Soul-gospel singer Mavis Staples, a peer and longtime family friend of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, spoke to pop music writer Randy Lewis from her home in Chicago on Friday — a day after Franklin’s death at age 76.
Staples, 79, touched on their long relationship, their shared history and passion for gospel music, as well as their moves into the world of secular R&B and soul music.
Here, Staples — a crucial voice in the fight for civil rights as a member of the Staple Singers, the Chicago-based family band founded by her father, the late Roebuck Staples — reflects on the rich musical legacy that Franklin, whom she often refers to as Ree, leaves behind.
Aretha and I met in 1960 — in fact, we were in Los Angeles, at a gospel show, and that’s the first time I met her. That’s when we became friends and we’ve been friends ever since.
She was with her father [Rev. C.L. Franklin] and some members of their church. She came over to me and said, ‘Hello, I’m Aretha Franklin.’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, I know who you are, I’ve heard your record.’
She had recorded a [gospel] song called ‘Never Grow Old,’ and we all thought it was amazing coming from this young lady.
She was really a young girl. I didn’t think it was that amazing that she was singing as a young girl — we both were young and we sang and I just thought that’s what you did. It was the fact that she was so young, and she could deliver a song like that with so much feeling and so directly.
That particular song wasn’t the easiest song to sing. But Aretha — she had the voice, she had the range, she was great. You just couldn’t help but think that this is a young girl for someone who has so much feeling. Her voice would just go all through you. I was so happy to meet her then.
She just had it from the beginning, from Day One. She was just special.
For Aretha, it was talked about the fact that when she changed over [to singing secular R&B, pop and jazz in the early ’60s], her father was a minister. Back in the day it was just accepted for you to be a gospel singer and switch over to R&B and blues or whatever. But Aretha, I don’t care: Right today, whatever song I hear her singing, I still hear her gospel in it. You can’t lose that; that was home for her.
“Respect,” “Natural Woman” — in all those songs, I hear the gospel. It’s the same with me. I sing different secular songs, but you’re going to hear some gospel, you hear it in the voice. We all grew up with Sam Cooke. Sam was a gospel singer and he had switched over. Back then, she wanted to follow in Sam’s footsteps. She sang a lot of jazz before she switched over to R&B — she’d sing songs like “Soul Serenade,” jazz songs.
Rev. Franklin, her father, he didn’t see any harm in it. Everyone just accepted it. She didn’t have any trouble in the church. It was amazing. I never thought of switching over; the disc jockeys did that to us. They started playing us on R&B stations, but people thought we had crossed over.
Until she made “Respect,” she wasn’t really noticed. That’s when she laid it down, put the fire in there and it just took off and that’s just where she stayed.
When Otis [Redding] did his [original] version, that was the man’s version — he’s talking to his woman. Aretha came with the ladies’ version, and that just made it all the greater.
Her version just outdid Otis. I love Otis Redding, we were on the same label, but when Aretha came with it, that’s what we all talked about. Otis was talking to his woman; Aretha came with a slap-back to her man.
Ree and I crossed paths quite a bit back in the day. But as she kept getting hotter, and as our records took over, that’s when we didn’t see each other as much. We would keep in touch, but our lives started to go in different directions. We didn’t run into each other as much.
Even with a lot of the big group projects, it seems we were left out of those kinds of songs. “We Are the World,” we didn’t understand why Quincy [Jones] didn’t ask us. That was the kind of stuff we were singing. We were very disappointed we weren’t included in those songs.
Those were mostly West Coast people. We didn’t meet up with them a lot. We knew everyone who was involved: Dionne Warwick, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight — we knew all of them. But it wasn’t up to them. That was a Quincy Jones production. We were very disappointed.
We really started talking big again about six months ago. I spoke to her, most recently, when I lost my last sister, Yvonne, in April. Ree started calling then. She said “I want to come over, I want to send flowers.” I told her, “It’s all right, we’ve had the funeral.” She was so hurt. That was in April.
In June, that was the last time I talked to her. She told me she was going back in the hospital. Told me some things I won’t repeat, but we had a good talk. So I knew that this was coming. She practically told me. She told me how she was feeling. When we got off the phone, I started praying because I knew that the time wouldn’t be long.
I have some photos, somewhere, of Aretha and me singing together on one of her albums. We did three songs at her father’s church. When my father passed, she sent for my sister Yvonne and me to come with her to the Hamptons. She rented this big house, she wanted to do something special for us. She had a big dinner. We hadn’t ever been there. We danced, we had fun, and I have some pictures of that I’m going to have to find.
If you notice on “Chain [of Fools],” this guy is playing [in the style of] my father’s guitar. She wanted Pops [Staples, patriarch of the Staple Singers] to play guitar on that song. Pops was still so churchy at that time, he said, “No, Ree, don’t ask me to do that.”
So Aretha got [Dixie Hummingbirds’ lead guitarist] Howard Carroll because he could play so much like Pops. When you hear “Chain,” a lot of people think it’s Pops, but it was Howard.
Of all her recordings, I always liked “Spanish Harlem.” I also liked that one [Staples starts singing] “Without a warning, the blues walked in this morning …” I can’t think of the name [“Today I Sing the Blues”].