Why is NME writing about Mavis Staples in 2018? That’s a reasonable question, and it deserves an honest answer. We’ll get into that in a moment, but first I should say: Don’t worry, she’s not dead. Mavis Staples is alive, and despite being only a year shy of her 80th birthday she’s in such rude health that when she played the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles this weekend her performance was alternately spellbinding and ass-kicking. Her voice sounded strong and pure and righteous, and she moved exuberantly around the stage and cracked jokes between songs. There is no sound on earth more joyful than Mavis Staples singing, except maybe Mavis Staples laughing.
So no, she’s not dead. She’s alive, and kicking ass at 79, and that’s worth writing about. We shouldn’t have to wait until people die to celebrate them.
A cynic might argue that the real reason I’m writing about Mavis Staples right now is that earlier this year I went to the Stax studio in Memphis and ever since then I’ve been so utterly, overwhelming obsessed with the Staple Singers that I used my music writer privileges to blag a ticket to see her, and now I feel duty-bound to write about it. That’s not a very romantic answer, but it’s true in a literal, workaday sense so let’s get that out of way now at the outset.
But it’s also true that Mavis Staples deserves to be written about and talked about and most of all listened to more than she is. She’s not entirely forgotten, of course. Just last week, on the Beats 1 show of my former NME colleague, Matt Wilkinson (a man who Google claims is 50 years old, despite his boyish good looks), Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce picked out the Staple Singers’ gospel classic ‘Uncloudy Day’ as his very first choice of the ‘5 Best Songs on Apple Music’: “I remember hearing this from another room and it sounding like it had dropped out of the sky,” Pierce told the 50 year-old DJ. “I’d never heard anything like it.”
The sound of Mavis Staples’ voice over the radio has been having that effect for years. Bob Dylan once told an interviewer that when he first heard the Staple Singers doing ‘Sit Down Servant’ on the radio when he was 12 years old it made him “stay up for a week.” Years later, Dylan proposed to Mavis. She turned him down.
The Band loved her so much they recruited the Staple Singers to sing ‘The Weight’ with them for The Last Waltz. There’s a moment that always gives me goosebumps right at the end of that recording when the music finishes and Mavis – lost in the moment and apparently unaware that she’ll be heard by the microphone – murmurs: “Beautiful!” She’s not wrong.
The list of Mavis Staples’ admirers is long and illustrious. Prince signed her at the end of the ‘80s and produced two albums for her. In 2016, Nick Cave and Justin Vernon were among those who wrote songs for her album ‘Livin’ on a High Note’. Last year she was on a Gorillaz track with Pusha T. This year she’s done a single with Hozier, apparently.
All of which is to miss the point somewhat. Mavis Staples isn’t worth celebrating because some very famous men have admired her. She’s worth celebrating because of that peerless rough, gospel voice and maybe more than that because of who she is, in every fibre of her being.
Her father Pops, who led the Staple Singers, first introduced the family to Martin Luther King Jnr in 1962. After that meeting, he decided the group should focus on ‘message songs’ rather than straight gospel, and wrote the song ‘Freedom Highway’ which they sang during the march from Selma to Montgomery. Mavis has lived through the assassination of King, sang at JFK’s inauguration, performed for Obama and now she has to put up with seeing whatever hell is happening now. “I was there, and I’m still here,” she said on Saturday night, referring back to the Civil Rights marches. “I’m a living witness. I’m a soldier. I’m still fighting. I’m out here on this battlefield. I’m fighting for love. I’m fighting for hope. I’m fighting for peace.”
Her most famous song is about that. It speaks of a world where there “ain’t no smilin’ faces… lyin’ to the races.” It’s the song I’ve listened to more than any other in 2018, maybe as a sort of psychic salve for troubled times. It is both sacred and more than a little profane, Mavis’ voice able to convey sensuality at the same time she’s singing about heaven. Maddeningly, she didn’t sing it on Saturday night, but no matter. Probably it would never have compared to the recorded version. I defy anybody to listen to the first eight seconds of that recording and not become obsessed with it. Fortunately, it is here for you and I to listen to together, now, and to find some small measure of grace and beauty in this godforsaken world. I know a place. Mavis will take you there.