It’s that time of year again. Beginning on Friday, some of the world’s greatest musicians will descend on Newport for two of the longest running and most prestigious festivals in the world. This weekend the Newport Folk Festival is in town, and next weekend is the 60th (!) annual Newport Jazz Festival. I’ll be covering both for Popdose, so be on the lookout for those stories.
There are several artists playing the Folk Festival this year who I am excited about seeing. Chief among those is Mavis Staples. I’ve seen Mavis many times, including several appearances at the Folk Festival, but this year she will be closing out the festival on Sunday night. It is an honored spot, one that was often given to giants like the late Pete Seeger or Levon Helm in the past. I can think of no one more deserving than Mavis of a place on that stage at that time on Sunday.
I just finished reading Greg Kot’s wonderful book I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway. The book is more than a simple biography of Mavis. It traces the history of the Staples family, and the Staple Singers from their beginnings as a gospel group. Kot also portrays the group in the context of their time, and makes clear their important role in the civil rights movement of the ’60s, and thus in the history of this country.
Pops Staples was a man of God, and completely committed to gospel music that he had been brought up on.Together with his wife Oceola, he raised his family, daughters Mavis, Cleotha, Yvonne, and Cynthia, and son Pervis in the same spirit. It wasn’t easy for him to agree to cross over from pure gospel into a more secular realm, but when he saw, and experienced, his people’s fight for freedom, he knew that the Staple Singers could serve another purpose. While at Stax Records the Staples recorded songs that would become crucial elements in the civil rights struggle, and soul music classics. Titles like “Respect Yourself and “I’ll Take You There” are among the most revered records of that or any other era. While they weren’t strictly speaking gospel records, they had an undeniably positive message to deliver, and that was just fine with Pops.
By 1975 Stax Records was at the end of the line. The head man at Stax, Al Bell, saw the writing on the wall, and gave the Staple Singers their freedom. There was no shortage of suitors for the group, and they ended up on Warner Brothers Records. Warner V.P. Bob Krasnow wisely paired the group with their old friend from Chicago, Curtis Mayfield. Like the Staples, Mayfield had lit up the world with powerful messages in songs like “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” and We’re a Winner” while he was with the Impressions. By the ’70s Mayfield was a solo artist, and he provided the gritty, urban sound track for the film Super Fly. He had already collaborated with Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin on movie sound tracks, and he was anxious to do he same with the Staple Singers. He thought he had just the right project when he was asked to write the music for the Sidney Poitier – Bill Cosby comedy Let’s Do It Again.
There was only one problem: the Staple Singers had never recorded a completely secular song, i.e. one without a redeeming social message. Despite that fact they were still under fire from the gospel community for selling out. The title track that Mayfield had composed for Let’s Do It Again was hardly spiritual, no matter how you stretched the meaning of the word. To put it simply, it was a sexy song. Pops wasn’t happy.
“The only secular song we have ever sung was ‘Let’s Do It Again,’ and Pops didn’t want to sing that,” Mavis told Greg Kot. “It took a lot of convincing by Curtis. Pops said ‘I’m a church man, and I’m not singing that.”
The lyric in question was “I like you lady, so fine with your pretty hair.” Mayfield, who had looked up to Pops since the ’50s, told him “The Lord won’t mind. It’s just a love song.”
According to Kot, Mavis, Cleotha, and Yvonne had no such reservations. They were thrilled at the prospect of having one of their songs in a movie starring Poitier and Cosby. It took a lot of work, but Pops finally came around. Mavis told Kot that later, when the Staple Singers would do “Let’s Do It Again” in concert, “the ladies would lose their minds. Scared him (Pops) so bad he forgot the next line. Then he’d start grinning.”
The Let’s Do It Again sound track featured the Staple Singers on four more Mayfield songs in a similar vein, along with three instrumentals. It wasn’t exactly a standout collection, but no one seemed to care as the “Let’s Do It Again” single began selling 40,000 copies a day when it was released in October, 1975. The record ended up selling two million copies, and it was the only #1 hit the Staple Singers ever had. It was one of the best selling singles in the history of Warner Brothers Records.
Pops passed away on December 19, 2000. The Staple Singers had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the previous year. Around the time of Pops’ death, Cleotha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Mavis didn’t feel much like singing. She felt insecure, afraid that she didn’t know enough about music to explain what she wanted to musicians, now that Pops was gone. It was her younger sister Yvonne who turned the tide. In a conversation with Mavis, Yvonne made it clear that Mavis was her father’s legacy, and that Mavis couldn’t stop what Pops had started all those years ago.
“And that’s when she started in with other words,” Mavis told Kot. “‘Damn it, Mavis,’ and worse. It woke me up.”
Whatever it was that Yvonne said, Mavis went back to work. In recent years there have been wonderful collaborations with Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, and Jeff Tweedy, and others. At 75, Mavis is still out there performing and recording, a veritable walking history of soul and gospel music. As long as she wants to do it I’ll be in her audience. Sunday can’t come soon enough.