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Mavis Staples

July 10, 1939

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Mavis Staples’ family gospel group, the Staple Singers, carried the message of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. She went on to a successful pop career but still considers herself primarily a gospel singer, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Strathmore Music Center, Bethesda, Maryland, Photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Mavis Staples, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Strathmore Music Center, Bethesda, Maryland, Photograph by Alan Hatchett
Mavis Staples, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Strathmore Music Center, Bethesda, Maryland, Photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Mavis Staples, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Strathmore Music Center, Bethesda, Maryland, Photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Mavis Staples, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Strathmore Music Center, Bethesda, Maryland, Photograph by Alan Hatchett
Mavis Staples, 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Strathmore Music Center, Bethesda, Maryland, Photograph by Alan Hatchett
Mavis Staples, Courtesy Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples was born July 10, 1939, and grew up with music in Chicago, where her parents, Roebuck “Pops” and Oceola Staples, had moved from the Mississippi Delta in search of a better life. They sang gospel music at home and then in churches and on a weekly radio show.

“When I was young, we would go around and perform at churches, and they’d raise an offering to pay us,” Staples told NEA interviewer Mary Eckstein. “I think Pops told us the first offering we got was $7. Sometimes we would sing for nothing. I had this big voice, but people couldn't see where it was coming from. They had to stand me in a chair because I was so little. Well, I'll tell you, I would sing and people would come up to me afterwards with tears in their eyes and put money in my hand. … My mother had to sew little pockets in my little dresses because I'd put the money on the piano or somewhere and then forget it.”

The Staple Singers — Pops, Mavis and her siblings Cleo, Yvonne, and Pervis — had a hit in 1956 with the single “Uncloudy Day” on the VeeJay label. The next year, after Mavis graduated from high school, the group went on the road. In 1963, the family heard Martin Luther King preach in Montgomery, Alabama. Moved by King’s message, Pops Staples told his family, “If he can preach it, we can sing it.” That led the group to write and record songs such as “March Up Freedom's Highway” and “Why Am I Treated so Bad.”

“We went from strictly gospel to protest songs — freedom songs — after we met Dr. King,” Mavis Staples told Eckstein. “After we felt things were coming together like Dr. King wanted, we made a transition to what we called message songs. But we never got far away from gospel — we've always considered ourselves basically gospel singers. It's the message we put in our songs and our harmonies that made us so different. My father gave us harmonies to sing that he and his brothers and sisters used to sing down in Mississippi, a kind of Delta and country sound. It was just so unique and different from everyone else's. And the messages in our songs were special. We were singing songs of inspiration to uplift people.”

The group went on to have a number of mainstream hits, including “Respect Yourself,” “I'll Take You There” and “Let's Do It Again.” Mavis Staples also began a solo career; her first album under her own name was released on Memphis’ Stax label in 1969. She has continued to record and perform, collaborating with performers ranging from Bob Dylan to Marty Stuart and Prince.

Pops Staples was named a National Heritage Fellow in 1998, two years before his death. Mavis Staples’ recognition makes them the first father and daughter to receive the award, a distinction that she said makes her feel “really special.”

“Like father, like daughter,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to follow in his footsteps. … After my father passed away, I didn't know which way I was going. I said to myself, ‘You've got keep Pops' legacy alive.’ This award makes me feel that I'm going in the right direction. I’m doing what I'm supposed to be doing and what God has put me here to do.”

Bibliography
Hoekstra, Dave. “Maintaining a Family Tradition.” Chicago Sun Times (August 2004).
Harrington, Richard. “The Gospel According to Mavis.” Washington Post (October 2004).
Kot, Greg. “An impressive fan club.” Chicago Tribune (August 2004).
Natkin, Paul. “Staples: Still Keeping the Faith.” USA Today (September 2004).

Discography
Staples, Mavis. Don’t Change Me Now. Volt Records CDSX 014.
________. The Voice. Paisley Park 25049-2.
________. Have a Little Faith. Alligator Records ALCD 4899.
________. Only for the Lonely. Stax SCD-88012-2.

Watch

Mavis Staples performs the song 'Will the Circle be Unbroken' at the 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Mavis Staples performs the song 'I'll Take You There' at the 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts


Listen

Mavis Staples answers the question 'How did you go about creating civil rights songs?' Telephone interview, 2006, by Alan Govenar

Mavis Staples answers the question 'How did your father get started in singing gospel?' Telephone interview, 2006, by Alan Govenar

Mavis Staples answers the question 'How does your new material differ from the Staples group?' Telephone interview, 2006, by Alan Govenar

Mavis Staples answers the question 'What was it like touring with Martin Luther King, Jr.?' Telephone interview, 2006, by Alan Govenar

Mavis Staples answers the question 'What do you most remember about your father?' Telephone interview, 2006, by Alan Govenar

Mavis Staples answers the question 'What keeps you going?' Telephone interview, 2006, by Alan Govenar

Mavis Staples answers the question 'How did the Staples Singers get started?' Interview by Nicholas R. Spitzer at the 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Mavis Staples answers the question 'How did you feel singing gospel to blues music?' Interview by Nicholas R. Spitzer at the 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Mavis Staples discusses breaking out with freedom songs, Interview by Nicholas R. Spitzer at the 2006 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Mavis Staples, 'Step Into The Light,' Have A Little Faith, 2004 Alligator Records & Artist Mgmt., Inc., ALCD 4899

Mavis Staples, 'A Dying Man's Plea,' Have A Little Faith, 2004 Alligator Records & Artist Mgmt., Inc., ALCD 4899

Mavis Staples, 'In Times Like These,' Have A Little Faith, 2004 Alligator Records & Artist Mgmt., Inc., ALCD 4899

Mavis Staples, 'Sweet Things You Do,' Don't Change Me Now, 1988 Ace Records Ltd., CDSX 014

Mavis Staples, 'Security,' Don't Change Me Now, 1988 Ace Records Ltd., CDSX 014