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The Sound that Broke the Back of Words: Mavis Staples’ voice of Gospel

by Ryan McDonald

As a genre, the break-up song is as boundless as a prairie, as slippery as a fish in a stream. There are trilling flights of recognition come too late and mewlings of vulnerability cloaked in exasperation; wistful parting glances and pressure-on-the-wound thumpers; syncopated affirmations for boxing up an ex’s possessions and bar-stool reckonings with the impossibility of forgetting.

Mavis Staples’s “What Happened to the Real Me?” from her 1970 album Only for the Lonely, is the rare break-up song to capture the confusion and self-doubt of separation. It’s about the way parting with a lover leaves you unsure of who you are, and despite being set against a strings-and-horns arrangement elaborate enough to house a James Bond theme, Staples’s beseeching voice sounds transported from the moment of rupture. When she cries “Look at me my love!” there’s a quiver to her roar that suggests how unstable it can feel to take control. Like being in a car with its engine pushing to the limit, the more power Staples exerts, the more you feel every bump in the road.

Staples is best known as a member of the Staple Singers, a family act featuring a rotating mix of her siblings and her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. The Staple Singers became one of the defining groups in gospel, appeared at so many Civil Rights Movement rallies that they were known as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “opening act,” and helped pioneer a blend of soul, funk, and R&B that was both defiantly Black and undeniably pop.

In this regard, Only for the Lonely, a solo album of pretty much all break-up songs, is something of an anomaly in a musical career stretching more than 70 years. What binds songs like “What Happened to the Real Me?” to the rest of Staples’s career, though, is that there is not a shred of artifice in her voice. Staples declined an interview for this story, but when asked by others to explain the key to her singing, she has regularly provided the same answer: sincerity. “You be sincere, and sing from your heart,” she remembers Pops telling her in Greg Kot’s excellent 2014 biography of Staples. “What comes from the heart, reaches the heart.”

Mavis Staples takes the stage at BeachLife on May 7, three-quarters of a century after she first began making music. Images courtesy 525 Worldwide

Pops, who died in 2000, was a brilliant if understated guitarist with a keen understanding of vocal harmonies, and by far Staples’s greatest influence. His grandfather William was born a slave, and his father Warren was a sharecropper on the Dockery Plantation near Drew, Mississippi, where Emmet Till would later be murdered. Pops began working the land at age 8; later he moved to Chicago, where he took a series of jobs in slaughterhouses and factories. In moving from Mississippi to Chicago, Pops was following millions of other Blacks leaving the rural south for the urban north in what became known as the Great Migration. And he became a part of a blending of musical traditions so rich that the Staple Singers’ success in combining them sometimes left record executives uncertain how to categorize or promote the group.

In the late ‘40s, Pops began teaching Mavis and her siblings hymns like “Will the Circle be Unbroken” out of frustration that the men he played music with after work at a steel mill weren’t taking it seriously enough. The kids learned to harmonize over Pops’ guitar and formed a family act that started playing churches on Chicago’s South Side.

The Staple Singers had their first hit in 1956 with a recording of the gospel standard “Uncloudy Day.” In their rendition, Mavis enters the song after about a minute-and-a-half with a sultry “Well, well, well” of such depth and gravitas that those seeing the act live after hearing the song on the radio were shocked to find that it came not from a man but rather a girl barely old enough to drive.

Today, early Staple Singers recordings can seem downright uncommercial; they are often spare and haunting, evoking what Toni Morrison called in Beloved “the sound that broke the back of words.” Yet they also reveal a band of impeccable tightness from constant performing: Unlike nightclub acts, gospel groups often played three shows before sunset. And the church’s skepticism toward R&B instruments — even Pops’s guitar was controversial — fostered an uncanny sense of rhythm. Once the Staple Singers grew big enough to add drums and a bass, the group sounded liberated, vocalists and musicians alike giving each other space for solos, what Mavis describes as the moments when “the spirit enters the room.”

By the late 60’s, the Staple Singers signed to Stax Records, where they found their greatest commercial success with hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” The songs are polished and buoyant without losing the inspirational resonance of the group’s beginnings, with lyrics that are socially conscious yet minimal enough to leave space for Mavis to scat and call. She bonded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and on these recordings “she orchestrates as much as she sings,” Kot notes, “cuing the solos and urging on the musicians.”

The group’s success demonstrated that spiritually inspired music was “in accordance with being fly and commercially acceptable,” as Lauryn Hill put it when inducting the Staple Singers into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. You can get a sense of how central uplift remained to the group from the 2021 documentary Summer of Soul, about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, when Mavis sings “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” with Mahalia Jackson. It’s a chills-inducing performance made more resonant by the fact that Staples once idolized Jackson from the pews of Chicago churches.

Addressing a live gospel recording she did with Staples, Aretha Franklin once said “Mavis has a very heavy voice, and for us to sound equal, I had to put her just below me in the mix.” That word, “heavy,” or some variation of it, often appears in appraisals of Staples’s singing as a nod to her voice’s prodigious power.

Focusing only this on kind of heaviness, though, obscures Staples’s more profound gift: her ability to fall so deeply into a song’s groove that she gives others—both fellow musicians and the audience—a path to follow.

“Her singing is one of the heaviest things you’ll hear, but it’s completely inclusive,” said singer-songwriter Amy Helm. “It lifts everybody up. It makes people feel like they’re part of something, like they’re inside a song with her.”

Helm is the daughter of Levon, drummer for The Band, whom the Staples Singers joined for a definitive version of “The Weight” in the 1978 concert film “The Last Waltz.” Mavis has long been a desired collaborator over the years, sharing a stage or recording booth with the likes of Prince, David Byrne, and Bob Dylan, who once asked her to marry him. Following Pops’s death and a period in which she felt unmotivated to make music, guitarist Ry Cooder and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy have each made albums with her, finding both old magic and new subtlety in her voice.

Staples will be 83 when she takes the stage at BeachLife, and after the death of her brother Pervis in 2021, is the only remaining member of the Staple Singers. In a profile by New Yorker editor David Remnick last year, Staples addressed continuing to sing — its difficulty, but also its inevitability.

“Pops said, ‘Mavis, your voice is a gift that God gave you,’” she recalled. ‘“If you don’t use it, he’ll take it back.’”

Mavis Staples performs at BeachLife Sunday May 7.


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