Mavis Staples: Good Fortune after Personal Loss



Mavis Staples acknowledges she’s had a run of good fortune since recovering from the saddest period in her life — the death in 2000 of her father, Staple Singers patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples. And her achievements are continuing with the release of her newest album, You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy at Chicago’s The Loft, his band’s studio.

While Staples — who has one of the strongest, clearest and most empathetic voices in the history of gospel-infused soul music — had been recording occasional solo albums during her career, her heart, soul and identity were wrapped up in being a member of the family gospel/soul group started by her father. She’d been singing with them for 50 years, since a girl, when he died at age 84. So she felt lost and depressed.

But Staples rebounded by signing with Anti-, a label with a keen talent for reviving the careers of older “legacy” artists. And her 2007 We’ll Never Turn Back, in which she and producer Ry Cooder revisited the Civil Rights Era spiritual/protest songs of the Staple Singers, brought her renewed attention. A related follow-up, Live: Hope at the Hideout, earned the 71-year-old Staples her first Grammy nomination.

Now comes You Are Not Alone. Staples didn’t know Tweedy until he showed up at her show being recorded at Chicago’s Hideout and introduced himself. Soon after, he sent word he wanted to produce her next album. She acquainted herself with his material and was impressed. Wilco reminded her of the Band, whose “The Weight” the Staple Singers memorably performed (with the Band) in The Last Waltz.

“He said, ‘Mavis, I listen to you all the time and I’m really grateful to be producing you,’” Staples explains, during a telephone interview. “And I said, ‘Well, Tweedy, you don’t know how blessed you make me feel at my age and at this time in my career that a young man like Jeff Tweedy’ ” — here she interjects an aside, “a genius, I know he’s one,” and then continues — ‘ ” would want to work with me.’

“I just rejoice, I feel like the Lord sends people to you if you are worthy,” she explains. “I’ve been good, I treat everybody right, treat my neighbors right, even the tramp on the street I have time to talk to. So if the Lord has tested me, he has seen I’m worthy of whatever gifts he’s sending to me.”

For the album, Tweedy compiled a list of material he thought perfect for Staples. Those included two written by her father (“You Don’t Knock” and “Downward Road”), two uplifting blues tunes (Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Belong to the Band” and Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It”), three songs by premier contemporary composers (Randy Newman’s “Losing You,” Allen Toussaint’s “Last Train” and John Fogerty’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone,” reminiscent of “The Weight”) plus some traditional gospel selections.

And he wrote two songs for Staples – the funky “Only the Lord Knows” and the quietly soulful and compassionate title song, meant to console about recovering from difficult times. While Staples’ band recorded with her, Tweedy played some acoustic guitar and bass, and Wilco’s Patrick Sansone added keyboards and vibes. On the a cappella “Wonderful Savior,” singers Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor and Donny Gerrard joined in.

In press notes, Tweedy explains his motivation in producing Staples. “Mavis is the walking embodiment of undaunted spirit and courage. She’s an ever-forward looking, positive example for all human beings. And she sounds like she’s in the prime of her life.”

For the inspirational title song, Tweedy saved writing it until last. He composed the music first, one night giving Staples a disc to hear the melody, and promised he’d have lyrics written the next day when she returned to the studio.

“So when we got back there the next day, he had these beautiful lyrics,” Staples recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is the most beautiful song I have ever sang.’ I actually had to fight back tears, because when I’m singing the song it’s like a little movie in my head. I could see who needed to hear it and what time it is in their lives. We’re living in trying times, and with a song like this, anyone who hears it will say, ‘She’s singing that song just for me.’ Hopefully, that will lift them up, because the song comforts you.”


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