Will Chief Keef accept an apology from one of pop music's biggest stars?
- Posted on Aug 6th 2010 1:00PM by Mike Doherty
Her new album, 'You Are Not Alone' (due next month from Anti-), was produced by Wilco frontman and fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy, whom she met backstage after a 2008 show (later released as 'Hope at the Hideout'). They recorded gospel classics and new, Tweedy-penned songs with Staples' backing trio augmented by Wilco members and friends. Spinner caught up with the 71-year-old dynamo -- who recently gave a seminar in soul singing at Lollapalooza -- from her Chicago home.
When the Staple Singers were singing protest songs at the height of civil unrest in the US, was there ever any backlash against you?
No, never -- we didn't have any problems with that. People seemed to appreciate and respect what we were doing. It seemed that that was the time to hear some songs that would inspire them to keep moving on, to pick themselves up and not quite get over what was going on, but at least live with it. The only time the Staple Singers ran into trouble was with the church people. When we recorded [the 1972 hit] 'I'll Take You There,' they wanted to put us out of church and said we were singing the devil's music. I would always tell them, "The devil ain't got no music. All music is God's music."
It had a beat, and the kids would jump up and dance, and [there was a] crossover to R&B and pop. If you listen to our lyrics, we're telling you, "I know a place. Ain't nobody cryin'. Ain't nobody worried. Ain't no smiling faces lying to the races," and where else could we be taking you but to heaven? And they finally got it. We were invited back to church, and the very first song that was requested was 'I'll Take You There' -- right there on the pulpit.
Onstage you tell the story of how your father's meeting with Martin Luther King after a church service [in Birmingham in the late '50s] inspired the Staple Singers to start singing protest songs. Was Dr. King a music lover?
He loved our music, and I'm sure he loved the songs that all of us freedom marchers would sing as we marched. As far as I can say, Dr. King, being a minister, loved gospel music. He knew us when we went to his church that Sunday morning. When he told the congregation that he was glad to have Pops Staples and his daughters in the audience, we didn't know that Dr. King knew us. We were just going to his church because Pops had been hearing him on the radio and liked his message. One of the ushers seated us, and someone told Dr. King that we were in the audience. The way he announced us and spoke of us made us think that he knew us. And after Pops talked with him for a while; he didn't tell us what his and Dr. King's conversation was about, but he let us know that he felt like he liked Dr. King's message. He felt that if Dr. King could preach that message, with us being singers, we could sing it. And with that, Pops started writing freedom songs, and all of us got together with Pops, and we would throw in lines of lyrics, and 'Marching Up Freedom's Highway' was born. That was the very first freedom song, or protest song, that we wrote.
'Why (Am I Treated So Bad)' became Dr. King's favourite – he would always want to hear that song. Pops wrote that song watching nine black children [on TV] trying to integrate a white high school down in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I understand a lot of your songs were written as reactions to news stories and looking through papers and headlines.
Oh, yes. Pops would tell the songwriters, "If you want to write for the Staple Singers, read the headlines. We want to sing about what's happening in the world today," and that went on through our career. We wanted to sing about what was going on and try to fix it, try to sing a song that would make the world a better place, and that's still what I sing on my solo albums today. I recorded ['We'll Never Turn Back'] with Ry Cooder; I felt like all the freedom songs needed to be heard again. It's a whole new generation, 40 years later, and the struggle is still alive, so why not sing these songs again and let the world know where we came from, what we came through to get to this point.
And now, I have a new CD with different beats and different melodies, but the message is the same. It's always needed. I don't intend to stop. I intend to continue singing songs that will inspire and motivate people to get up in the morning! We're living in trying times. I intend to continue singing the message songs -- positive and informative.
You released 'Hope at the Hideout' on the same day that President Obama was elected. What are your thoughts on how he's coped since then with these trying times?
I think President Obama has done well with what he's had to work with. It was a mess when he got in there, and they're still fighting him. He's a smart young man, and whatever obstacles are put before him, I think he can step over them and keep on going.
I'm very proud of him. I was so happy when he was elected I cried a bucket of tears. I never thought I'd see that in my lifetime. It was a huge part of Dr. King's dream being realized. We've come a long way. Dr. King did so much: He fixed it so we could drink off the water fountains. We didn't have to see "Colored Only" signs in the restaurants and the bathrooms in the South. We didn't have to go to tourist homes -- people's homes in the South who had rooms for gospel singers and blacks, period, to stay there. We could stay in hotels. Dr. King did an awful lot before he was assassinated. We just want to keep his dream and legacy alive -- we're still working at it. And to see Obama get elected, I tell ya, I was at home by myself -- I just jumped for joy. I walked around the house talking to my father; I talked to Dr. King, and I just rejoiced. I was so grateful, and I'm still happy about it.
We have these Tea Party people -- they remind me so much of the '60s. And when I see that [I think]: "What would Dr. King do right now?" He would have us march, nonviolently. Let them be angry, let them carry on like that, let them make these signs of Obama lookin' like a clown or whatever, and "We Want Our Country Back." No one is taking your country -- you want a white president back! That's what you're saying. But they don't bother me, they're die-hards. Get over it, because this man is our president, and the people elected him. The people are tired of what you are doing, and that's why he's in the White House. And I do believe that he will have another term. With all that some people are doing against him, there are more people that realize that he's good for us. I hope my dream comes true.
You said in the bio for 'You Are Not Alone' that after releasing your last album, 'We'll Never Turn Back,' you "didn't know which way to turn ... Did I want to do a country record, a gospel record or what?" It sounds as though on 'You Are Not Alone,' you ended up combining those genres.
I hear the same thing you're hearing, but it wasn't purposely done like that -- it just came. I have absolutely nothing to do with the instrumental parts of the record. My voice is what I have control over. When I said, "I might do some country," it came true without my even trying. [The title track] "You're Not Alone" has a country flavor, and also 'Wrote a Song for Everyone' -- it has all kinds of flavors. That song 'Only the Lord Knows' -- I love that melody. These melodies and tempos are different for me, but the messages are the same.
And 'Only the Lord Knows,' I took that to be my political song, because you talk to [people], you turn on the TV, you pick up the paper -- you can't get any answers. Only the Lord knows. And so if you want to know what to do, go to the Lord and pray. He is the only one who can help you. These critics, these news people -- Fox News and the papers -- they're not doing it. They're not helping us the way we want to be helped. Only the Lord knows, and He ain't you.
I love the song 'Losing You.' I'll never get over losing my dad. Two of [the songs we sang] were old gospel classics that Pops used to play for us when we were kids. They're older than I am -- recorded in the early '30s. I loved them when Pops was playing them, and I was shocked that Jeff Tweedy had them on a tape that he was playin' for me -- the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers. And one of the songs, 'Found a Wonderful Saviour' -- they sang everything a cappella back then, and we were actually singing that a cappella. We went into the stairwell because the sound was so good out there. I almost didn't go out there because it was freezing! It was Chicago's worst winter in years; the temperatures were getting way below zero. We had gloves and scarves, and you could see the vapor coming out of our mouths, and all of us were around one microphone, and the sound was so good, I told [Tweedy], "Let's do it again!" I never thought I'd be saying, "Take me back out into the freezing stairwell!" But we didn't need to, that one take was enough. The session was so rewarding and so refreshing. It was a lot of fun, because Jeff Tweedy is a comical guy. Oh, Lord, he kept us laughin'! I'd tell him, "Stop -- you're trying to hurt me!" He's very comical. He's a beautiful, beautiful spirit.
Does he play tricks on people?
Oh, yes. And he comes with them so quick you don't expect it. That's why it's so funny. And every day he would do something -- it was just a happy session because of him. He had a caterer there for me -- I've never seen a caterer at a session. Normally you have a runner and they find out what everyone wants to eat, and then they go pick it up. I said, "Tweedy, I have never seen a caterer." "Mavis, it's going to be every day. Did Ry Cooder have a caterer?" I said, "No, Ry Cooder didn't have a caterer!" That cracked me up, the way he said it [laughs].
I hated to see that session end – I would have loved to have done one more song, but that was it. The best thing about this session was Jeff Tweedy asked me for the band to play that I've been travelling with for the last three years [including Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass, and Stephen Hodges on drums]. He heard them play for me at the 'Hope at the Hideout' concert and he told me backstage, "Mavis, that band is really good for you. They leave you room." He was taking in everything. And when he asked me, "Will they play?" I told him, "Yes, I know. And I think that's the best suggestion you've had."
Are you seeing a lot of young people at your shows these days?
We've been singing to younger people for some years now. We've been doing a lot of colleges -- they really seem to take to us and our music, so I'm excited. I love singing to the younger generation, they're very exciting! They make you feel so good, to see all those smiling faces, and they're very, very receptive. Every now and then you'll see a senior citizen down there with them, because our people from the '60s who are still here, like me, they still follow us.
When they said, "Mavis, they want you at Lollapalooza," I said, "You've got to be kidding! 'Cause this here is Chicago, and I've been watching them over the years."