Mavis Staples was born to sing. But if it hadn't been for the hard work of her father in creating the legendary Staple Singers in the early '50s, she might never have become one of the true divas of American roots music.
"I'm so grateful to him because I don't think I would have had a career as a singer otherwise," Staples reveals, reached at her home on the south side of Chicago. "See, I wasn't an aggressive or pushy person who wanted to be a star. I used to be so shy that when I was on-stage I couldn't look out at the audience. Pops would say, 'Mavis, why are you looking up at the ceiling?' I felt like, if I didn't, I would forget my song."
Roebuck "Pops" Staples, who died in 2000 at the age of 85, gave Mavis plenty of advice over the course of his long life. In "Pop's Recipe", off her raved-about 2004 solo release Have a Little Faith, she encapsulates his words of wisdom with the following chorus: "Accept responsibility/Don't forget humility/ At every opportunity/Serve your artistry/Don't subscribe to bigotry, hypocrisy, duplicity/Respect humanity/That's Pops recipe y'all".
For Staples, who plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Wednesday (June 29), her father is still a powerful presence. She recounts lovingly how he took her and her siblings down to Mississippi to visit the places he'd known as the seventh son of a family of 14 kids. "He took us to Dockery's Farm where he worked picking cotton for 10 cents a day. Charlie Patton was there, and hearing him was what made my father want to play guitar. Pops showed us this big tree that he and my uncle used to climb; he took us to the cemetery to see his grandparents' headstone and to the place where he'd proposed to my mother and the store where he bought his first guitar, in Drew, Mississippi. He tried to fill us in on everything."
Staples is putting the final touches on an album of her father's last recordings. It was originally going to be a Staple Singers album, but Pops's failing health changed that. "We started in 1997. Pops just kept saying to me, 'Mavis, we need one more record.' I said, 'Okay, Daddy, let's go down to Memphis.' So we did and recorded three songs down there with some old friends. We came back home and my sisters and I put the background down. A few months later Pops became ill. He was determined to finish this album, but I'd take him to the studio, with everything set up, and he'd say, 'Mavis, I can't make it, baby. You'll have to take me home.' Two or three days later he's on the phone, just spry and springy, saying, 'Okay, book that studio, now!'
"I realized it would have to be his album," Staples continues. "So I said to him, 'Since I'm the producer, you got to know what I want, which is just you and your guitar. I don't want no other musicians.' He said, 'Aw, shucks, I couldn't do that.' I said, 'I know you can-I hear you doin' it 'round the house all day!' So we started recording, and he kept on singing. I got about 12 songs-things he'd learned when he was a boy. He sings his favourite song, 'I Have Started Out to Find a Better Home', so I think I'm going to entitle the CD A Better Home."
During the '60s, at the height of the civil-rights movement, Pops Staples was a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Staple Singers often sang at the marches and rallies. Blending gospel, folk protest, blues, and pop-rock, their songs provided an important part of the soundtrack for the times.
Four decades later, Have a Little Faith reflects another turbulent period in American history.
"My CD is really focused around helping with the healing process after 9/11," Mavis says. "I felt that the world needed to hear some songs that would bring comfort. These are songs I chose very carefully to do that. It's Mavis carrying on her father's legacy. There's one song there, 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken', that's the first song our father ever taught us, and the Staple Singers recorded that at least seven times, with my father singing the lead. This time I said, 'I'll sing lead on it for you, Pops.' All you need is faith the size of a mustard seed, and everything is going to be all right. I sing what I believe."