Friday, September 02, 2005


Back in January 2005, I had the distinct pleasure to secure an interview with one of the great voice's of the last half century.. A woman that has sang Spirituals all of her life and who as the female lead vocalist of the Staples Singers is synonymous with the civil rights movement, gospel music and simple positive thought in the music world. It was a huge honor and a great thrill... The interview is somewhat long but I hope you enjoy it just the same ...

Conversation with a Genuine Legend
An interview by Mark Fredell
aired live on KFAI Radio January 2005, and transcribed and printed in the paper BLUE MONDAY

As those of you that read the January issue of Blue Monday learned, I have been volunteering at KFAI radio in the Twin Cities and on Friday the 14th of January I had the distinct honor of guest hosting the number one show on their airwaves, ‘The Sugar Shop’. As I was preparing for the show I discovered that the date happened to be the Friday before Gospel & Soul Legend Mavis Staples was performing at the Ordway in Saint Paul so being the ever diligent person that I am, I took a shot and made some calls to try a secure an interview with this Icon of popular music. Well it didn’t take long, after getting a hold of the radio PR person at Alligator records he told me he’d see what he could do and within two hours he called me back and said it was a go, he gave me Ms. Staples number and said she would be waiting for my call Friday afternoon. So Friday rolled around and armed with the number I set out for the studio and another fortunate date with (another) genuine living legend… I dialed her up at about five after three and once on the air it wasn’t so much an interview as a history lesson for yours truly I simply would give her a quick little talking point and of she’d go, unguarded and honest, open and sincere, she was a true delight to talk with and for what was perhaps the quickest 35 minutes I’ve ever experienced on radio, we chatted and the following are the results of that conversation…
Mark: Hello Ms. Staples. It’s a real honor to talk with you, happy New Year.
Mavis Staples: thank you and happy new year to you too…
M: I am just thrilled to have the chance to talk with you today; I guess we should start by letting our listeners know that you are coming to town this Sunday the 14th to the Ordway Theater with a 5:00 o’clock start time and you’ll be performing your tribute to Gospel Legend Ms. Mahalia Jackson.
M.S.: Mahalia Jackson that’s right…
M: Of course there are few people more deserving of tributes than her.
M.S.: That’s right, she was my idle and a few years ago (1996) I did a tribute CD and I’ve been doing these tribute concerts for a while now and it’s always a joy it’s always a wonderful time because her songs are so powerful and fully packed you know so I’ll be celebrating Ms. Mahalia Jackson as well as Dr. Martin Luther King…
M: That’s right for the one listener who maybe doesn’t know, next Monday is of course Martin Luther King Day. Of course the school kids all know.
M.S.: That’s right they do don’t they. Sister Mahalia Jackson you know she sang at his funeral. He, Dr. King requested the song for her to sing, actually she had sang the song at an event they were at together and he told her that he wanted her to sing that song for him if he went first, he wanted her to sing it at his funeral.
M: Now that brings up an interesting point, the Staples Singers of course were at least in my opinion true Icons, I put them at the same level as say Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, The Beatles, as a group that really did change the popular music of the time and in doing so changed the thought process of society, of the people at the time.
M.S.; Thank you…
M.: Well it’s my sincere belief but it raises the question, where you as a group or individually, conscience of the power and influence of your music at the time where you aware that your music was helping to foster change or was it something that you didn’t really grasp until looking back through the eyes of history?
M.S.: Well we were conscience of the fact that we were singing songs that were inspiring and uplifting to people. We didn’t realize that we were actually changing any ones out look or anything. You know we were making different transitions in our lives as far as well, you know we started out singing strictly gospel songs and then people like Dominick Jazz, Matt Hintock these people started writing about us and see we would do folk festivals, our sound was good for anywhere you know and from these type events we started to move on and singing songs like um, Dylan songs, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. And these songs that were meaningful, fit us fit our group you know; but no we weren’t really aware of our impact, we knew what we wanted to sing and what we enjoyed singing but we didn’t set out to change any thing, we started out as singing gospel and we didn’t jump over any fences so we could sing secular music… we did sing one secular song in our career which was ‘Lets Do It Again’ for a movie score for Curtis Mayfield. You know it had Sydney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby. And you Know Pop’s told Curtis when Curtis said now Pop’s this is your part here which was (singing) I like you lady… And Pop’s said now come on Curtis man, I can’t sing that I’m a church man and Curtis begged Pop’s he said oh man come on please I’ll pray for ya…And you know the rest of us we all wanted to do the song so bad and we all begged him come on Pop’s. But you know the rest of the songs, the folk songs and what not, Pop’s would tell the song writers, he would say now if you want to write for the Staples Singers, just look at the paper, read the headlines see we wanted to sing about what was happening, and if there was something bad going in the world something wasn’t going right we wanted to sing a song to try and fix it.
And our sound you know Pop’s; well it took me awhile before I realized Pop’s was actually playing the blues on his guitar you know while we were singing gospel music, because that’s what he learned. You know he learned from Charlie Patton and Blind Lemmon you cause my father came up as a boy on Dockerys Farm (Plantation) down in Mississippi and Charlie Patton was there so Pop’s he taught himself but you know he watched this mans fingers he went and bought himself a little pawn shop guitar, you know he put it in layaway cause you know he wasn’t making that much money but then when he got it he taught himself how to play it. So I’m well we’re just grateful that our music has survived, you know that it has done what it’s done. You know we’re grateful for that and we just want our fans to know that we got a lot more coming for you.
M: well good, that’s good to know.
M.S.: yes indeed.
M: And what you said a minute ago, it’s interesting to me, some one on the fan side of what you’ve done both with the group and individually, that in your eyes at least, although many journalists and critics have said otherwise, as far as you’re concerned, you never really did move from spiritual to secular music. And that even when you did start recording the so called message songs which many see as secular, you see them as still spiritual songs which I for one can certainly agree with…
M.S.: Yes I do. They are spiritual.
M: But now at the time, did you get much gruff from the church you know there has always been the troubles with the blues players in particular you know saying they were singing the devils music, getting in trouble with the church, did you as a group suffer from that same kind of thing when you began singing the “message song’s” as opposed to the truly spiritual ‘gospel’ music.
M.S.: Do you know that the only song that the church, they wanted to put us out was ‘I’ll Take You There’… I’ll Take You There. And do you know that’s exactly what they said they said the Staples Singers are singing the devils music and I had to do well all of us we had to do so many interviews trying to tell them you know the devil ain’t got no music. You know all music is gods’ music and you know we were talking about taking you to heaven. And you see you have to listen to the words, and all they heard was the beat, see that’s what happened we had sang for so many years with just our fathers guitar that when we wanted to reach the youth and when Pop’s told us when we got started with Stax he said listen you all I think if we get us a rhythm section and the kids will jump on the beat, they’ll hear the beat then maybe they’ll hear what we’re sayin’. So we got a rhythm section, you know that was the first rhythm section that we had was with I’ll take you there and so we were singing “I know a place, ain’t nobody crying, ain’t nobody worried, ain’t no smiling faces lying to the races.’ Where else would we be taking you but to heaven. Finally people started to listen to us and we were invited back to church and you know that was the first song that was requested right there in the pulpit.
M: Wow. Now that song came out in 71?
M.S.: yes 1971…
M: I was about 7, and I can remember, now that even then at 7 that I knew where you were trying to take me…
M.S.: is that right. That’s wonderful.
M: You know though that’s the funny thing about so many people in this world they get so bogged down in the littlest detail, the tiniest segment of what they believe, that they forget to look at the big picture.
M.S.: that’s right… and see they heard that record being played across the board R&B radio where before we only got played on gospel radio but we were getting played across the board and people as soon as they heard that opening, they would jump up they’d hit the floor and start dancing but you know the church people they just completely shut out the message and then the Staples Singers; and knowing us if they really knew us they’d know that we were very serious with the songs that we’d sing we’re true to our faith and we’re sincere; so if they knew us they wouldn’t have jumped on us like that.
You know they the kind of people well you know they didn’t want Pop’s to even play his guitar in church for a while there, and Pop’s had to go to the scripture and show them where the bible says to praise him with screams, with tambourines, he had to show the preacher where it says to scream and make joyful noise, you know little David with his harp and Gabriel blew Trumpet you know you praise the lord how you want to praise him so when Pop’s started playing the guitar, Gospel singers weren’t playing guitar, Pop’s started all that with the gospel singers. You Know we are really pioneers of a whole lot of things, you know that happened with Gospel and contemporary gospel. We took all the flack, all the beatings you know, but that’s alright…
M: Absolutely… right along side Ms. Aretha.
M.S.: Yes. Yes.
M. Before you all came along there weren’t too many people putting the drums behind spiritual music before the Staples and Aretha Franklin.
M.S.: No indeed. That’s right…
M: I also want to mention that The Staples are being given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy’s this year, I believe that’s next month and of course you are in the Rock & roll Hall Of Fame.
M.S.: that’s right yes we are…
M: So if the stars line up and there’s any justice in the world you will be given the award during the telecast of course the politics of such things can be tricky.
M.S.: Or yes I hope so, I really hope so.
M: Now of course you’ve had a long and varied career and have worked with a lot of different and diverse people but being in Minnesota, it would be an injustice to my listeners to not ask about working with Prince, who was a producer on two of your records, 1989’s ‘ Time Waits For No One’ and 1993’s ‘The Voice’. How was he to work with, I understand he’s shy but is he easy to work with?
M.S.: Oh yes, he’s as shy as he could be, but he’s a beautiful, beautiful person, he’s very humble and he did everything he said he would do for me.
Our records weren’t played, I got caught up in the argument that Prince was having with Warner Brothers and so Warner Brothers would let my records be played but Prince and I knew, on both but the Voice, especially the Voice that record was about my life. See because this young man wouldn’t talk to me I had to write him letters, I was thinking now how are we gonna be able to communicate if he won’t talk to me so I just thought well I know I’ll write to him so I would write him long letters 12 15 pages, Legal pad pages, telling him about my life. I started from my childhood because I knew who I was with, I knew that this young man was one that god sent I knew what he could do with lyrics, with words, you just give him the story and he’ll fix it. Well that’s exactly what I did, I started with my childhood, and I let him know how I used to like to go to church on Sunday, you know Sunday school and how my mother would dress me in my little cute dress and do you know that any song that you hear on ‘the Voice’ there is some thing from each of my letters in those songs; you know ‘Blood is Thicker Than Time’ when I would tell him how I couldn’t wait for Sunday school my mother would dress me in my patent leather shoes, and my dress, he wrote a verse goes, (singing) “we went to church on Sunday morning dressed up looking mighty fine”. I told him I was married to an undertaker and he wrote me a song called the ‘the Undertaker’ ‘Get Your House In Order’ all of those songs and I’ll tell you that is some of the best work that I’ve done in my live is that record ‘the Voice’.
M: Now that brings me to another thought, Looking back now, is there one or two records or songs that lets say 20 or 30 years from now you can say now that is what they can remember me for, I like that one that’s what I’m proudest of?
M.S.: Oh yes… I would say really the songs that we did the ones we wrote when we met Dr. Martin Luther King, you know those songs meant so much in that time. When we met Dr. King we went to his Church In Montgomery, on a Sunday morning and Pop’s after, we got back to our rooms and Pop’s say’s listen you all I really like that mans message and I think if he can preach it we can sing it. And we began writing freedom songs, protest songs, we wrote
‘March of Freedom Highway’ and that was about a march from Selma to Montgomery. We wrote it’s a long walk to D.C. but I got my walking shoes on; that was for the march in Washington. ‘When Will We Be Paid’ for the work we’ve done… ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad’ all these songs were written from the situations that we saw, ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad’ was written about the “Littlerock nine” those nine children trying to board a bus for weeks to try and integrate the high school. And you know Pop’s and I would watch the news and we saw they had word from the president, from the mayor of Littlerock, from the governor, let those Children go to school. So we’re there watching the evening news and thinking let those children get on the bus and as soon as they get up to that door you know there was a policeman standing there and he had his Billy club out covering, blocking the door and Pop’s saw that and he said now why is he doing that to those children why is he treating them so bad and then he wrote that song that evening, and that song became Dr. Kings favorite. Any time we would be with Dr. King, you know cause we had joined the movement, he would tell Pop’s he’d say “Stape, now your gonna sing my song tonight right?” and Pop’s would say” oh yes sir Dr. we ‘re gonna sing your song.” That was Why Am I Treated So Mad, see those are songs that I would love, I would love to be remembered for all of my work but that time see it was a service that we were trying to do for our people… For all people really. And it was something that we weren’t asking for pay you know we wanted to raise funds for the movement. We would sing and raise funds for the movement, we would march and we felt good. I’ve never felt so proud of what we were doing as when we were doing that, so that’s one of the things I guess. I have a bunch of them really but that’s the big one I’d like people to remember me for, that’s the great one.
M: Well alright, that’s pretty good then… I want to go back to the show once more this Sunday. Is there any one part, one song that you really look forward to when you do this Mahalia Jackson tribute?
M.S.: Oh no, no, the whole concert, all of those sister Mahalia songs you know when I’m singing her songs I’m just the happiest person, well any song really when I’m singing period, I’m happiest when I’m singing and when I do her songs sometimes I can see her when I’m singing, I can visualize her and every one of those songs are going to touch somebody you know they’re going to touch you because they are so meaningful. And you know I always have to tell the people now don’t expect me to sound like sister Mahalia Jackson because I couldn’t there will never be another like her. You know your just gonna hear Mavis singing the songs that sister Mahalia sang. Now I have one accompanist and he switches from piano to organ cause that’s the way she did it I tried to make the Cd as close to the way as she would do it and the record company said we want a rhythm section and I told them well if you want a rhythm section then I can’t do it, cause that’s not how sister Mahalia would do it she’d just have a piano or an organ and that’s what I have on stage with me and that’s all I need…
M: Well Ms. Staples, I want to thank you so much for joining me here today I’ve had a really great time chatting with you, I can’t wait to see the show on Sunday, have a safe trip to town and dress warm. I’m gonna let you go, I’ve already taken a little more than a half hour of your time and I don’t want to take up any more
M.S.: Well I’ve enjoyed all of it. Thank you for having me on.
M: Thank you and I’ll see you on Sunday…


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