Rejoice in her voice

Mavis Staples sings songs to lift your spirits in tough times

Staff writerOctober 1, 2010 

  • Who: Mavis Staples, Jolie Holland

    When: 8 tonight

    Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham

    Cost: $24-$48

    Details: 560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org

Roebuck "Pops" Staples, patriarch of the iconic gospel/pop hitmakers Staple Singers, will have been gone a decade come December. But his daughter Mavis still feels the loss as if it just happened. So when she was seeking to get into the head space required to sing Randy Newman's "Losing You," she didn't have to look far for inspiration.

"When I sing a song, I want to be able to relate to it," Staples says by phone from her Chicago home. "So who would I never get over losing? My father. Yeah, I went straight to Pops. I can get over losing my husband, my pet, anything - except my father. I still talk to Pops, still see him smiling. It's been 10 years, but it's still very fresh. I sang with my father every day of my life for over 50 years. You don't get over that."

"Losing You" is one of 13 songs on Staples' excellent new album, "You Are Not Alone" (Anti- Records), which she'll showcase at a performance tonight in Durham. It's a well-chosen set of mostly gospel songs, but even the supposedly secular songs (by John Fogerty, Allen Toussaint and Little Milton, among others) get a shot of religious fervor from Staples' powerful voice.

If they chiseled voices onto Mount Rushmore, Staples' vocal instrument would definitely belong there. The voice behind "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There" is aging with remarkable grace - 71 years old, and she doesn't sound as if she's lost a thing vocally. She chalks that up to clean living.

"I don't smoke or drink beyond some wine now and then," Staples says. "And I do drink my tea and honey. Some suggest lemon, but that tightens up my vocal cords. Now I do talk a lot, love to talk. My sister calls me 'The Mouth of the South.' 'Mavis,' she says, 'you just talk too much.' Prince would say the same thing. But I'm always joyful, I can't help it. I'm just a rowdy, loud lady, and my voice has carried me for a lot of years."

Staples recorded "You Are Not Alone" with an unlikely collaborator, Jeff Tweedy, leader of the Chicago alternative-country-band-gone-arty Wilco. Tweedy produced the album and selected the repertoire, a process that began when he had Staples over to his Chicago studio to go over songs.

"Some of them, I was asking, 'Where did you get THOSE?'" Staples says with a hearty laugh. "'They're older'n me!' Like the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers, 'Wonderful Savior' and 'Creep Along Moses.' Those were songs my mother and father used to play when we were kids. All the songs he'd picked out were me, and I felt so good that he kept me in my comfort zone. 'Tweedy,' I said, 'these all fit me like a glove.'"

Tweedy also selected three Staple Singers oldies for her to revisit, including the album-opening "You Don't Knock" (a Pops original dating to the civil rights marches where the Staple Singers used to perform). And he wrote two songs himself, one of which is the stoic and quietly uplifting title track.

"While we were listening to songs he'd chosen, Tweedy told me, 'Mavis, I have a title in my head,'" Staples recalls. "'It's not written yet, but I want to write it for you. It's called "You Are Not Alone."' Just the way he described it gave me chillbumps. 'Tweedy,' I said, 'you've got to write that!'"

A necessary song

Staples pauses to laugh again before turning serious.

"I sing songs to uplift people's spirits and inspire them to go on," she continues. "I needed that song back when I lost Pops. I know what it is to fall down, to feel alone and down. We're living in trying times, people losing their homes and jobs. A lot of folks don't know where their next meal is coming from. 'You Are Not Alone,' the world needs to hear this song. It's relevant to right now."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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