By the time I was reminded that tickets had gone on sale for The New Yorker Festival, I knew most of the panels/interviews would be sold out. I was able to get a ticket for Mavis Staples, who would be interviewed by Lawrence Wright and singing at The Gramercy Theater. The show was not sold out but there was a tremendous amount of love in that room.
Mavis told stories about her early life in Mississippi – yes, she’s from Chicago but Pops couldn’t feed the family and sent Mavis and Yvonne to live with their grandmother for a while. On the way to school Mavis would walk by the juke joint and there was a blues song that she liked. So for the grade school talent show she sang that song. Her cousin came out of the audience picked her up and took her home to their grandmother where Mavis was told to cut the switches and her grandmother beat her legs for singing devil’s music. Every day Mavis wrote to her mother asking to come home. Eventually she and Yvonne were sent back home and Pops was playing in a band, which didn’t work out so he turned to his children and taught them the songs and they started singing in churches and got signed to a record label. Mavis was clear that her upbringing was not like the Jacksons – she and her siblings enjoyed their childhood, attended their proms, and played games often.
In the area of Chicago where she lived (the Dirty Thirties) there was also Sam Cooke and several other famous R&B singers. Cooke used to work with the watermelon man, hollering/singing out to the housewives up from the street.
The family met Bob Dylan at a TV show and while standing on line with their meal tickets Dylan called from the back of the line that he wanted to marry Mavis. Pops said, “Don’t tell me. Ask her.” Dylan did formerly propose but “we couldn’t make it work.”
When church people complained that “I’ll Take You There” was devil’s music, Mavis’ response was that the devil ain’t got no music.
She’s worked with producers like Ry Cooder, Prince, and now Jeff Tweedy. She was hesitant to work with Prince because she couldn’t imagine what he could write for her. She needed a song with substance. Prince is extremely shy and wouldn’t talk with her so she wrote him letters. Long letters – 14 page letters written on legal pads. And each of the songs that Prince wrote for her came out of those letters. One of her favorites is “Blood is Thicker Than Time” because it’s about the importance of family.
Among the musicians today that she likes are Adele, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Joss Stone, Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt, Adam Levine, and some of the new gospel singers. When asked about her jazz influences she named Nat Adderly, Etta James, Dizzy Gillepsie, and Nina Simone. Mavis loves playing the festivals like Bonnaroo, Lands End, and Austin City Limits because she gets to see old friends and sing with many of them. She’s sung “The Weight” with Win Butler (Arcade Fire), Elvis Costello, and the little dude from The Decemberists.
Guitarist Rick Holmstrom came out to accompany Mavis on “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” “You Are Not Alone,” “This is My Country,” “Losing You,” and “I’ll Take You There.” Unfortunately she was coughing, losing her voice, and having difficulty with some of the notes but the audience helped her out. Yvonne was sitting two rows ahead of me and after the show she complimented the woman in front of me on her singing. Can you imagine that compliment coming from someone who gets to sing with Mavis Staples all the time?
It was a wonderful couple of hours with a woman whose light and love shine like no other.
By Carene Lydia Lopez