Known for hew musical talents spanning the American rhythm and blues and gospel categories, while also being an outspoken civil rights activist, you could say Mavis Staples is a jack of all trades and master of many. Audiences can get a taste of her talents first hand this week when the 82-year-old Chicago native heads to City Winery on Oct. 26 and 27.
Staples gave Metro a sneak peek into what to expect and what has motivated her fruitful and decades-long career.
How did an interest or love of music spark a career for you? What made you really want to pursue performing?
My father and my family, singing with them, that was my start. And then one Sunday my aunt invited us to sing at her church, and the congregation loved it. There was another pastor there, and he asked us to his church the next Sunday. Before I knew it, we were traveling the south singing at churches and halls. By the time I graduated high school I’d been all through the south, Atlanta, Richmond, New Orleans, all over. And the money we were making was better than my Pop’s day job, so we went full-time as soon as I graduated.
You talk a lot about your message, especially with your 12th studio album ‘We Get By.’ What does that entail?
That album started out from the song ‘Love and Trust’ that Ben wrote for me. And that song talks about what everybody is searching for, and what everybody needs. And that’s what I am trying to do, connect with people, lift them up, put some joy in their hearts along with a message they can think about. The songs on that record have the same meaning and [say] what I’ve been saying throughout the years, but also trying to let people know we’re all in this world together.
Has music always been helping you to get your message out? You’ve always been and still are an activist, but what about during the Civil Rights era, a time you were well known for?
Back during the Movement, my family saw Dr. King preach, 1961, and that night my father told us that if Dr. King could preach it, we could sing it. And after that he started to write songs like ‘Freedom Highway’ and ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad’ and we sang ‘Blowing In The Wind’. So with my family, we realized that the message could be in the music and reach people, whether we sang before a rally for Dr. King or at a nightclub or folk festival.
What was the process like working on this album, especially working with multi-Grammy Award-winner Ben Harper?
Ben was so much fun to work with, and he did his homework—he knew how my family sounded and he tried to capture that same feeling. And he wrote such beautiful songs. Plus he showed me how to skateboard. He was zooming around and I thought for sure he was going to fall and crack his head. But he got me up on it and we had a laugh about that. And then my record label, they got me a skateboard of my own.
What song or songs do you really enjoy performing live?
After all these years I still love to sing “I’ll Take You There.” I always think of my family when I sing that, and it always makes people happy, right from the first note. And I imagine my father and my sisters are hearing me sing it, and they know that I am carrying what we all did forward and that I am still out here for them still connecting with people. So that feels very special to me.
I recently was asked by someone who had never been to a rhythm and blues/gospel show what it was like. What kind of emotions would you say this kind of music (live) evokes?
Oh, it’s about joy and inspiration and positive vibrations. Sister Mahalia used to say that she sang gospel because the songs lift you up and [make] you feel free, but when you sing the blues, at the end of the song you still have the blues. That doesn’t mean the blues can’t be fun, but the feeling you get from hearing a gospel song is so pure.
What did you miss most about performing in front of an audience? After being back on stage after COVID, does it feel different at all to perform live?
I missed my band, and all the people I tour and travel with, and I missed the room service… But I really missed seeing all the smiling faces, and young people saying ‘My grandmother has all your albums and now I’m a fan, too!’ It’s great to be out here now and not all cooped up at home, but I miss seeing the smiling faces—even though I know people are smiling under these masks.
Is there anything you hope audiences take away from your performance at City Winery?
I’m so blessed that I can still be here to bring my music to people and have new generations of fans and people who will listen. And I want people to know that I really think it is going to be all right, as long as we just look out for one another. So after the show, feel good, keep your chest out, stick your head up and walk tall. We got this.
To get tickets and for information on Mavis Staples, visit citywinery.com