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Soul Singer Mavis Staples Vocalizes Civil Rights Movement

August 22, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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MAVIS STAPLES, Musician (singing): Down in Mississippi where I was born, down in Mississippi, where I come from, way down…

JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent summer night at the beautiful Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver, Mavis Staples sang of what she witnessed as a young girl in the segregated South.

MAVIS STAPLES (singing): She said, “You drink from that fountain over there,” and that fountain had a sign. It said “for colored only”…

JEFFREY BROWN: As lead singer for the Staple Singers, the legendary gospel and soul group, and in recent years on her own, Mavis Staples’ powerful voice has been moving audiences since the 1950s.

MAVIS STAPLES (singing): Down in Mississippi…

JEFFREY BROWN: “Down in Mississippi” is the opening number on her latest recording, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” a collection of songs from and about the civil rights era.

Very personal stuff, right?

MAVIS STAPLES: Yes, it is. It’s very personal, and it’s real. It’s true, you know, walking with my grandma, and these things just actually happened. My grandmother told me I couldn’t drink from that fountain. You drink from that fountain over there.

A distinctive voice

JEFFREY BROWN: Family patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples, who grew up in Mississippi and later moved to Chicago, formed the Staple Singers as a family affair. With Pops on guitar and her siblings singing backup, Mavis began singing lead at age 12. Even then, she had a distinctive voice.

MAVIS STAPLES: I used to get in fights, you know, because when I was small -- oh, man, I was really in the basement. And the kids, "You sound like a boy. You sound like a boy." I would fight all the time about my...

JEFFREY BROWN: Even as a little girl, you had that deep, strong...

MAVIS STAPLES: Well, on our first record, I'm singing bass. "Well, well, oh, Lord, they tell me now, I got a home, got a home beyond the sky." And disc jockeys would come on the radio and say, "That's little 14-year-old Mavis Staples." And people would say, "That's not a little girl."

People would actually bet when we'd get to different towns in the South, "That's not a little girl. That's got to be a man or a big, fat lady," you know? And we would fool those people. One man said, "Little girl, I bet my whole paycheck on you." Pops said, "Well, you shouldn't bet. It's not good to bet."

Meeting Martin Luther King Jr.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the 1950s and early '60s, the Staple Singers recorded and performed exclusively gospel songs. That changed one day in 1963 in Montgomery, Alabama.

MAVIS STAPLES: We were working there that night. Pops called us and told us, "Listen, y'all, this man Martin is here, Martin Luther King, and I want to go to his church. He has a church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and would you all like to go?" We said, "Yes, pops. We want to go." We all went to Dr. King's church that Sunday morning for an 11:00 service.

We go back to the hotel. Pops called us again. "Listen, you all, I really like this man's message. And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it."

JEFFREY BROWN: If he can preach it, we can sing it?

MAVIS STAPLES: If he can preach it, we can sing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you sang it.

MAVIS STAPLES: We sang it. We started writing freedom songs.

THE STAPLE SINGERS (singing): March up freedom's highway. March each and every day...

JEFFREY BROWN: The first freedom song that Pops Staples wrote was "March Up Freedom's Highway," about the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

THE STAPLE SINGERS (singing): There's just one thing I can't understand, my friend, why some folk think freedom was not designed for all men.

MAVIS STAPLES: Our purpose was to sing songs that would uplift, you know, lift people and give them a reason to get up in the morning, you know? That's just -- we sing positive, informative messages.

Songs maintain their relevance

JEFFREY BROWN: The Staple Singers performed traditional and some original works at rallies and marches, but they recorded few of these songs at the time. Staples says she felt there was good reason to go back to them now.

MAVIS STAPLES: These songs are very relevant. You know, I'm not singing about something that's past and gone. I'm singing about today. Just like Pops said, if you want to write for the Staples, read the headlines. I watched these people sit up in that stadium, thousands...

JEFFREY BROWN: In New Orleans.

MAVIS STAPLES: In New Orleans. No water, no food, no one coming to their rescue. You know, I wonder, what would Dr. King have said? What would he have said about Katrina? I know he would have done something. He would have done something. But has anything been done? No, nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Composer and guitarist Ry Cooder produced the new album, and three members of the civil rights musical group the Freedom Singers sang backup on several of the songs.

The Staple Singers reached their largest audiences in the early '70s, with hits like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There." The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.

MAVIS STAPLES: It's tie-dye.

JEFFREY BROWN: A tie-dye suit?

MAVIS STAPLES: It's suede. It's blue and white.

JEFFREY BROWN: A tie-dye suede suit?

MAVIS STAPLES: My father was sharp. Pops was a pacesetter.

Continuing to tour

JEFFREY BROWN: Pops Staples died seven years ago, and most of Mavis' siblings have given up singing. But her sister, Yvonne, still tours with her, acting as an unofficial manager and singing backup. And Mavis herself, now 68, is still belting out her songs with a message and a style all her own.

I notice that you often have this little laugh, you know, in your line. You know, you sing your line, and then there's a little "ahh."

MAVIS STAPLES: Yes, that actually just comes. I can be singing "Jesus is on the main line, tell the Lord what you want." You know, it's just my style. It's just my style.

Pops always told me, "Mavis, don't try to sound like anyone else but yourself. Sing your own style." And that's what I've been from ever since they used to have to stand me up in a chair, so the people could see where the voice was coming from.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you're going to keep out there, keeping the tradition of the Staple Singers alive?

MAVIS STAPLES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You'll get tired of me. I won't be retiring, none of that stuff. I want to keep on, keep on keeping on.

MAVIS STAPLES (singing): Hold on, hold on, hold on, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.