NEA Arts Magazine

Mavis Staples

Gospel, rhythm-and-blues singer, Chicago, Illinois

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Mavis Staples shows her singing prowess

Mavis Staples shows her singing prowess during the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert. Photo by Tom Pich

When Mavis Staples heard that she'd received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, her first thought was, "Well, Pops, you know, you're the cause of all of this." She was referring to her father, the late 1998 NEA National Heritage Fellow Roebuck "Pops" Staples, leader of the legendary Staple Singers. After meeting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the group -- which found success on the gospel, soul, and pop charts -- became one of the leading voices of the civil rights movement, bringing their distinctive style to protest songs such as "Freedom Highway."

Mavis Staples recorded her first solo album in 1969. Since then, she has recorded more than 10 albums as a solo artist and collaborated with a range of master musicians, including Prince and Bob Dylan. Her honors include induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In this excerpt from an NEA interview, Staples discussed the evolution of her music and her earliest memories of singing.

NEA: Tell me about the evolution of your music.

MAVIS STAPLES: We went from strictly gospel to protest songs -- freedom songs -- after we met Dr. [Martin Luther] King. After we felt things were coming together like Dr. King wanted, we made a transition to what we called message songs. But we never got far away from gospel -- we've always considered ourselves basically gospel singers. It's the message we put in our songs and our harmonies that made us so different. My father gave us harmonies to sing that he and his brothers and sisters used to sing down in Mississippi, a kind of Delta and country sound. It was just so unique and different from everyone elses. And the messages in our songs were special. We were singing songs of inspiration to uplift people. Music is so good like that -- it can be healing, it can make you dance, sing, smile, or cry. It calms and it comforts.

NEA: Can you jump back a little bit and tell me about some of your earliest memories of singing?

STAPLES: Well, I'll tell you, I would sing and people would come up to me afterwards with tears in their eyes and put money in my hand. And when I'd get home I'd ask, "Mama, why are these people crying? Why are they putting this money in my hand?" "Mavis," she said, "You make them feel happy. They're crying happy tears and they want to give you something." I would get so much money. My mother had to sew little pockets in my little dresses because I'd put the money on the piano or somewhere and then forget it.