delectable singing over lush backing tracks, an alternate universe exists where she became the new disco queen. She’d move over to Warner Brothers and never have the chance.
The Staple Singers only made one album after this one, 1985’s self-titled affair, which is astounding for the fact that Pops was a whopping 70 years old when this one came out. Buoyed by a relatively minimalist funk and disco groove, Turning Point is a slight return to gospel material for the group, which, somehow, includes their sensational cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” Turning Point is another late reminder that Staples could sound sanctified in virtually any setting; even on a David Byrne song.
Like Curtis Mayfield before him, Prince signed Mavis to a solo deal, and did his best to try to bring her to a different audience. Mavis eventually released two albums on Paisley Park, 1989’s Time Waits For No One and 1993’s The Voice, the strongest being the former. Time Waits For No One is an interesting time capsule, if not also sometimes astounding, for the fact that it takes Mavis’ powerhouse voice, and washes it in ’80s R&B production, with electronic pad drums and synthetic strings. It would take 15 more years for Mavis to be entirely comfortable as a solo act, but if nothing else, listening to her on the title track proves that she’s carried the best instrument in her vocal cords for a consistent 60-plus years.
This was more than Mavis’ career comeback album — it was her first since 1996 — but it was her life comeback, as she started touring and playing music again for the first time since Pops Staples died in 2000. She went to the Chicago blues label Alligator Records for Have A Little Faith, an album that was a throwback to her work with The Staple Singers — it’s a spiritual album, at its heart — and featured a powerhouse reimagining of The Staple Singers’ “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” The highlight here is “Have A Little Faith,” which Mavis performed on Conan O’Brien in what may be the most sanctified moment in late night TV history. The album is a subtle reminder that continuing on, despite deaths in your family, despite your life taking turns you didn’t anticipate, you just need to keep on doing you.
You can buy this album on vinyl for the first time ever over here.
Following the comeback of Have A Little Faith, and another album of ascending notice, 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back (produced by Ry Cooder), Mavis linked up with another longtime Chicago resident: Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Instead of trying to match the sound of Mavis’ ’60s and ’70s heyday, Tweedy surrounded Mavis’ voice with a warm, roots-rock sound that allowed her powerful voice to soar and punch like it used to. It resulted in the most successful album of her career, winning the Grammy for Best Americana Album in 2011. Mavis sounds re-energized singing these recontextualized covers, especially on Randy Newman’s “Losing You.”
Mavis’ 2017 album with Tweedy had a lot to cover; Black Lives Matter, the ascendance of Trump and any other number of maladies affecting Americans. In what is maybe her most overtly political album since her days on the frontline of Civil Rights, Mavis delivers some fantastic vocal performances, assuring us that the world might be going wrong, but she’s going to sing about what needs to happen for us to right it. She quotes Michelle Obama (“We Go High”) and duets with Tweedy (“Ain’t No Doubt About It”) and the years melt away; she’s as good here as she’s ever been.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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