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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Mavis Staples is an American institution. She’s not done singing yet.

Mavis Staples in Chicago, June 7, 2024. After more than seven decades onstage, the gospel and soul great decided last year that it was time to retire — then she realized she still had work to do. (Akilah Townsend/The New York Times)

By Grayson Haver Currin

On a rainy April day in Chicago, Mavis Staples sat in the restaurant of the towering downtown Chicago building where she’s lived for the past four years. For two hours, she talked about the civil rights movement and faith. And finally, she mentioned her old flame Bob Dylan.

The singer-songwriter proposed to Staples after a kiss at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival; she hid from him during a show at the Apollo decades later, fearing he’d ask again. They’ve remained friends, even taking daily strolls during a 2016 tour together. She’d heard rumors he would soon retire, finally wrapping his fabled “Never Ending Tour.” Staples knew he would hate it.

“Oh, Bobby: He gotta keep on singing,” Staples said. “I could handle it more than him. I will call him and say, ‘Don’t retire, Bobby. You don’t know what you’re doing.’”

Staples speaks from experience: Late in the summer of 2023, soon after turning 84, she told her manager she was done. She’d been on the road for 76 years, ever since her father, Roebuck Staples, known as Pops, assembled a family band when she was 8. The Staple Singers became a gospel fulcrum of the civil rights movement and, later, a force for bending genres — mixing funk, rock and soul inside their spiritual mission, an all-American alchemy. The band’s mightiest singer and sole survivor since the death of her sister Yvonne in 2018 and brother, Pervis, in 2021, Mavis remained in high demand, a historical treasure commanding a thunderous contralto.

“Being an American and not believing in royalty, meeting her was the closest I’d ever felt,” said Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who marveled at her while watching “The Last Waltz” decades before he produced a string of her poignant albums. “I felt the same way when I met Johnny Cash, like meeting a dollar bill or bald eagle.”

A seemingly indomitable extrovert, Staples had deeply resented being homebound during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. So she returned to the road with gusto, playing more than 50 shows last summer. But last July, she missed the end of a moving walkway in Germany and fell on her face. Was this, she wondered, the life she wanted? She’d previously mentioned retirement, but now she insisted.

Her team planned a small string of extravagant farewells. What first felt like relaxation for Staples soon morphed into tedium. She loved watching “Shark Tank” and “Judge Judy,” with whom she’d exchanged adoring video messages, but this wouldn’t satisfy her forever. Her balance was precarious, and she didn’t like using her Lucite cane. Lockdown again.

“I would cry, man,” she said, her voice cracking. “I was losing it. I would get so sad because I got nothing to do.”

Early that year, Staples had recorded a self-affirmation anthem called “Worthy” with a team including electro artist and songwriter MNDR. She decided to follow it with “Human Mind,” a demo her friends Hozier and Allison Russell dispatched a year earlier. Its lines about enduring and overcoming cruelty suggested her life’s thesis, so she thought it might be her finale. But producer Brad Cook enjoyed the session so much he prepared more instrumentals.

Those songs — by Tom Waits and Frank Ocean, Sparklehorse and Kevin Morby — were weird, she joked, their structures strange. But she relished the challenge, her voice having broadened and softened, like a steel sculpture pillowed with velvet.

“‘Just because I’m 85, they think I can’t do it? I’ll show ’em,’” she said, shaking with laughter. “That made me feel really good.”

She plans to release her first album since 2019 next year. What’s more, one of her best friends, Bonnie Raitt, reminded her that people needed to see her. Staples decided to return to the road, not only for a star-studded 85th birthday celebration and two weeks in Europe but also a July 4 rendezvous with Dylan in New Jersey.

“I told Mavis it’s what we’re supposed to be here to do,” Raitt said in an interview. “We were given this calling.”

STAPLES DOES NOT like to be sad or tired in public. When she is down, singer Nathaniel Rateliff noted in an interview, she will slip backstage long enough to recover. When she sighs, as when discussing presidential candidates or voting rights, she does so from the bottom of her lungs, as if she’s been saving it.

“I try not to be around people, because they can sense that something is wrong with Mavis when I’m not having fun or cracking jokes,” she said. “I hate for them to keep asking me, ‘What’s wrong?’ I can’t tell you what’s wrong, because it’s within me. I’ve got to sit it out.”

Staples has seemed so overwhelmingly positive for so long that her mother, Oceola, called her “Bubbles”; she considers it her middle name. She now takes bottles of bubbles on airplanes to entertain any children she encounters. Tickled by her own nickname, she bestows one upon most everyone she knows: Raitt is “Bonnie-Boo,” Rateliff is “Montana,” her stand-in for a longer expletive. Her smile commandeers her entire face, and her laugh shakes her 5-foot frame.

“Because her voice is so distinctive, we tend to forget there’s an elegance and lightness in Mavis Staples,” the War and Treaty’s Michael Trotter Jr. said during a phone interview. “I marvel at how she’s maintained herself. She’s here to drag us all along when we’re tired, weak, want to complain.”

Tanya Trotter, his wife and bandmate, compared meeting Staples to encountering John Lewis, especially how both still believed in right no matter how much wrong they’d encountered in their decades of public service.

“Our eyes haven’t seen what her eyes have seen,” she said. “For her to still have hope, even though it looks really bad, it gives me hope.”

Indeed, Staples has transubstantiated grief and pain into often-joyous music and a story of perseverance her entire career. Pops Staples, a Mississippi native who came to Chicago amid the Great Migration and toiled in slaughterhouses and construction, steadily committed his family band to the civil rights and peace movements of the ’60s, becoming a confidant and friend to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They toured relentlessly through the Jim Crow South, the whole lot once arrested outside Memphis, Tennessee, after they fled a gas station where the towering attendant hurled racist epithets at Mavis and attacked Pops with a crowbar.

The Staple Singers didn’t relent, and she remains proud of that commitment, especially when peers shirked social justice for celebrity.

“I would always wish that my friends would join me singing these songs,” she said. “If you could have gotten Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Gladys Knight to sing some freedom songs, that would have helped immensely.”

Soon after Dylan’s proposal, Staples instead married a Chicago mortician; it was a quarrelsome relationship that ended when she changed their apartment locks.

“I married an undertaker, and that was the worst. They don’t have no feelings,” she said, deadpan. Their problems became the basis for “Only the Lonely,” her tenderhearted but defiant testimonial from 1970.

She fell in love only once more, “shacking” with a North Carolina bassist through the ’70s but never remarrying. One of her true regrets, she said, was never having children. But she has long found delight in her role as “Auntie Mavis” for Pervis Staples’ five children.

And while working with Tweedy, she became a surrogate mother to his wife, Susie, and grandmother to their kids, Spencer and Sammy.

Still, her own losses have mounted. Alongside her family, many of her closest collaborators and friends — Pops Staples’ pal Curtis Mayfield, their neighborhood crony Sam Cooke, her singing mentor Mahalia Jackson and occasional rival Aretha Franklin — are gone.

The 2016 death of Prince hit especially hard. In 1987, at the height of his power, Prince became a Staples devotee, asking to meet at a Los Angeles show. Her popularity had flagged, but he wanted to write for her. Though the albums they made became mired in record-label turmoil, they proved that Staples was a chameleonic singer and personality, capable of more than her legacy suggested. It presaged collaborations with Gorillaz, Run the Jewels and Arcade Fire, plus albums with Tweedy, M. Ward and Ben Harper.

Pervis Staples broke the news of Prince’s death when she arrived to perform at Coachella. She wanted to go home, and cried until her set the next day. She delivered an ebullient monologue onstage, calling him “the most beautiful spirit that I have ever met” before teasing a bit of “Purple Rain,” the crowd clapping the rhythm.

“It helped,” she said. “I have had a lot of hard times, good times, but I make it through. Things don’t seem as hard as they used to.”

She meant this only for herself. Though many conditions have improved since the days of “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” or “Respect Yourself,” she lamented that progress was not linear. She scowled about the end of Roe v. Wade, was vexed by a string of women recently sucker-punched in Manhattan, and lamented the Black mother and daughter in Georgia accused of voter fraud. She once thought singing could change the world, but she now believes that’s naive.

“I’m singing for me, too, to set my soul free and to feel better about how I’m living,” she said in a rush. “If y’all don’t want to hear it, get you some earmuffs. I’m going to sing for as long as the Lord allows me. I ain’t coming easy.”

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