In 1963, NEA National Heritage Fellow Pops Staples attended a church service led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterward, he told his family, "If he can preach it, we can sing it." Thus a remarkable family of gospel and socially conscious soul singers launched their careers, built around Pops's loping guitar riffs and his daughter, Mavis's powerful vocals. The Staple Singers's hits, such as "Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There," and "Let's Do It Again," have become standards in the gospel and rhythm and blues repertoire.
More recently, Mavis's collaborations with Prince, Bob Dylan, and Marty Stuart have showcased both her versatility and her strength as a solo artist. Bonnie Raitt wrote in support of Mavis Staples's nomination "...her voice to me is a reminder of how music can herald joyful news and bring people together, of the power and spirit of family, and the persistent energy and soul...Now, when soul-affirming art is so desperately needed, I can think of no better time to celebrate Mavis Staples's voice and her ongoing artistic contributions."
NEA: I want to start out by congratulating you on the award. Could tell me how you felt when you heard the news?
MS. STAPLES: Thank you. I was really surprised. It's so exciting, but I'm a little overwhelmed because I remember when my father [Pops Staples, 1998 Heritage Fellow] was a recipient and we were all so excited and happy for him. I remember getting ready to go to Washington and it was just a beautiful experience. When I heard about the award, my mind went straight to my father. I said, "Pops, you know, you're the cause of all of this." He started it all when he started us singing when we were kids. It's a great honor to be a recipient of this great award.
You know, after hearing about it, I walked around with my chest stuck out for a while there, and my sister said, "Mavis, don't get the big head. You're still Mavis to me, you know." I figured I'd better calm down here because I was bragging pretty good there those first few days!
NEA: You're the only father-daughter pair to have received National Heritage Fellowships. How does that make you feel?
MS. STAPLES: Really special. One newspaper said, "Like father, like daughter," I've always wanted follow in his footsteps.
When we first started singing, we were just singing to amuse ourselves. It wasn't meant to be a career. After my father passed away I didn't know which way I was going. I said to myself, "You've got keep Pops's legacy alive." This award makes me feel that I'm going in the right direction. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and what God has put me here to do. My voice is my gift from God. It's just a God-given gift because I don't know any music -- I don't know half the time what key I'm singing in. It's just natural. It's just what I'm supposed to do.
NEA: Tell me about the evolution of your music.
MS. 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 else's. 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.
I've always remembered something that Pops told me years ago. We were in New York once when I was a teenager and and I saw these kids singing. They were jumping around the stage and singing loud and clowning around. So I started doing that when I went on stage. Pops grabbed me and said, "Mavis, what is wrong with you? You don't do that while singing God's music. This music is sacred and you sing from your heart. Sing from your heart, and you'll reach the people. Because what comes from the heart reaches the heart. You don't need gimmicks to sing God's music." Now before I go on stage I meditate in the dressing room. I say a little prayer. And when I go out on stage everything is going from my heart to the people. I want to lift someone. If I can touch just one person then my living has not been in vain.
NEA: Can you tell me more about the influence of Dr. King?
MS. STAPLES: We met Dr. King in the early '60s. We were in Montgomery, Alabama, to do a concert and that night Pops called us to his room and said, "Listen, this man Martin Luther King is here. I've heard him and he has a church here. I want to go to his service. Would you like to go?" Of course we said yes. We went to Dr. King's church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Someone let him know that we were in the audience and he acknowledged us. When the service was over, Dr. King stood at the door shaking the worshipper's hands as they walked out. Pops stood and talked with him for a while. When we went back to the hotel, Pops called us to his room and said, "I really like this man's message. I think that if he can preach it, we can sing it." We began to write. The first song, "March Up Freedom's Highway" was written for the march from Selma to Montgomery. Then we wrote "It's a Long Walk to D.C. But I Got My Walking Shoes On." Then Pops wrote a song called, "Why Am I Treated so Bad?" about the nine Black children trying to integrate Central High School [in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957]. We were all sitting around on the floor watching it on TV, Pops was in his recliner. We wanted to see those kids board the bus. Just as they were getting ready to board a policeman blocked the door with his billy club. Pops said, "Now, why is he doing that? Why are they treating them so bad?" That song turned out to be Dr. King's favorite. By then we had joined the movement, joined the marches, and we would sing before he'd speak. And down in the parking lot he would always ask Pops, "Stape, you're going to sing my song tonight, right?" And Pops would say, "Oh, yeah, Doctor. We're going to sing your song."
Dr. King was just a beautiful man. His presence was kind of saint-like. I was young and really looked up to him. He was really somebody special. I've cherished the days that we had with him, singing and marching with him. I just feel so fortunate that we were a part of it.
NEA: Can you jump back a little bit and tell me about some of your earliest memories singing?
MS. STAPLES: When I was young, we would go around and perform at churches and they'd raise an offering to pay us. I think Pop told us the first offering we got was $7! Sometimes we would sing for nothing. I had this big voice, but people couldn't see where it was coming from. They had to stand me in a chair because I was so little. 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.
Those were our early days. We sang primarily around Chicago. Then, when I was 14, we made the hit record "Uncloudy Day." The record company told Pops it was selling like an R&B record and we started getting invitations from everywhere. We would drive to these places on the weekends. We sang every Sunday. And I'd miss school on Mondays because we'd be driving back. Pops had to ask my teachers to give him my homework and I'd take my homework on the road. It was so much fun because we'd stay in hotels and we'd get up in the morning and go down in the restaurant and have breakfast. Let me tell you, when I started ordering room service, my voice was so heavy -- I had a big, big voice -- the lady would always say, "Yes, Mr. Staples. Will there be anything else, Mr. Staples?" And I would get upset. I'd say, "I'm a lady. I'm a lady." But they did it so much I started just letting it pass. I'd call and I'd say I was Mr. Staples.
NEA: What advice do you have for young singers starting out?
MS. STAPLES: First of all, finish school. Don't drop out to sing. Get at least a high school diploma. If your music doesn't work out, if your records don't sell and you don't make it in the music business, you'll always be able to get a job doing something else with your diploma.
Second, as my father taught me: be sincere when you're singing gospel songs. Sing from your heart and keep your music sacred. Don't be a hypocrite. If you're going to sing gospel songs, be humble, be gracious, and live the life you sing about.