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'Summer Of Soul': Singer Mavis Staples

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, Professor of Television Studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. We're concluding our "Summer Of Soul" series today, listening back to performers who were featured in the Questlove documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, with interviews from Mavis Staples and Gladys Knight.

Mavis Staples was a teenager when she began performing with her family, The Staple Singers. The quartet was led by her father, Pops Staples. By the late 1950s, The Staple Singers was one of the most popular gospel groups in the country. In the early '70s, the group crossed over to the top of the pop charts with message songs, such as "I'll Take You There" and "Respect Yourself."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT YOURSELF")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) If you disrespect anybody that you run into, how in the world do you think anybody's supposed to respect you? If you don't give a heck about the man with the bible in his hand, just get out the way and let the gentleman do his thing. You're the kind of gentleman that want everything your way. Take the sheet off your face, boy. It's a brand-new day. Respect yourself. Da, da, da, da (ph). Respect yourself. Di, di, di, di (ph). If you don't respect yourself, ain't nobody going to give a good cahoot. (Vocalizing). Respect yourself.

BIANCULLI: One of the many fans of Mavis Staples was Prince, who invited her to record on his label. In 1989, he co-produced an album for her with Al Bell, who made many of The Staple Singers' records for the Stax label in the '70s. It seemed an unlikely pairing, Prince and Mavis Staples. After all, she was best known for gospel music. Most of the songs were written by Prince. The title song, "Time Waits for No One," was written by Prince and Mavis Staples.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE")

MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) You came to me, said give you more time - time to get yourself together, time to make up your mind. I want forever love. You want one-night fantasy. While I'm sitting here waiting on you, you know somebody somewhere's waiting on me. Time waits for no one. Time don't wait for nobody, nobody. And time waits for no one. If you wait too long, you can turn around, and I'll be gone, gone, gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Mavis Staples, welcome to FRESH AIR.

STAPLES: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: The song we just heard, "Time Waits For No One," was co-written by you and Prince. How did you co-write it?

STAPLES: Well, actually, I had written the song a few years ago. And Prince - as we were talking, he mentioned, well, Mavis, I want to know what's on your mind. I'd like to hear some of the songs that you've written. And I had a melody that was actually not quite up to par. And Prince reconstructed the melody. In fact, he did freshen it up with a couple of lyrics, too. So we actually did that long-distance.

GROSS: Prince's real sexy lyrics are about as far as you can get from sanctified music or message songs. Were you at all cautious about getting involved with working with him?

STAPLES: No. You know, I've been asked a question about, Mavis, what are you doing working with this guy who writes these dirty lyrics? But for some reason, Terry, Prince's lyrics got past me. The dirty lyrics I didn't hear.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STAPLES: You know? If you think about it, you really don't know what Prince is saying a lot of times, unless you're reading it. And my main love for Prince was his music, period. So now when his manager spoke to me and said that Prince wanted me on Paisley Park and he wanted to produce and write songs for me, I did ask him, what type of songs would he write for me?

But it wasn't because of his dirty lyrics. It was the things that I heard on "Vanity" and "Apollonia," you know? And I told myself, well, you know, I'm a grown woman. And I needed some songs with substance. Like, I felt like those were teeny bopper songs to me, you know? And he said, oh, he would be writing adult songs for me with a contemporary background. And that was all I needed.

GROSS: Well, I want to play an example of that. This is a song written by Prince for you, I presume. "Interesting"...

STAPLES: Yes.

GROSS: ...Was written for you.

STAPLES: Yes, it was.

GROSS: And this record really gets the full Prince treatment (laughter).

STAPLES: Yes, indeed (laughter).

GROSS: Before...

STAPLES: And then he brought out...

GROSS: Yeah.

STAPLES: ...A lot of Mavis' other personality, too.

GROSS: Like what?

STAPLES: Like slick, you know? If you listen to "Interesting," you know, I'm being real slick in there. And I'm actually flirting with this guy, you know? I mean, the song starts out with, (singing) like a bad politician.

You know, you walked into the room, and you're checking out - the lyrics tell it all, Terry.

GROSS: OK. Let's give it a listen. This is an excerpt of "Interesting" from Mavis Staples' album, "Time Waits For No One," which was produced by Prince. And this is one of the songs he wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERESTING")

STAPLES: (Singing) Interesting, interesting, interesting, interesting. Looky; looky (ph). What have we here? Interesting - like a bad politician, you walked into the room. Interesting - you checking everybody out. I knew you'd get to me soon - sooner or later. Interesting - your cologne smelled like a garden in the middle of Rome. Ouch. Interesting - you offered me your body if I'd take you home. Home - take me home. The way you walk, the way you talk and think and feel intrigues me like a thief to money, money. If I'm not dreaming, this is...

GROSS: What was your family's reaction when you were young to singing secular songs?

STAPLES: It was a no-no. That was a no-no. In fact, Terry, I got the worst switching of my life for singing a blues song. And I was a kid in school. I was going to school down South at that time in Mound Bayou, Miss. And on variety show, you'd hear Ella Johnson on the jukeboxes - you know, "Since I Fell For You." And that song just - I liked it. And I would sing it to myself all the time. So doing a variety show, I knew I wanted to sing. And that song was the song that I was singing at the time.

And I actually - my grandmother heard about it, and she gave me this nice little switching for it and let me know that - you know, no one had ever said to me, Mavis, don't sing the blues. Mavis, sing gospel songs only. So this was when I found out that, you know, my family was - and I still didn't know 'cause I was a kid, you know? But that was the first beginning of Mavis knowing that the Staples family would sing gospel.

GROSS: Now, your father used to play blues before turning to gospel.

STAPLES: He did, yes, but mostly just around the house or whatever - not actually onstage. Pops was inspired by guys like John Lemon - Blind John Lemon and Howlin' Wolf, you know? So when he first started playing his guitar, that was what he was playing. If you notice, you hear a lot of blues licks in The Staple Singers' gospel songs, especially the first things that we - the first albums that we recorded because we had only Pops' guitar - that was the only music we had with us - and maybe a drumbeat. But Pops still plays a very bluesy guitar.

GROSS: It's an electric guitar, too. Was that unusual on the gospel circuit at the time?

STAPLES: Well, it was at that time. In fact, there were no guitars onstage, period.

GROSS: Was that considered a more devilish instrument (laughter)?

STAPLES: It certainly was. It certainly was. And Pops had to go to the Bible and let them know, you know - and, in fact, I can't quote the exact scripture, Terry, but there is a scripture that - it says, we shall rejoice with strings and tambourines. So you have - a guitar instrument is a string. And shortly after - you know, when the church people seemed to have gotten past it, shortly afterwards, every gospel singer on the road brought in a guitar - an electric guitar. Pops' was still different, though. He had this tremolo on his, you know? And they would call his a nervous guitar (laughter). But like I said, shortly after The Staple Singers came with Pops playing his guitar, every - The Dixie Hummingbirds, the Nightingales, Mighty Clouds of Joy, any group - gospel group that you could name hired a guitar player.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear something from the Staples family?

STAPLES: OK.

GROSS: And you're singing lead on this.

STAPLES: OK.

GROSS: This is "I'm Leaning."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M LEANING")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, what a fellowship. What a joy divine. Leaning on the everlasting arm, everlasting arm. Oh, what - what a blessedness. Oh, what - what a peace of mind. That's why I'm leaning on Jesus. I'm leaning on Jesus. Leaning on Jesus. I'm leaning on Jesus. He's the son of the living God. He's a brightness of eternal light. God of peace. Oh, yes, he is. Meek and humble. Oh, yes, he is. He's our refuge. Oh, yes, he is. And our maker. Oh, yes, he is. I'm leaning on Jesus. I'm leaning on Jesus. I'm leaning on Jesus. I'm leaning on Jesus. He's my lawyer - oh, yes, he is - in a courtroom.

GROSS: The Staples family with Mavis Staples singing lead. You know, listening to you sing, you can't help but think you could've been Aretha Franklin, if - you know what I mean? You could've had a lot of that kind of success as a soul singer.

STAPLES: Yes.

GROSS: Now, you have had lots and lots of success.

STAPLES: Yes.

GROSS: But did you ever wish, ever, that you were singing secular songs and on top of the soul charts all the time and with all of the fame and everything that comes to it - attached with that particular kind of secular success?

STAPLES: No, Terry, I really haven't. I was always happy singing with the family. My head just didn't ever go towards being a solo artist and of being at the top like that. I had - I've had offers when I was a teenager when I was singing with the family - things like "Uncloudy Day." In our first years, I'd been offered millions to record secular music. People like Vee-Jay Records made offers, and other labels that were out during that time, but it just didn't appeal to me.

And I've never felt that I've lost anything by not doing that. I've always felt that, you know, singing with the family and singing the gospel songs was the best for Mavis. But when I started doing these things in '69 with Stax, this, too, was just to - just try myself, to see just how this would go and also to enhance what the family was doing. But I've never even dwelled on getting out there like that.

BIANCULLI: Mavis Staples speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S DO IT AGAIN")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Do it again. Do it. Do it. Do it again. Do it. Do it. Do it again.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're concluding our "Summer Of Soul" interviews with performers who are featured in the Questlove documentary of the same name about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Mavis Staples, who first began singing with her family in The Staple Singers.

GROSS: Tell me how the family started singing together.

STAPLES: Well, we were kids. I guess I was maybe - had been about 6 years old. My mother worked nights, and my father worked days. During the day, my mother would keep us, and at night, Pops would keep us. So Daddy was singing with a quartet group at the time, and things weren't going with them. You know how you have seven - six or seven guys together, and during that time, it's hard for everybody to be, you know, on the same accord and thinking the same. So Pops just decided one night he quit. He couldn't go along with it anymore. And he came home, picked up his guitar, gave each one of us a part, you know? But we were just doing this really to amuse ourselves, Terry, while Pops was babysitting, I suppose. But it was never meant - we never meant to venture out into making a career of singing.

GROSS: Well, how did it become a career?

STAPLES: It became a career because we had an aunt - Aunt Katie, one of Daddy's sisters, lived with us. And she heard us rehearsing. She invited us to her church one Sunday. Well, we went out to sing at this church, and we knew one song. The people liked it so much, they clapped us back and clapped us back, and we had to sing that particular song over and over. So Pops said, well, we'll go home and learn some more songs.

We recorded "Uncloudy Day," and that record - total gospel record - sold a million, which was unlikely at that time in 1956. And letters just came from everywhere. Pops, my sisters, my brothers were working. I was still in school. And we were just flooded with these. And so Pops said, well - we thought - they thought about, rather, giving up their jobs and getting out on the road. You know, it took off from that particular song, "Uncloudy Day."

GROSS: When you were a teenager, you were - when you were an older teenager, you were already on the road singing gospel with your family...

STAPLES: Yes.

GROSS: ...Whereas a lot of your peers were not with their families. And let's face it, when you're a teenager, it's a time usually when people start coming of age sexually...

STAPLES: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...And experimenting with various things. Did you ever feel held back from that, being on the road with your father in a gospel group?

STAPLES: No, I didn't because I was doing what I enjoyed. And when I came home off the road, I hung with my friends, you know? I was the average teenager. I went to dances and skating rinks, bowling, you know, everything that - and I had my best friends. I had my boyfriend.

You know, we - during that time, we would only go out maybe two weeks at a time. After, later years, it got heavier, where we'd stay out months at a time. But during that time, we wouldn't stay out any longer than two weeks, maybe three. And when we came home, I did everything the average teenager would do.

GROSS: Mavis Staples is my guest. Would you describe the church that you grew up in?

STAPLES: I grew up in a Baptist church - very lively - where, you know, as soon as the music started, I'd jump up and clap my hands. It was at Mount Eagle Baptist Church. Rev. C.J. Rodgers was the pastor then. And I'm still in the same type of environment. I'm at Trinity United Church of Christ now, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And we, you know - it's not the sanctified church, but people rejoice in the same way. You know, it's - we have a good time. I - always a good-time church.

GROSS: In the late '60s, I think it was, The Staple Singers started singing message songs...

STAPLES: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which was a departure from the gospel music. How did you crossover into that?

STAPLES: Well, the message song - actually, we made two transitions. We made one transition first before that message. We went to protest songs. Our first thing was protest songs. That was during the time we were with Dr. King doing the movement. So we'd sing, like, songs like "March Up Freedom's Highway" and "Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)," "When Will We Be Paid (For The Work We've Done)?" All right?

After, we felt that things had gotten a little better, not all the way together for - as far as we were concerned, as far as the Black movement went. But after the protest song, we looked around to see gangs. So we came with "Respect Yourself." These are the message song, "Respect Yourself," songs like this.

GROSS: I want to play something from that period.

STAPLES: OK.

GROSS: And this is "I'll Take You There," which was a big hit for...

STAPLES: All right.

GROSS: ...The Staple Singers. Do you want to say anything about it?

STAPLES: "I'll Take You There"? No. Well, we did this in Muscle Shoals with the Muscle Shoals, Ala. guys. Al Bell produced it and wrote it. And I think it's a great song.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your music and your life. Thank you.

STAPLES: Oh, it's my pleasure, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Mavis Staples speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Next up, we feature our interview with Gladys Knight as our "Summer Of Soul" series concludes. Here's "I'll Take You There." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL TAKE YOU THERE")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, I know a place ain't nobody crying. Ain't nobody worried, no. Ain't no smiling faces, no, no, lying to the races. Help me. Come on. Come on. Somebody, help me now. I'll take you there. Help me, y'all. I'll take you there. Help me now. I'll take you there. Oh, help me. I'll take you there. Oh, mercy. I'll take you there. Oh, let me take you there. I'll take you there. Oh, let me take you there. I'll take you there. Play it, Mary. Play your - play your piano now. All right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.