Mavis Staples keeps breaking into song when she calls the Straight from Rhode Island to discuss Mavis!, director Jessica Edwards’s new documentary about her life and career (opening Friday [November 13]). It means we’re getting a private performance from the woman Stax Records founder Al Bell, right on camera, puts ahead of Aretha Franklin in the greatest-voice-ever stakes. There are no words to adequately describe the feeling for us, but what does she have to say about Mr. Bell’s statement?
“Oh, my goodness,” tuts the 76-year-old gospel-soul legend, with a low laugh. “He’s trying to get me in trouble, ’cause Aretha, she’s a mean young lady. She don’t like that at all. Thanks a lot, Al Bell!”
Staples started performing with her family at the age of 8 and quickly became the focal point of the Staple Singers, who were otherwise led by her father, Roebuck Staples—or “Pops”, to the world at large. Their Stax years were massive, with a string of hits that included “I’ll Take You There”, but the group had decades of performance behind them, and an enduring gift for crossing the none-too-porous race line that kept black and white listeners separated.
It was at the Newport Folk Festival in the early ’60s that Mavis crossed another line, embarking on a romance with Bob Dylan that only recently came to light. They both talk about it in Mavis!.
“I’ve never forgotten Bobby,” she says. “You know, it was really like puppy love. He was so cute. I loved his curly hair. I used to mess with his curly hair.” She laughs broadly. “Yes, when I see Bobby my heart pitter-patters, and I think about where we would be, today, had I married him. We probably woulda had us some little children, and they would be singing now.”
Dylan, among others, was no less infatuated with the sound of this musical family from Chicago’s South Side, in large part due to Pops’s sulphurous guitar style. “I think Pops had a big influence on the guitar,” says Mavis, having cheerfully steered the subject away from Bobby. (“You’re getting me fired up here, talking about my ex! You better go to another question!”)
“All the while we were singing gospel, Pops was playing the blues on his guitar,” she continues. “We didn’t know it! But he learned from Charley Patton, you know? So he was playin’ the blues all the time and I guess that’s what they were hearing along with his voice.”
The Staples’ subsequent influence on rock is mammoth (their spine-tingling version of “The Weight”, as performed with the Band in the film The Last Waltz, remains definitive), and Mavis reels off a mind-boggling list of acolytes, including the Stones, Eric Clapton, the Who, David Byrne, even the Bee Gees. She figures that Prince is probably the greatest artist she ever worked with. (“People think he’s the worst person in the world, but Prince is a really, really good guy,” she says.)
Staples just as casually mentions Pops’s group of friends: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King (who was amazed that Pops could “sing and play your guitar at the same time”). Indeed, while Mavis! celebrates the life of a singular voice, it’s no less of a tribute to a man who steered his family through the hottest decades of the record business without ever sacrificing his grace and humility. Mavis clearly remains in awe.
“My father taught me so much, so much, and how to be,” she says, softly. “And I’m so grateful.”