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Mavis Staples Ponders American Idol, Wilco, and Winning a Grammy After 60 Years of Singing

Photo by Chris Strong

Mavis Staples was put on this Earth to sing. She’s been performing since the age of 8, starting with her family’s group The Staple Singers, known for classic hits such as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” Over the years, she’s used her deep, soulful voice to bring gospel to the mainstream and even marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., helping spread the civil rights message through song. Today, Staples is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and a National Heritage Fellowship Award recipient. She’s worked with musicians as varied as Bob Dylan and Prince. And in 2008, Rolling Stone named her one of the 100 greatest singers of all time. In essence, she is a living legend. Last year, she recorded You Are Not Alone with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which went on to win the Grammy for Best Americana Album in February. Throughout it all, one thing remains—Staples is as grounded as they come.

How does it feel to win your first Grammy 
after a 60-year career?
I never thought I’d win, especially because I was up against Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, and Rosanne Cash. I almost missed it when Bobby McFerrin called my name. It was the shock of my life. I never paid awards much mind, but it was still sweet to get the Grammy statue in the mail. It was so heavy.

What was it like working with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco on You Are Not Alone?
Meeting Tweedy was a kick, and recording at his loft felt like a family reunion. All of the guys in Wilco are family men, and they brought their wives, kids, and even their dogs to our sessions. Right when we started, Tweedy told me he wanted to write a song for me. He said, “Mavis, I’m going to give you this disc with the melody of a song on it.” And the next day, he had the lyrics. “You Are Not Alone” is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever sung. It got me all choked up.

You say that Tweedy helped you figure out your direction after singing blues, folk, gospel, and pop. Any idea of where you’ll go next?
I only got to work with the Wilco guys for a couple weeks, and the album came out so well that it won a Grammy. Maybe we’ll have to see what else we can do as a team. I’m hanging with Tweedy.

You’ve worked with legends such as Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Prince. Do you have a favorite?
Come on now. You’re trying to get me in trouble. I’ll just say that I have been fortunate and lucky to work with so many talented folks. But Tweedy did have catering and a teleprompter for our recording session—both of which were quite new to me.

Your father was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. What’s your best memory of him and his civil rights message?

I loved to hear him laugh. He always seemed so serious or sad, but I knew that he could be jovial. When I used to hear him laugh, it made me realize that Dr. King could be happy too. I’m still on that same freedom highway he and Pops were on, and I’m going to walk on it until Dr. King’s dream is fully realized.

I heard that you turned down Bob Dylan’s marriage proposal.
I was so young then, and I thought Dr. King might not like the idea of me marrying a white man. Later on, Pops told me that was foolish. He said, “Don’t you see all the white people marching with us?” I guess it’s ancient history now. I did send him a birthday message for his 70th—I told him it’s the new 60.

You compare The Staple Singers’ success to Justin Bieber’s and Beyoncé’s. How was your family’s group different from big stars today?
When our songs hit the charts, it was mostly the same as today. There were paparazzi. We couldn’t go anywhere without people tugging and pulling at us, but we never got on the star trip. We stayed everyday people. We’d get home from the road, and Mom would cook for us just like we never left. We were always a close-knit family.

Who is the best new female soul singer today?
Adele stands out to me—she sounds so real. We saw each other in London, and she is just all over it when she is singing. To know that she wrote those songs too—she’s got such talent.

Would you ever want to be a judge on a show like American Idol or The Voice?
I would like to give advice to some of the singers on those shows. Pops always told me to sing 
from the heart because what comes from the heart reaches the heart, and I think some of 
them should know that.  

You’re a very down-to-earth diva. 
What’s kept you so grounded?
It’s really a testament to Pops. He is the inspiration for my music and how I approach life. He wrote a song called “Low is the Way.” You stay low—not high and mighty. You don’t forget your gift from god, and you don’t abuse it, or it will be taken away. I have kept many things my father taught me in my heart and in my head, and they keep me surviving.

This article appears in the August 2011 issue of 7x7 Magazine. Subscribe here.