Mavis Staples Keeps the Faith

Vocalist's Rich Musical Journey Includes Carter Family, Johnny Paycheck

Although the excitement in her voice is palpable when she talks about her soulful new album, Mavis Staples is still very fond of remembering her family’s famous band, the Staple Singers. In their prime, they were referred to as “God’s Greatest Hitmakers.”

Led by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the family act went from singing in Chicago churches in 1950 to a much-requested gospel band with “Uncloudy Day” in 1956 to genuine pop stars with the classic “I’ll Take You There” in 1971.

“I never forget things my father taught me,” she says. “We were in New York one time and we saw some kids — I was a kid then … about 16 years old — and I saw these young people singing gospel songs, but they were jumping all across the stage, and they were singing loud. So when it came my turn to sing, I started doing that. Pops got me back in the dressing room and he said, ’Mavis, what is wrong with you?'”

She told him nothing was wrong, but Pops disagreed.

“He said, ’No, listen, you don’t need gimmicks. You don’t need to clown [when] singing God’s music. You be sincere in what you’re doing, and sing from your heart. What comes from the heart reaches the heart. If you sing from your heart, you touch somebody. You reach those people in the audience that listen to you.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

Pops died in 2000, a year after the Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are often credited as the band that united gospel music with secular R&B and as the providers of music that helped define the civil rights movement. After hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pops told his children, “If he could preach it, we can sing it.” They spent the following years accompanying him at rallies, as well as playing numerous folk festivals and jazz festivals.

Johnny Cash even invited them to Nashville in the ’70s to perform “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with the Carter Family.

“People used to say we sounded like country singers,” she says. “That’s what was so good about our music. We had such a unique sound, and some of every kind of music was mixed in there. And that all comes from Pops and his guitar and the voices he gave us.”

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” resonates throughout Staples’ life. It closes the new album, Have a Little Faith, but it’s also the first song Pops taught his children to sing together, she says, recalling the parts he and some of his 14 siblings sang. Mavis’ aunt heard Pops and his children harmonizing on the living room floor and invited them to perform in her church.

Small for her age, Mavis often had to stand on a box so the crowd could see where that voice was coming from. Following their spirited rendition at the Chicago church, the congregation clapped them back three times.

“Pops said, ’Shucks, these people like us. We’ll go home and learn some more songs.’ That’s what we did, and we’re still here.”

Her brother Pervis is retired, but her sister Yvonne (who replaced Pervis in the group in 1970) still joins her on stage from time to time. However, without Pops and her sister Cleotha (a founding member who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s) at her side, Mavis — who still lives in Chicago — knew she had no choice but to go solo.

“I had some moments when I had to really concentrate on being strong,” she admits. “I said, ’Oh Lord, how much more? How much more can I bear?’ But He said in the Bible, ’I’m only going to put as much on you as you can bear. I’m not going to weigh you down to where you can’t handle it.’ That makes me feel like I can make it. I can make it! If I stay positive and be strong and go in the Bible and read the 23rd Psalm, that always makes me stronger. I’ll go back and listen to some of our older music, our first music. That helps me.”

Her new songs are equally invigorating. On the title track, she encourages the listener to have a little faith, even when all you get is “a mouthful of promises and a hatful of rain.” On “Pops’ Recipe,” she revives her signature growl and testifies: Accept responsibility/Don’t forget humility/At every opportunity/Serve your artistry/Don’t subscribe to bigotry, hypocrisy, duplicity/Respect humanity/That’s Pop’s recipe, y’all.

“After I started hearing some of the songs back and bringing them home with me, I knew I was feeling them,” she says. “You know, if I can feel them, then I think everything’s all right.”

In the last few years, Staples’ deep, passionate voice has surfaced on albums from Bob Dylan, Dr. John and Los Lobos, earning her two Grammy nominations. She also stole the show on two tribute albums in 2004, belting out Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” (“Man, I love that song!” she declares) — and Johnny Paycheck’s surprisingly sensitive “Touch My Heart.”

Meanwhile, she accepted an invitation to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville in September, and Have a Little Faith helped her earn four nominations in the upcoming W.C. Handy Blues Awards in Memphis, Tenn. In March, she’s slated to speak and perform at the ultra-hip South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.

Clearly, even at age 65, somebody still wants her to stand on a box and sing.

“Yes, I love what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m so grateful to be able to be heard again.”