Happy Birthday to the Incomparable Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples, who is celebrating her 80th birthday (July 10), has squeezed nine lives into her eight decades, which is not an exaggeration. She has written, recorded, toured, preached, guested, marched, protested, rallied and used her own extraordinary instrument — which can breathe fire one moment and gently lament the next — to give voice to the voiceless.
Her involvement in the United States’ Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s established the Chicago native as both a target of racist fury and a preeminent example of music’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries. To witness the determination she exhibited in the face of such ugliness is often lost when considering her contributions to the culture. She was heard, on behalf of a lot of people.
Her voice, and those of her family, the Staple Singers—a group led by her father Roebuck aka “Pops” and siblings Cleotha, Yvonne and Pervis— lay bare the breadth and winding path of the American musical diaspora: from gospel, blues, folk, country, soul, through R&B, funk and rock & roll. The Staples were the connective tissue that made such a musical journey even possible.
She humbled a love-struck Bob Dylan, while escorting him into the gospel genre and, decades later, shared a track with Pusha T. To say that her talent is not to be trifled with is an understatement: she sang “Respect Yourself and “I’ll Take You There,” for heaven’s sake.
Despite how harrowing it must be to share a stage with an artist with a voice that grows seismically under stage lights, Mavis Staples has performed in recent years with Jeff Tweedy, James Taylor, David Byrne, Jason Isbell, Jon Batiste and Elle King, was produced by M. Ward and Ben Harper, and recorded songs written specifically for her by Neko Case, tUnE-yArDs, Justin Vernon and Nick Cave. As she has shown time and again, Mavis Staples can play any venue, be it church or stadium, and make it her own with a joyful connectivity to a live audience.
She’s also one of the few artists to make the Halls of Fame for Rock & Roll and Blues, and has provided younger artists a roadmap with which to stay relevant.
Based upon her body of work, one wonders if there’s anything Mavis Staples cannot do. That answer is surprisingly easy: what Mavis Staples can’t do is be ordinary. Or stay silent.
Happy birthday, Ms. Staples. Here’s to many, many more.
(Photo credit: Myriam Santos)
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