Livin’ on a High Note: Mavis Staples’ Radiant New Album
She has been a soul and gospel legend for six decades.
Just this week she won the Grammy Award for Best American Roots Performance for the song “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” And today she’s generously released a stellar new record – TIDAL’s Album of the Week – that’s already being hailed as the most joyous and uplifting of her career.
Somehow, at the age of 76, Mavis Staples is more buoyant and vital then ever.
With Livin’ on a High Note, Staples reveals her singular voice and border crossing genre lines over the course of 12 new songs, written by some of the most renowned and acclaimed songwriters around: Nick Cave, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Aloe Blacc, M. Ward, Benjamin Booker, Ben Harper, Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs), Valerie June, Neko Case, Laura Veirs, Son Little and The Head And The Heart.
Singer-songwriter M. Ward (also one half of She & Him) plays a key role on the album, acting as producer and, together with a steady crew of musicians, sitting in on all the songs.
“I told the writers I was looking for some joyful songs,” Staples says of the album. “I want to leave something to lift people up; I’m so busy making people cry, not from sadness, but I’m always telling a part of history that brought us down and I’m trying to bring us back up.”
As a central figure of the Staple Singers, Mavis helped define the sound of politically-committed soul music that has influenced and empowered generations.
As a solo artist, she has continually helped define the righteous soul in American music. Or as her current record label, ANTI-, introduces her:
“Mavis Staples is living, breathing history. She is an alchemist of American music, and has continuously crossed genre lines like no musician since Ray Charles. Weaving herself into the very fabric of gospel, soul, folk, pop, R&B, blues, rock – even hip-hop – over the better part of the last 60 years, the iconic singer has seen and sung through so many changes, always rising up to meet every road unwaveringly.”
She was born right into it, in Chicago during the summer of 1939. By the age of 10 Mavis had already joined the family band, The Staple Singers, led by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
The early Staple Singers recorded acoustic Delta-inflected gospel, scoring hits in the early 1950s like “Uncloudy Day” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Gradually moving toward a more modern and accessible sound, the Staple Singers landed a deal with legendary Stax Records in 1968, marking the beginning of their career peak.
Established in the late 1950s, Memphis-based Stax (and its subsidiary Volt) are synonymous with Southern soul. The combination of rhythm & blues and gospel united people through the civil rights era, embodied by artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, William Bell and Booker T. & the MGs – who also served as the label’s in-house rhythm section.
The first golden era at Stax came to an end in 1967-68, with the death of Otis Redding, the disbandment of Sam & Dave and a break with Atlantic Records, but the label found new glory in beloved artists like Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor and of course The Staple Singers.
By then they had turned into a more mainstream R&B act, enjoying a string of chartbusters (eight Top 40 hits between 1971 and 1975 alone) including standout tracks like “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)” and “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” The Staple Singers also did some noticeable protest and freedom songs like “Long Walk to D.C.” and “When Will I Get Paid,” underscoring their social concerns and civil rights consciousness.
Stax went bankrupt in 1975, and by 1977 all of their assets were purchased by Fantasy Records. Even though they resumed business for a short period of time, by 1981 Stax was basically turned into a reissue label, until it was revived again in 2003. The Staple Singers lost much of their momentum parallel to the downfall of Stax, and never gained the same presence on the charts again.
For her part, Mavis Staples had nurtured her own career since the early 1970s, and even though the Staple Singers lost traction, she never did.
After selling millions of records, joining The Band during their Last Waltz, serving as muse to both Bob Dylan and Prince, she rose back to prominence in the 2000s with a comeback album produced by Ry Cooder (We’ll Never Turn Back, 2007) and two more by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy: the Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone (2010) and Grammy-nominated One True Vine (2013).
And now she back once again, with one foot in her own spiritual legacy and the other in the present, backed by a cast of exciting characters helping push her into new, fruitful soil.
As we enjoy Mavis Staples’ Livin’ on a High Note, we honor the musical icon with a playlist with some of the finest tunes from both The Staple Singers and her solo career, as well as a selection of gems from Stax Records.
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