Busted: Mavis Staples

Legendary lead vocalist from The Staple Singers on Dr. King, Barack Obama and being wrapped up in the Lord's arms


BH: Listening to your music, it’s striking how positive it is. It’s not angry or vindictive. It sounds like you’ve always been looking to a better day.

MS: Yes, we have. Pops used to tell the songwriters, “If you want to write for the Staples, read the headlines. We want to sing songs about what’s happening in the world today and try to help make it a better place to live.” Right out of gospel, we made three transitions. I’m still a gospel singer, because that’s home to me. But we went from gospel to freedom songs to what we called message songs. And they’re positive and informative messages to try to keep things at a good level. We were going at it so hard that Pops once told us, “Listen y’all, we can’t save the world, so the best we can do is sing our songs.” We were really serious about it. What would discourage Pops is that a lot of our songs, they wouldn’t play them on the radio. We recorded a song called “When Will We Be Paid for the Work We’ve Done,” and they would not play that song. We couldn’t get off the stage at the Apollo Theater without singing it two or three times, but you never heard it on the radio. Prince loved it, and he eventually recorded it and had me teach him the lyrics. But a lot of our songs couldn’t get played, so Pops said, “We’re just going to keep playing our songs, and I know we’re doing some good. But we can’t save the world.” So we continue to stay positive and keep our hearts open to sing what we love, and we’ve done pretty well.

I never thought that we’d be “The Staple Singers” from where we started. We weren’t even singing for a career. We were more or less singing around the house to amuse ourselves. I never thought we’d be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and getting lifetime achievement awards. I sit back sometimes and marvel. Pops started it all, but he felt the same way. He used to sing with an all-male group, and these men wouldn’t come to rehearsal. So Pops came home one night disgusted, and he went into the closet and pulled out a little guitar that he’d bought at a pawn shop. We had never even seen this guitar. But he got this guitar and called us children into the living room and sat us on the floor in a circle and started giving us voices to sing that he and his brothers and sisters would sing in Mississippi. My aunt Katy came through one night, and she said, “Shucks. You all sound pretty good. I think I’d like to have you sing at my church.” And we went to Aunt Katy’s church, and we sang this song, and people clapped so much we had to sing this song three times. Pops said, “Shucks! These people like us! We’re going to have to learn some more songs.” The only song he’d taught us all the way through, that was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” That was the very first song he taught us, and the rest is history. We started making records, and they were doing good, and we’ve been going on ever since. We’ve been blessed that people love us, and they even started calling us to do folk festivals and blues festivals. I asked Pops, “Why are these people calling us to sing at these blues festivals? We don’t sing no blues.” He said, “Well, Mavis, there’s a different sound in our music, and they like that sound.” It was years before my sisters and brothers and I knew that Pops had been playing the blues the whole time on his guitar while we were singing Gospel. He had a bluesy sound. I’m just grateful for all of it. I couldn’t ask for more. I’ve enjoyed my life, and I’m going to continue to live it out and sing until I can’t sing no more.

We were going at it so hard that Pops once told us, “Listen y’all, we can’t save the world, so the best we can do is sing our songs.” We were really serious about it.

BH: When you look at all the incredible things that have happened in your life, does that make you feel like God has had His hand on you?

MS: Oh, yes, indeed. He’s had His arms wrapped all around us, because there were several times that we shouldn’t have been here. We beat up a white man down in Tennessee, and we went to jail. This guy was nasty to me at a service station, and Pops went in to get the receipt, and he asked him, “Why did you talk to my daughter like that?” And he put his finger in Pops’ face and called me another name. And that’s when Pops clocked him and knocked him down, and they fought. I had to wake my brother up to go in, because the guy ran back to his office, and I knew he was going back for a gun. So I woke my brother up, and he went in, and that surprised the guy, because he thought it was just my father and two ladies in the car, because my brother was covered up with coats. I was the night driver.

Pops, having that gray hair, I think he thought he was an old man. But Pops had gray hair since he was 18. After awhile, Pops told me to drive, and I said, “Daddy, I don’t think I can drive now. I’m too nervous.” He said, “Mavis, drive. Go ahead.” And all of a sudden, I saw these three cars behind me with flashing lights. Pops said, “Just get on across the bridge, and then you can pull over.” I got on across the bridge and stopped, and these policemen jumped out of those cars with shotguns on us and dogs were barking and they had us on the highway with our hands over our heads. That was the most frightening time, and I just knew that we weren’t going to make it that night, because that boy had told them that we robbed him and didn’t pay for our gas.

Eventually, they put us all in different police cars, and they took our car. That’s when my heart just fell. I was never so happy to see a police station; they took us to jail. We walk in there, and the first person we see is an old black man who is mopping the floor, and he says, “Poppa Staples, what are you doing here?” And they had us all handcuffed behind our backs, and he says, “And your children!” We laughed about it later, but it wasn’t funny then. The chief asked, “Who’s going to tell me what happened here?” And Pops said, “Take me to another room, and I’ll tell you,” because he didn’t want me to hear what the boy had called me. So after he told him, this chief said, “Take those handcuffs off these people. We’re trying to get this mess cleaned up down here, and these young bucks are trying to keep it going.” But that time was really frightening. So, yeah, the Lord has kept us. I think He’s still not through with me yet.