Jazz Sides: 10 Questions for Mavis Staples
by Bob Putignano
Goldmine Magazine 01/25/05
Fresh off her singing “America the Beautiful” at the Democratic National Convention, Mavis Staples has just released her first solo CD in almost ten years—“Have a Little Faith.” This is also her first CD for the Alligator record label In conjunction with the CD is the release of two milestone concert films on DVD in which Mavis is featured -- "Soul To Soul: The Concert from Ghana" and “WattStax”. Mavis is also featured in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film “Lighting in a Bottle” which sees its theatrical release in October. There has been an onslaught of media coverage for Mavis as she is set to appear on several national TV & radio programs, including NPR’s “All Things Considered”, CNN/fm “The Biz”, The House of Blues radio hour, and the World Café. Magazines and newspaper articles have already/ or are about to hit the streets, starting with USA Today, Downbeat, Rolling Stone, and now for you right here in Goldmine. With a schedule like Mavis’s, I was fortunate to have her live on the air with me on September 1st on WFDU in the NYC area.
Bob P: You have been one busy lady, Mavis.
Mavis: Bob, I am so blessed, and I have been having a shoutin’ good time, traveling to places like Australia and Japan, and you know I sometimes get lost. (laughs) All over the United States too, including singing at the Democratic National Convention, that was special. Then I have three dates in October opening for Al Green, one in Boston, and two in NYC, one of which is at our old stomping grounds the Apollo Theatre.
Bob P: Reverend Al better be on his game, as when I saw you in at the Pocono Blues Fest you gave one of the most emotional performances I had ever seen. I was hanging with Bruce Iglauer of Alligator and we were both filled with happiness and tears of joy!
Mavis: You know I love that name “Poconos”, ha! But seriously, I am so grateful that the Lord has kept me well to continue what Pops had started. My purpose is to keep shining those positive rays of light on all the darkness in today’s world. You know, to be a part of that healin’ process. I wish I could have seen you guys out there, but I guess I was busy singing (more laughs).
Bob P: Speaking of Bruce Iglauer and Alligator, I never would have guessed in a million years that you would release a CD on their label?
Mavis: It’s been eight years since my last record— a tribute to Mahalia Jackson. So I went to the bank to a make a record to shop around and to continue the message my family has been doing for 54 years. So I spoke to Mike Kappus of the Rosebud Agency, who we have been with forever, and asked him to shop the CD around to the labels. We sent it to everyone, but nobody called us except Bruce at Alligator. You know, I still have the message he left on my answering machine, as he explained to me so passionately how he works and markets the recording.
BobP: But you must have had some concerns that Alligator is pretty much a blues-only label?
Mavis: Mike Kappus told me that, but I was tired of hearing that this company and that company was going to get back to us, and I said to Mike, I want to go with Alligator. They cared and I kept thinking about and playing that beautiful message Bruce left me. So I told Mike, “Alligator is my new home.” And I am very pleased, they put it all together for me. Hey Bob, if it wasn’t for Alligator, you and I wouldn’t be on the air together right now, right? (More laughs.)
Bob P: Well Blues and Gospel have similar roots.
Mavis: That’s right! Blues and Gospel are first cousins, Bob, they both give you that healin’.
Bob P: It really is not that far-fetched for you to be with the Alligator. There seems to be a lot of genre crossover happening again—guys like Al Green, Van Morrison and Dr. John all record for Blue Note now, and I really feel that this is all good for the industry, don’t you think?
Mavis: First off, Al Green can’t make a bad record no matter where he records! And you are right, it’s good to see people like that recording for those labels where they will get good exposure.
Speaking of Al, and I love to talk about him, I was with Al Green and Bonnie Raitt in Memphis this year, and of course we wanted to sing “Take me to the River,” and as we were doing it, it hit me to segue in with “I’ll Take You There.” Man, everyone was smiling on stage, as well as the audience was loving it. That was really great.
Bob P: You know in jazz it seems like—shall I say, the mature artists get more respect and are more accepted to continue to make records.
Mavis: But not in the pop world! The major labels want young folks and put us old folks out to pasture. They don’t realize what experience we have, what we have learned and how we can make great records of real music!
Bob P: Please tell me more about Pops. There must have been a lot of singing and playing in your home when you were growing up?
Mavis: You know I think about Pops all the time. I feel him around me, really. He taught our family so much, like how important it was to rehearse. He insisted! Pops was always ahead of his time, he thought young, and he listened to his children as well and taught us to always deliver a positive message. And yes, there was plenty of singing and music around when I was growing up, but not my Mom. We used to say, please don’t let Mama sing, oh my goodness. But she was our spiritual advisor, and the best cook in the world! She made the best sweet potato pie, and whenever we had a new record coming out we would send the DJs a pie and the LP. We would call it “pie-ola,” you know instead of payola. (Lots of laughs!) I can send you some sweet potato pie around Thanksgiving, just keep playing “Have a Little Faith”, hah!
Bob P: You sound great on the record, and you were amazing live. The band is hot too.
Mavis: My voice is a gift from God! I keep thinking about how I want to do this forever, like Koko Taylor. She’s still doing it real good, and that gives me a lot of inspiration. The band is pretty much the same band from the Staple Singers, most everyone you saw at the Poconos and on the record has been with us for fifteen or twenty years.
Bob P: Okay, I have a tradition here and now it’s your turn to be the DJ Mavis. Which two songs do you want me to play for the listeners?
Mavis: Let’s see, track one “Step into the Light”, and a song we were planning to do with Pops—“Devil on the Loose”.
As Mavis gave me the songs to play, she had another call coming in and told me that she had another interview to attend to. She is definitely a busy lady and a happy person filled with so much love and good energy.
I really believe Mavis is going to be the comeback artist of the year as this recording is very special. Her live performances on stage is something to behold and will leave you breathless. Many artists would die to be able to emit the emotion that Mavis delivers; it is so captivating and very real. Catch her when she comes to your town, as I am sure you will not be disappointed. When the 21st of October rolls around, I will certainly be at the Apollo Theatre right here in New York City and could not imagine another place I would rather be.
Radio Host WFDU’s “Sounds of Blue”
President of the NY Blues and Jazz Society