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There’s still so much to overcome

Times Staff Writer

THE front page of the paper on a recent morning was dominated by stories and photos about the commemoration of a watershed civil-rights march in Selma, Ala.

Mavis Staples, visiting Los Angeles from her Chicago home to play a concert, receive an NAACP Image Award and prepare for the rollout of her new album, took careful note of the ceremony. For one thing, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who spoke at the memorial, has written an essay for the booklet of her CD. More important, Staples had participated in the 1965 demonstration.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 25, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Staple Singers: A caption with a photograph in Sunday’s Calendar section of the Staple Singers performing a 1972 concert said Mavis Staples was on the left. She was on the right.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 29, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Staple Singers: A caption with a photograph last Sunday of the Staple Singers performing in 1972 said Mavis Staples was on the left. She was on the right.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Staple Singers: A caption with a photograph in Calendar on April 22 showing the Staple Singers performing in a 1972 concert said Mavis Staples was on the left. She was on the right.

“When they knelt down to pray, that’s when the police started beating them, and the dogs, and the water hoses,” the singer said, recalling the assault whose images stirred outrage around the world and ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. “It was somethin’.”

For Staples, 66, that day isn’t a distant marker from her youth. The last active member of the pioneering gospel group the Staple Singers has plunged back into the era’s fiery lake of confrontation and conviction to record an album of the songs that swept demonstrators into the streets and brought solace during tense nights in jail.

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The roots of these songs extend deep into the history of the black experience in America, and in “We’ll Never Turn Back,” which will be released Tuesday, Staples meets the challenge of that stature with a performance at once intimate and larger than life.

The gospel grounding and unruly individuality won’t surprise aficionados who regard Staples as one of the great voices in black music. The power behind her ragged contralto is undiminished, and age has darkened her timbre, bringing a gravitas to her proclamations of righteousness and resolve.

Her singing is framed in earthy, visceral grooves crafted by the album’s producer, Ry Cooder, and a group of top-tier musicians, including drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Mike Elizondo, cut live in a Van Nuys studio. Cooder says some of the album’s final selections weren’t even first takes but warm-ups, and Staples sometimes breaks out of the verse-chorus structure to become a vivacious raconteur.

Familiar standbys such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “This Little Light of Mine” are joined by traditional tunes with new lyrics (“99 and 1/2 ,” “Jesus Is on the Main Line”), a rare Staples original called “My Own Eyes” and Marshall Jones’ remarkable “Down in the Mississippi River,” which describes the grisly surprises that surfaced as authorities dragged the river for three slain civil-rights workers.

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That song was brought to the album by the three members of the Freedom Singers who joined the project. A vocal group formed within the activist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), original members Charles Neblett and Rutha Harris and later arrival Bettie-Mae Fikes inspired the troops with their rough-hewn harmonies, and now they add a vocal kick and an element of community to their old friend’s album.

“These people, to them it’s still going on,” says Cooder. “They’re soldiers to this day.... When they stand there in the room and sing, they mean every word, and it’s never changed for them.

“That fella Charles Neblett in the group there, when he tells his eyewitness account of seeing bodies dragged up out of the river with their hands tied and their feet tied, he’s seen it. And he’s been chained up and had dogs set on him and the whole nine yards, and when you see this guy and talk to him, there’s a look in his eyes, he’s still seein’ it. Suddenly, it was very dramatic.”

Passing the torch

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FOR Staples, that immediacy was precisely the point.

“We just feel the movement is still here, it’s still going on, and we need folk like us who were there and are still here. We can tell stories, we can witness,” she said, sitting in a lounge at the Silver Lake offices of Anti- Records, which is releasing “We’ll Never Turn Back.” “Everything is not fixed yet. Katrina has just happened, you hear about these policemen in New York shooting 50 rounds into this young black man. And we get it in our travels, we still feel it.

“My hopes are that this generation today would hear the songs and move with them. We need to educate this generation. They need to know what it was like and what we went through for them to be able to vote today. Hopefully, the songs will be heard and we’ll get some response.”

Being heard and getting a response would be a welcome change for Mavis Staples, whose stature as a pioneer in black music has been offset by the dead ends and bad luck that have dogged her career outside the Staple Singers.

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“It has been frustrating, it really, really has. Nothing happens right,” said Staples, who nonetheless seems robust and youthful as she sips a Pepsi in the lounge, dressed casually in a black sweater, jeans and silver Nikes.

It seemed as if every opportunity had a built-in booby trap.

Prince signed Staples to his Paisley Park label in the early ‘90s and wrote and produced her album “The Voice.” Staples thinks it’s the best record she’s made, but it fell victim to Prince’s famous feud with Warner Bros. Records.

She’d had a similar feeling more than two decades earlier when her albums for the Stax label and its Volt subsidiary were overlooked, she says, because the company was busy promoting Isaac Hayes.

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It looked like more of the same when her recent contract with Chicago blues label Alligator ended over legal issues, but this time it was a blessing in disguise, freeing her to sign with Anti-, the eclectic Los Angeles company that’s shown an affinity for soul music veterans such as Solomon Burke, when owner Andy Kaulkin came courting.

It was Kaulkin’s idea to match her with the freedom songs, as she calls them, and the concept appealed to Cooder, the L.A. musician who has been most prominent recently for producing Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club.

He turned out to be the perfect partner for Staples. He’d been tremendously influenced by the Staples Singers and the guitar playing of its leader, Mavis’ Mississippi-born father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and had produced two songs on the patriarch’s 1994 album, “Father Father.”

The Staples’ first album, 1959’s “Uncloudy Day,” was the first gospel album to sell a million copies, according to Mavis. One of them made its way to Cooder, a student at Santa Monica High School in the early ‘60s.

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“I thought, ‘This is something like I’ve never heard in my life, this is something incredible, with this tremolo guitar and the spooky harmony and all that,’” says Cooder.

“Pops, he had hit upon something, he really did. He seemed to know something.... He took that rural church sound and carried this forward, and it worked fantastically well. To me, he’s a great creator in our American music.... Very inventive, taking something deep in a tradition and bringing it toward even a pop sound, and succeeding. How unlikely is that? It’s kind of like the Carter Family.”

A taste of success

MAVIS was 19 when the Staples released “Uncloudy Day,” the lead voice in a group that also included her brother Pervis and sister Cleotha singing in front of their father. (Pervis later left and was replaced by sister Yvonne).

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She’d planned to attend college and study nursing, but she took a liking to the performing life as the Staples’ unusual brew of soulful, Southern groove and church sentiments caught on. They worked hard to capitalize on their popularity, putting 100,000 miles a year on their Cadillacs as they toured throughout the country, especially in the South.

Later they would be embraced by the folk music and folk-rock audience, recording a version of the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and singing “The Weight” with the Band at the famed “Last Waltz” concert.

And they took it mainstream when the soul-pop recordings “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” and “Let’s Do It Again” became hits in the 1970s.

They remained active until Pops’ death in 2000 at age 84. (Pervis and Cleotha are retired and live in Chicago, and Yvonne travels with Mavis, serving as her road manager when she tours and singing backup.)

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In the mid-'60s, much of their focus was on the civil-rights movement, after Pops aligned the group with the mission of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Pops began applying topical lyrics to the gospel form in such songs as “March Up Freedom’s Highway” and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad).” The latter, written about the ordeal of the students who tried to integrate Cental High School in Little Rock, Ark., was King’s favorite, according to Mavis.

“We would sing before Dr. King would speak, and he’d tell Pops, he says, ‘Stape, you’re gonna sing my song, right?’ And Pops said, ‘Oh, yeah, doctor, we’re gonna sing your song,’ and we’d sing ‘Why (Am I Treated So Bad)’ for him.”

Like the issues they address, these songs seem to have a way of hanging around, and Staples’ album is just one airing. Bruce Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions” album last year was subtitled for the movement’s most famous anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” and included some of the same songs that Staples has tackled.

The Appleseed label recently released a second volume of civil rights and Underground Railroad songs sung by Kim and Reggie Harris, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello taps some of the music’s spirit in his activist side project the Nightwatchman.

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“Nothing seems to be in a vacuum,” says Cooder. “Andy had some timely sense of this thing.... And out in a larger context, there’s every reason to hope that the public is going to be motivated, and not just as entertainment but take things a little more seriously. We’ve got an awful lot at stake right now these days.... All you have to do is wake up in the morning and you know you’re in trouble.”

richard.cromelin@latimes.com


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