A singer’s faith bubbles over
One of the greatest soul singers of the last half century is named Bubbles.
It says so in Mavis Staples’ living room, where a certificate hangs honoring “Bubbles” for co-producing the Grammy-winning 1994 blues album by her late father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
Staples laughs so hard her auburn corkscrew curls start to shake. “My nickname!” she proclaims. “My mom called me that because I had a little bubble nose.” She couldn’t be listed by her birth name in the album credits because she was under contract to a different label at the time.
Everywhere in the South Side condo Staples has called home for 30 years are reminders of a life well lived, of a close-knit family raised on hymns, spirituals and acoustic blues. The Staple Singers arose from the gospel circuit to sell 30 million records and provide the soundtrack for the civil rights movement with such signature songs as “Respect Yourself” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).”
Among the memorabilia and collectibles casually furnishing the singer’s home are Pops Staples’ old Gibson guitar and a picture of him and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House; a Rhodes piano only a few feet from the spot where Mavis Staples and Al Bell wrote the Staple Singers’ immortal “I’ll Take You There”; and a trophy commemorating the Staples’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
And yet these are also reminders that Mavis Staples’ life is moving on. Both her parents have died, and Mavis recently marked her 64th birthday, as the flowers in her sunlit kitchen and family room attest. Her sister Yvonne remains by her side as her neighbor and most trusted advisor, and brother Pervis holds down Pops Staples’ old home in suburban Dolton. Sister Cleo, who lives in the same condo complex, has been sidelined by Alzheimer’s, putting an end to the Staple Singers’ 50-year run.
But Mavis Staples bristles when the idea of retirement is broached. She has not one but two albums ready to go: a Pops Staples album featuring the final performances by the Staple Singers, and a solo album, “Have a Little Faith,” due out Aug. 17 on Alligator Records.
“It’s a shame; us at this point, we still have to prove ourselves all over again to the music business,” she says, her effervescent demeanor momentarily darkening. “You feel like you’re being put out to pasture. But I still got a voice, and I’ve got more inside me now than I did than when we had hits. Look at what I’ve been through and what I’ve overcome and what I have to offer to you now. What makes [the music business] think that it’s over?
“The Lord ain’t through with me yet. I got a lot more to do. I got work to do. So don’t hinder me. I always think, ‘What would Pops do?’ I learned from him that had I depended on what other people think, I would have quit a long time ago.”
‘Have a Little Faith’
The proof of Staples’ feistiness can be found in “Have a Little Faith,” a blues-tinged gospel album about making the most of troubled times. It began with a phone call from a fan the day after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Producer Jim Tullio, a veteran of recording sessions with members of the Band, Aretha Franklin and John Prine, among others, had lost two friends in the disaster and poured his feelings into a song, “In Times Like These.” He called Staples “one of maybe three or four singers I know that could pull something like this off. I didn’t want it to come off cheesy, and I knew Mavis would give it credibility, believability, soul.”
Staples agreed to sing it after Tullio faxed her the lyrics. Three days later they were in the producer’s home studio in Winnetka, Ill., and their partnership began. She had been working on her father’s record when Tullio suggested she work on one of her own. But a solo album wasn’t a priority at first, because Staples felt that her past efforts to go it alone -- in collaboration with Prince in 1989 and ’93, and for Stax Records in the early ‘70s -- were unjustly ignored and under-promoted by record companies. “She was pretty disillusioned,” Tullio says. “I don’t think she was planning on starting a career again.”
As Tullio began bringing songs and backing musicians to the subsequent sessions, Staples found a comfort zone she had previously experienced only with her family. Though she didn’t have a record deal, the singer believed in the project so much that she poured $50,000 of her own money into it.
“It all started with 9/11 and me looking for a way to contribute,” Staples says. “If Tullio hadn’t approached me, I probably would have continued on with Pops’ record. This is the first time in my life that I really have been solo. I never planned to record without my family. But when we cut ‘In Times Like These,’ I felt we could make the type of CD that the Staple Singers always did, a record that would send a positive message and uplift people.”
Sealing the deal was a song written at the eleventh hour for the album by Tullio and guitarist Jim Weider, “Have a Little Faith,” in which Staples turns desperation into a small miracle of determination, wrapping up an album that embodies Pops Staples’ dictum that “if you want to write for the Staples, read the headlines.”
Balancing those moments in which Staples uses her voice to punch a hole through self-doubt and depression is “Pop’s Recipe,” a classic mid-tempo Staple Singers grind that recalls the fire of the family patriarch.
The civil rights years
Pops Staples, the 13th child in a family of seven sons and seven daughters, grew up picking cotton on a Mississippi plantation and studying guitar finger-picking with blues legend Charley Patton before moving his young family to Chicago in 1936, where Mavis was born four years later. He drove his family through the front lines of the civil rights struggle while they toured the Southern gospel circuit in the ‘50s and ‘60s, befriending the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the process.
For all the optimism in the music, there was nothing soft about it or the family. Instead of allowing himself to be run off rural roads by young hot-rodders, Pops Staples would drive the family Cadillac right back into the would-be intimidators until they fled. His assertiveness was passed on to his children, who learned about life and music at their father’s knee. Mavis Staples’ new album closes with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the first song Pops Staples taught his children in their living room.
It was at these homespun sing-alongs that Pops Staples developed the harmony lines for which the group would become famous, with Mavis’ heavy, older-than-her-years contralto assuming the lead; on early recordings such as “Uncloudy Day,” which turned the Stapleses into stars, she was often mistaken for a man or a much older woman, before audiences laid eyes on the diminutive teenager.
The family was touring the gospel circuit before Mavis was out of high school, and the combination of her robust leads, Yvonne’s second-lead vocals, Cleo’s soprano and Pops Staples’ spidery guitar gave the Staples a sound like no other.
Though the Stapleses’ voices were steeped in the Baptist church hymns of their youth, there was always the strong influence of blues and country, and they were swept up in the folk movement during the civil rights era. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez worshiped the Staple Singers, whose songs began to cross over to R&B; and then pop radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s. For this “betrayal,” the Stapleses were sometimes taken to task by members of the gospel community. “They got on our cases for ‘I’ll Take You There,’ because it got played across the board on radio,” Mavis Staples says. “They said we were doing the ‘devil’s music,’ but I said, ‘The devil doesn’t have any music. All music is God’s music.’ Listen to the lyrics in our songs: ‘I know a place, ain’t nobody crying, ain’t nobody worried’; ‘If you’re ready, come go with me.’... These are songs about the world, but they’re also about God being alive for us in the world.”
In that respect, “Have a Little Faith” picks up exactly where the Staple Singers left off. Bruce Iglauer, who signed Staples to his Chicago-based blues label, Alligator Records, couldn’t have dreamed it better. “It’s one of the most overtly spiritual records we’ve ever released, and it’s by an artist I never thought this company would be good enough, big enough or powerful enough to ever sign.”
Iglauer says he went to see Staples perform at a blues festival in Pennsylvania recently and was blown away. The showstopper was a song called “God Is Not Sleeping,” a centerpiece of the new album. Staples was spent at the end of the performance, and so was the audience. “Everyone was in tears,” Iglauer says. “To call it artistry doesn’t cover it. She just swept everyone up in her emotions.”
Tullio got a similar rush watching Staples record the album. “I was asking myself, ‘Is this really happening?’ With most singers, there are usually a number of flubbed notes in every performance, and you have to patch things together. But with Mavis it was great, greater and greatest. She says she doesn’t ‘know’ music, but knowing music has nothing to do with it. She knows as much about music as Beethoven did, in her heart.”
Greg Kot is a music critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.